Rep. Bruce Westerman has been a champion for electric cooperatives in Arkansas, whether it’s helping to speed up federal assistance during a storm or co-sponsoring legislation to help co-ops reduce their debt.
“Congressman Westerman has always been agreeable to helping the electric cooperatives and being receptive to our issues,” says Kirkley Thomas, former vice president of governmental affairs at the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas.
When a derecho with hurricane-force winds hit the state a few years ago, Westerman and Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., worked together to speed up federal disaster assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Thomas says.
At co-ops’ urging, the Republican congressman also agreed to co-sponsor the Flexible Financing for Rural America Act. The bipartisan legislation would permit electric co-ops to refinance their loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service at lower interest rates without facing prepayment penalties. Saving money on loan payments would help co-ops keep rates down for their consumer-members, co-op leaders say.
In addition, Westerman “has always supported our efforts to maintain appropriate and adequate funding for the RUS Electric Loan Program,” Thomas says. The loans help pay for co-op efforts to expand and modernize rural electric infrastructure.
The congressman has supported Arkansas co-ops’ effort to bring high-speed internet service to the state’s rural residents. In 2022, he served as keynote speaker at the Diamond State Networks first annual broadband meeting, which was held in his district in Hot Springs. Diamond State Networks is “a wholesale broadband provider that unites the fiber-optic networks of electric cooperatives throughout Arkansas.”
Westerman often visits co-ops in his district and “has also been an advocate for our message of reliability of the grid,” Thomas says.
The congressman is known for providing nighttime tours of the U.S. Capitol for the state’s Youth Tour students and for co-op directors and staff.
“This tour is easily one of the students’ favorite parts of the trip each year,” says J.D. Lowery, manager of community and economic development for the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. “The congressman gives up two hours of his evening to take the students through various parts of the Capitol building and provide commentary on its history. There is something special about the nighttime tour.”
Bill Gossage, vice president of governmental affairs at the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, served with Westerman when Westerman was majority leader of the Arkansas House of Representatives before being elected to Congress.
“He was an exceptional leader who always had time to listen and had a strong grasp of all the issues,” Gossage says.
Westerman calls rural America “the backbone of the nation” and says, “without it, we could not survive.”
“Our local farmers and small businesses provide the necessities of life—feeding, clothing, sheltering and producing the energy and products to sustain the world,” he says. “Now, more than ever, it’s critical that we support the efforts of co-ops to expand rural electric infrastructure, support local farmers and small businesses and accelerate rural economic growth. Ever since their establishment, co-ops have played a critical role in ensuring local farmers and businesses have the resources they need to grow and succeed.
“As the congressman from the 4th District of Arkansas, a district with an abundance of rural communities and co-ops, I’m proud to support co-ops and their contributions to rural America.”
Westerman, a native of Hot Springs, was elected to a fifth term in Congress in 2022. He serves as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which considers legislation dealing with energy production. He is also a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over issues affecting the development of economically depressed rural areas.