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South Carolina Democrat Visits a Kentucky Republican: Where the River and Family Ties Run Deep

The Brief

In June, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s American Congressional Exchange got back on the road as Rep. Comer (R-KY) welcomed Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-SC) to the Bluegrass state.

The Ohio River is the defining geographic feature of Rep. James Comer’s 1st congressional district in Kentucky. Its history, commercial power, and significance as an essential water transportation corridor is felt throughout this region.

The largest city in the mainly rural area is Paducah with only about 25,000 residents. Although the district is in the bottom 10% of median household income compared to other congressional districts, it is filled with a proud people determined to overcome their relative isolation and build a self-sustaining culture and economy.

Both Comer, a second-term congressman, and Rep. Joe Cunningham, a freshman representing South Carolina’s 1st district, are among the newest faces in Congress. They knew each other casually but had never spent any serious time together.

When Cunningham visited Comer in June with BPC’s ACE program, the members found common ground on issues that touch some of the committees they serve on. Cunningham, a former ocean engineer, serves on the House Water, Oceans, and Wildlife Natural Resources Subcommittee, which oversees the implementation of laws managing domestic fisheries and other marine resources.

Comer, a former Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner, is the ranking member of the full House Oversight and Reform Committee, including the Subcommittee on Environment, which has jurisdiction over public lands, endangered species, air and water quality, oceans, and conservation.

The trip also featured a unique personal connection because Cunningham grew up in Comer’s district, in Kuttawa, on the shores of Lake Barkley. His father, Bill Cunningham, is a noted legal scholar who recently retired as a Kentucky state Supreme Court Justice.

Lake Barkley is formed from a dam that impounds the Cumberland River about 38 miles upstream from where the Cumberland empties into the Ohio River. It was there that the congressmen began their visit with a boat tour guided by fishermen fighting the invasive Asian Carp. First introduced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in 1963 as a way to control aquatic weeds and phytoplankton, the carp, with no natural predators, have reproduced exponentially, feeding on the bottom of the food chain. Today, the Asian Carp are a threat to native fish and the natural ecosystems.

The next morning brought the members to the Kentucky Dam, built and operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). This powerful hydroelectric dam on the Tennessee River opened in 1944 and took six years to build. It is the longest dam in the TVA system and created the largest reservoir in the eastern U.S. The five generators are original to the site and the technology installed then is still considered “state-of-the-art”. Both South Carolina and Kentucky are served by the same electric grid in the SERC region of the Eastern Connection. TVA feeds electricity to this grid.

In contrast to the speed of the TVA project in the 1930s and 1940s, the new larger lock being built adjacent to the dam will take 29 years to be finished (1996-2025)! The current lock, because of its small size, can cause delays of up to twelve hours for barges trying to get through.

River transportation and commerce is a major part of the western Kentucky economy along the Ohio River. More than 20 barge companies have their headquarters in Paducah. The city is at the center of waterways linking Pittsburgh, Mobile, the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans, St. Louis and Minneapolis/St. Paul. It is the only port facility that is located where four major eastern rivers converge in America’s heartland, and is less than 50 miles from the Mississippi River.

The issues of locks and dams was also a focus of a visit to the Crounse Corporation, a large barge operator based in Paducah which employs over 300 people, operates a fleet of 34 towboats and over 1100 barges. The company transports over 30 million tons of cargo each year along the U.S. Inland Waterways.

Matt Ricketts, president of Crounse, told the group about the importance of barge operators to the regional economy and the good-paying jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree. Comer and Cunningham also heard how barges, while slow, can be more cost effective as well as energy efficient compared to truck or rail because of the size of their loads.

In Paducah, the congressmen participated in a virtual luncheon hosted by the Paducah Chamber of Commerce. Livestreamed on the local NBC-affiliate television station, Reps. Comer and Cunningham discussed their impressions of the current culture of Congress.

“The whole purpose of this program is what we need more of in Congress, we need more bipartisanship and people working together,” said Comer. Cunningham agreed and noted, “The point of these trips is to put an end of the partisan divide…we want to recognize the issues that are important to each other.”

Both members also talked about the importance of investing in rural broadband.

“We have to look at broadband in the same way we looked at electricity and TVA. There is a discrepancy in internet capacity and wireless capability. We need to figure out where to subsidize or create private/public partnerships to build the last mile,” said Comer.

Meanwhile, Cunningham emphasized that broadband “needs to be a pillar of an infrastructure bill.”

On the last night of the trip, Rep. Cunningham’s parents, Bill and Paula, hosted a dinner for the group. The inter-generational meal gave Rep. Comer and guests a unique insight into the making of a member of Congress. And it was an opportunity for Rep. Cunningham to return to the area where he grew up and see it through the eyes of a member of Congress.

Both lawmakers have pledged to do a reciprocal trip in Rep. Cunningham’s South Carolina district in September.

“The biggest thing we agree on is we both want to govern,” said Comer.

Cunningham echoed, “The intention is to take this experience and take our seats on our respective committees, listen to each other, and then take those lessons learned and apply those to effective and meaningful legislation.”

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s American Congressional Exchange (ACE) enables lawmakers to spend a day or two together learning about each other’s districts and leading discussions on shared interests. Members are paired by focusing on districts that differ geographically, culturally, and politically. Upon their return to Capitol Hill, members are collaborating on legislative actions, co-sponsoring bills, and furthering their new relationships.

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