A New Role for the REA

MANY rural, or formerly rural, Americans have fond memories of the advent of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) some 57 years ago.

For a schoolchild it meant the end of doing one's homework with head bent low to catch the weak light from a kerosene lamp. It also meant telephones could be used with greater reliability.

The rural electric cooperatives that sprang up throughout the United States were subsidized by the federal government, particularly in the form of very low interest rates on loans. In recent years Congress, presidents, and the public have begun to question the imbalance between the REA's subsidies and their effects on other segments of the nation. Some have suggested that it has served its earlier purposes and should either revert to the private sector or at least pay more of its own way.

In what seems to be an eminently sensible compromise, given a friendly nudge by the Clinton administration, the REA seems headed for a name change and a role change: It will, Congress approving, become the Rural Utilities Division of the Rural Development Administration.

Its new challenge will be to provide funding for rural water and sewer systems, said to be much in need of modernization.

Bob Bergland, secretary of agriculture in the Carter administration, now executive vice president of the National Rural Electric Cooperative, says the next step in bringing economic parity to rural areas is to approach it "in the same way that the REA addressed the question of electrification."

Reforms engineered by US Rep. Glenn English (D) of Oklahoma feature a three-tiered loan system to weed out organizations that do not need subsidized loans. The rural electrical utilities will continue to have reasonable, as well as realistic, rates.

At a time when many government initiatives seem to show little tangible progress, this spinoff from the proven success of REA (soon, apparently, to be RUD) is heartening evidence that America is still capable of both engineering and political success.

Thus, a system that has proved itself over many years shifts its sights to meet to the needs of a changing American society.

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