TVA Chairman Mike Duncan Threatens to Politicize Agency

Last month the former head of the Republican National Committee quietly took the reins as chairman of TVA.

That's either the setup to a joke, the punch line to one, or yet another sign the End is nigh. In any case it's not very funny (especially if the last happens to be true).

And even if the irony of Mike Duncan becoming the face of TVA—a symbol of the "free market" GOP assuming the chair of a government-owned, New Deal-era power company—suits the wolf-laying-down-with-the-lamb world we've lived in since last fall, the decision was a mistake whose potential for harm hasn't diminished with the passage of time.

Stepping back, it was just two days before Valentine's Day when the seven-member board of TVA gathered for its first public meeting since an earthen dike had given way and spilled more than a billion gallons of coal-ash sludge over 300 acres of land in a spectacular show of destruction and mismanagement.

"I can tell you that this spill has been very hard for TVA people," said Bill Sansom, the board's then chairman, setting a tone of contrition for the meeting. "They're part of the Roane County community, and this is their home as well as those people['s] that we've affected. And so we care."

Though maybe Sansom was speaking out of turn, because later in that very meeting four members—Howard Thrailkill, Don DePriest, Tom Gilliland, and Mike Duncan—elected as their next chairman Duncan, a man so wedded to George W. Bush he didn't survive two weeks as chairman after Bush left town. (When put that way, the dependency sounds almost sweet, in a Johnny Cash-June Carter kind of way.)

Bush and his fleshy Machiavellian foil Karl Rove installed Duncan back in early 2007 after the midterm walloping. Duncan explained in a Newsweek interview this year that with Bush in the White House, his role as chairman was to be "more technician and less a spokesperson," performing duties such as raising funds, organizing states and building "the best grass roots possible," and to leave the spokesperson duties to the Decider.

This strategy is remarkable insofar as it utterly failed to recognize fundamental shifts in the American people or recent electoral history: in 2000 Bush lost the popular vote; in 2004 he won reelection by the slimmest margin of any reelected president; in 2006 the GOP lost both the House and Senate in the midterm elections; and still, Bush governed as though he had a mandate for his agenda, and Duncan did little but "stay the course" while his party foundered.

So much so that in December 2008, California RNC Committeeman Shawn Steel penned an article in Politico entitled "Mike who?"

Steel wrote, "Reelecting Mike Duncan would signal we've learned nothing from the last few years and can expect more of the same, when what we need is something different."

It's unfair to lay the blame for what happened in 2008 squarely on Duncan. The GOP ship was heading into troubled waters when Duncan took the wheel; however, as a manager he didn't make the hard choices to steer it in a new direction.

It's also wrong to limit his party involvement to his chairmanship. Duncan has dedicated much of his life to the GOP, serving as treasurer and general counsel at the national level, and earlier at every level of the party's operations in Kentucky. When it comes to the GOP, no one can say Duncan was just another good time Charlie.

And this—Duncan's party fealty—is exactly the problem.

In 2005, Republican Sen. Bill Frist sponsored legislation aimed at reforming the board's structure to make it more closely resemble a corporation and less the political racket it often appeared to be. So a CEO was added, and a board comprising three members serving full-time, nine-year terms became one comprising nine members serving part-time, five-year terms—still appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

Last year Frist, reflecting on the changes, said, "Over time I think the board should be more nonpartisan and we can get away from using that position as political patronage but having people who are extremely well qualified. The intent was to get politics out of the system, and I think that has been achieved."

Think again, Senator.

In the near future, President Obama will have the opportunity to nominate four appointees to the board; while his affinity for bipartisan gestures may signal a willingness to nominate moderate Democrats, even Republicans, Duncan's appointment could elicit an equal and opposing action, further politicizing TVA .

Additionally, with Democrats in control of the House and Senate, they run the regulatory committees that oversee TVA. With the coal ash spill, TVA is already in the national spotlight, serving as the poster child for arguments against clean coal.

Duncan defended his appointment by saying he was "more than a partisan animal." By this he likely means he has expertise beyond politics—he has run community banks, a private college, a state university, and been involved in numerous social service agencies.

But if Duncan's career in the GOP doesn't qualify him as a partisan animal, then the only thing that would is if he sprouted a trunk and a sad, wispy tail.

And this is the danger and the legacy of Duncan's appointment: that it will mire an organization with very real challenges in silly political games and continue to make TVA a symbol of a backwoods, old boys' political club.

In politics, as in life, symbolism matters.