TVA Chairman Mike Duncan Heads Republican PAC

Another pinch of partisan salt in this bowl of alphabet soup

Last week word broke that TVA Chairman Mike Duncan is heading up a new political action committee to raise money for Republican candidates across the country.

The PAC is called American Crossroads, and its leaders are attempting to raise $52 million in what some see as a direct challenge to the Republican National Committee and its embattled chairman, Michael Steele. It won't be the first time Duncan has been pitted against Steele: In February 2009, Steele narrowly beat out Duncan to earn the chairmanship, which Duncan had held since the GOP's 2006 mid-term defeats in the House and Senate; after his loss, Duncan sought and received the chairmanship of TVA's board in a 5-4 split vote, an unusual note of discord for what is typically a harmonious board.

At the time, former chairman Bill Sansom worried aloud that with a Democrat-controlled House, Senate, and White House, Duncan's appointment would unnecessarily politicize the agency. And in fact, in 2005 TVA's board was reformed under Bill Frist with the expressed purpose to make it less of a partisan tool. Duncan assured his critics during and after the vote that he was "more than a partisan animal," but his involvement with American Crossroads revives questions about the wisdom of appointing him as board chairman.

It's within legal bounds: According to TVA spokesman Jim Allen, the Hatch Act—which specifies what political actions are permitted by federal employees, including the TVA board—allows Duncan to participate in political fund-raising. "Because the ‘part-time' TVA Board members are deemed to be working on an irregular or occasional basis as ‘special government employees,'" they are permitted to solicit, accept and receive political contributions—something that would be "totally prohibited at all times for other TVA employees."

Yet at a time when TVA is suffering from acute image problems following the 2008 Kingston ash spill and the ensuing investigation into mismanagement, is it wise?

Stephen Smith, the executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, says Duncan's association with the PAC and partisan entities was and is troubling. "I don't think it's in the long-term interest of TVA to have so many people that are partisan," Smith says. But Smith also points out that a lack of involvement by the Obama administration with TVA precludes one from knowing if Duncan can rise above his partisan background.

"It certainly has the air of more partisanship than less," Smith says of Duncan's role with American Crossroads, "but if the Obama administration's missing in action, then I'm not really sure it makes that big of a difference."

He points out that after more than a year, "there's not a single Obama appointment on the TVA board, and so Duncan and the others are not doing anything to advance the administration's energy policy," Smith says. Obama's appointments—Democrats Barbara Haskew and Neil McBride, and Republican Bill Sansom—have been confirmed in committee but are awaiting a vote from the full Senate.