In a 2018 article about “financial missteps” in the race for the (then) open Senate seat in Tennessee, The New York Times said that (then) House Representative Marsha Blackburn has had questions about her spending practices.
In the article, the Times noted, “In her years as a congresswoman, she has paid out more than $370,000 from her campaign funds to her daughter and son-in-law or firms they control. Her campaigns have received 54 requests for additional information from the Federal Election Commission since 2002, and in a 2008 internal audit, the campaign admitted receiving nearly $400,000 in unreported contributions and expenditures….Hundreds of thousands of dollars once flowed to firms connected to her daughter and son-in-law — the main one listed their home as its address. The same family firms also received another $25,000 from a political action committee that supports Ms. Blackburn. Under federal election law, campaigns and political action committees are not allowed to coordinate activities.”
Dubious handling of campaign finance is one thing, but with the mention of PACs, the concerns of influence raise their unwelcome heads. After all, it was determined that Senator Blackburn’s “son-in-law, Paul J. Ketchel III, registered as a lobbyist in 2004, during her first congressional term, reaping fees from some Tennessee clients who were his mother-in-law’s contributors. He earned more than $300,000 from Dialogic Communications, a federal contractor that also employed Ms. Blackburn’s son, Chad.”
She is also noted for many controversial comments and activities, including “inflaming the national debate over abortion and leading Twitter to briefly accuse her of violating its guidelines.
On the legislative front, she is perhaps best known for co-sponsoring the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, a law that hobbled the ability of the Drug Enforcement Administration to go after large drug distribution companies, according to an investigation of the opioid epidemic by the Washington Post and 60 Minutes. The pharmaceutical industry, which backed the bill, has been one of Ms. Blackburn’s biggest supporters.”
And it is this last point to which we’ll be turning our attention in this article. The possibility of influence due to enormous campaign contributions is a major concern for many voters. After all, we live in the age of “dark money” contributions as well as PACs and SuperPACs capable of using epic sums to seat their chosen candidates.
In another article that looked at Senator Blackburn, the emphasis was on something other than campaign finance influencing a Senator’s behavior. Instead, it looked at the use of stolen or hacked information for elections. Focusing on House Republicans’ refusal to sign a pledge to avoid the use of any illegally obtained information, it explained that legislation around the issue was also “by Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.”
She is noted for having particularly “close ties to a U.S.-sanctioned Russian politician who has recently come under intense scrutiny. Her former lawyer, G. Kline Preston IV, who represented Blackburn when she was facing allegations of possible campaign finance violations, also worked closely with Alexander Torshin, the prominent Russian politician with close ties to Putin who is now under intense scrutiny for allegations he illegally channeled Russian funds through the National Rifle Association in an effort to influence the 2016 election. According to the Washington Post, Blackburn has received the most NRA money since 2002 of any Tennessee member of Congress.”
Closing out with a rather shocking statement, the article said that “Blackburn’s objection is emblematic of how deep the rot runs in the Republican party, and also of the hold that Russian money has over its elected officials.”
Is there validity to such a statement? That’s what we are going to attempt to do throughout the rest of this article. We are going to explore Senator Blackburn specifically, and look at her biggest campaign backers before exploring her legislative work, and seek signs of influence.
Before we do, let’s take a moment to understand how the sources of campaign funding work in less-than-desirable ways. We mentioned dark money, and this is mostly untraceable money poured into campaigns. It can also include funds channeled through other means into campaign coffers
Then, there are PACs (Political Action Committees) and SuperPACS differing only slightly in how they can or cannot operate. PACs can give to parties or candidates, while SuperPACs can only spend on marketing and ads. Both are unlimited in the amounts they can accept or spend, as well. Both groups can allow donors anonymity because both are non-profit. They are legally allowed to keep their donors’ names entirely private. This is due to recent changes in IRS rules, which generated a lot of controversy when they appeared in 2017.
And any donation falls within the protections of the 2010 Supreme Court case known as the Citizens United ruling, in which the Court held that “the free speech clause of the first amendment prohibits the government from restricting corporations from making political expenditures.”
Many watchdog groups worry about this, with the Senate attempting to force the IRS to disclose names (the effort failed). Many would also like to see some sort of caps. After all, as one group noted, “spending of this kind (in which groups did not reveal their donors) climbed rapidly from five million dollars in the year 2006 to more than three hundred million dollars in 2012.” Such immense contributions from mega-rich donors, that many feel are “effectively in control of American politics, writing six- and seven-figure checks to super PAC’s to support ad campaigns that confuse viewers and distort the views and records of candidates,” as one source said.
Although many donors do not seek to sway policy, they can use their power for “subtle things that are less top of mind, less likely to be in the news — some amendment tucked into a larger bill…[and] greater access for friendly lobbyists.” Or, as is the case with Senator Blackburn’s accusers, to say that they actually do interfere in policy-making on behest of donors.
We know what Senator Blackburn has been accused of, and so it means looking at her activities, voting records, and legislative actions to see if there is influence that would reveal her giving her donors what they demand. To determine if there are any questionable links between her backers and her legislative actions in the Senate. We’ll look at:
- The Senator’s publicly stated priorities and issues
- Senator Blackburn’s committee and caucus activities
- The Senator’s key sources of campaign funding
- Senator Blackburn’s most recent legislative items sponsored or co-sponsored
We are also going to examine other facts, including bipartisanship ratings, conservative rankings, and more, to reach conclusions.
For example, her “Trump Score” from FiveThirtyEight for the 116th Congress is higher than the previous Congress, and hovers at 92%, meaning that she supports President Trump’s policies, most of the time. The American Conservative Union agrees that she is strongly conservative, offering a numeric grade of 100%.
Her approval ratings in the Senate are mid-range, as well, with a rank of 48 out of 100 senators and a net approval of 61 from the Republican party.
This tells us that she is very conservative and well-liked among her party members. She agrees with the administration on most matters. What else can we use to determine if she is being influenced in any way? We’ll consider a brief biography and then focus on her statements about key issues in Tennessee.
About Senator James Blackburn
Born in 1952 in Mississippi, she graduated from Mississippi State University with a degree in home economics in 1974 and began a career in sales shortly after. She was always involved in politics and was the founder of a county Young Republicans group. She was also a delegate to the Republican National Convention and a candidate for Congress. She was appointed to serve in the Tennessee Film, Entertainment and Music Commission as its director, and in 1998 won her seat in the State Senate, serving for the next five years.
In 2002, she was elected to the U.S. House and won repeatedly for three terms. She was hired to work for the Mitt Romney presidential campaign, but resigned to take a similar role for Fred Thompson. She was then re-elected to the House again in 2008 and continued to serve for five more terms, before retiring to make a Senate run in 2017. Elected in 2018, she is due to run again in 2024.
At her official website, she indicates that her “public service is dedicated to promoting opportunities for women and making America a more prosperous place to live. Marsha’s leadership philosophy is based on her experiences in the private sector as a small businesswoman and author, as well as being a mother and grandmother.”
Her site also lists the issues she believes are most significant to the people of Tennessee, including:
- Jobs and Economy
- National Security
ProPublica tracks politicians and how they vote, the most common subjects of bills they sponsor, and what issues are the most common in their press releases. They have identified that Senator Blackburn focuses on the following legislative items:
- Armed Forces and National Security
- Science, Technology, Communications
- Public Lands and Natural Resources
They have also kept track of the subjects of press releases from her office, which include:
- Economics and Public Finance
There is not a great deal of overlap, and so it means we need more details to determine whether or not her focus is where it should be.
Senator Blackburn’s Committee Work
For the 116th Congress, Senator Blackburn is assigned to the following committees and subcommittees:
- Committee on Armed Services
- Subcommittee on Cyber security
- Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities
- Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support
- Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
- Subcommittee on Aviation and Space
- Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet
- Subcommittee on Manufacturing, Trade, and Consumer Protection
- Subcommittee on Security
- Committee on the Judiciary
- Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights
- Subcommittee on Intellectual Property
- Subcommittee on the Constitution
- Committee on Veterans’ Affairs
Her participation here matches well to the focus of her bills and her press releases, but to determine if overlap exists between donors and her work, we need to look at just who those donors are, and if they benefit from their relationships with the Senator.
The Top Industries Funding Senator Blackburn Campaign Efforts
In 2018, Senator Blackburn’s campaign raised $14,400,856.93, but spent $16,338,714.66, leaving more than one million dollars in debt. At present, however, her campaign has more than half a million in cash on hand. Her support came from an array of industries, and we’ll look at those contributors in three distinct groupings:
- The industries in which the Senator was a “favorite,” or top recipient in the last campaign cycle (2018)
- The industries that contributed the most substantial amount of financial support
- Individual organizations that donated the most
According to the Open Secrets Website, Senator Blackburn was an industry favorite in a surprisingly long list of segments. They included:
- Correctional facilities construction & management/for-profit (#1)
- Leadership PACs (#1)
- Republican leadership PAC (#1)
- Restaurants & drinking establishments (#1)
- Telecom services (#1)
- Food & Beverage (#2)
- Recorded Music & music production (#2)
- Republican/Conservative (#2)
- Telephone Utilities (#2)
- Commercial TV & radio stations (#3)
- Gun Rights (#4)
- Nutritional & dietary supplements (#4)
- Waste Management (#4)
- Payday lenders (#8)
She also received strong support from other industries, and the 20 sectors that gave the most, overall, in 2018 were (in ranking order):
- Real Estate
- Leadership PACs
- Securities & Investment
- Health Professionals
- Lawyers/Law Firms
- Oil & Gas
- Miscellaneous Finance
- Pharmaceuticals/Health Products
- Telecom Services
- Miscellaneous Business
- Miscellaneous Manufacturing & Distributing
- Commercial Banks
- Hospitals/Nursing Homes
- General Contractors
Lastly, there were the companies and other groups that gave, individually. However, none of them donated directly to the campaign; instead, they worked with PACs or had direct employee contributions for the 2018 election, and were:
- Senate Conservatives Fund – “A United States political action committee (PAC) that supports conservative Republican Party candidates in primaries and general elections. The SCF primarily focuses on supporting United States Senate candidates. The PAC was founded by then-U.S. Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina in 2008.”
- Club for Growth – “A 501(c)(4) conservative organization active in the United States, with an agenda focused on cutting taxes and other economic issues. The Club has two political arms: an affiliated traditional political action committee, called the Club for Growth PAC, and Club for Growth Action, an independent-expenditure only committee or Super-PAC. According to its website, the Club for Growth’s policy goals include cutting income tax rates, repealing the estate tax, supporting limited government and a balanced budget amendment, entitlement reform, free trade, tort reform, school choice, and deregulation.”
- CoreCivic Inc – “A company that owns and manages private prisons and detention centers and operates others on a concession basis.”
- National Republican Senatorial Committee – “The Republican Hill committee for the United States Senate, working to elect Republicans to that body. The NRSC was founded in 1916 as the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. It was reorganized in 1948 and renamed the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The NRSC helps elect Republican incumbents and challengers primarily through fundraising. Other services include campaign activities using media and communications, as well as research and strategy planning.”
- FedEx Corp– “An American multinational courier delivery services company headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee. The name “FedEx” is a syllabic abbreviation of the name of the company’s original air division, Federal Express (now FedEx Express), which was used from 1973 until 2000. The company is known for its overnight shipping service and pioneering a system that could track packages and provide real-time updates on package location (to help in finding lost packages), a feature that has now been implemented by most other carrier services.”
- HCA Inc – “An American for-profit operator of health care facilities that was founded in 1968. It is based in Nashville, Tennessee and in 2019 it managed 185 hospitals and 119 freestanding surgery centers, including surgery centers, freestanding ERs, urgent care centers, and physician clinics in the United States and the United Kingdom.”
- Duke Energy – “Headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, is an American electric power holding company in the United States, with assets in Canada.”
- Comcast Corp – An “American telecommunications conglomerate headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is the second-largest broadcasting and cable television company in the world by revenue and the largest pay-TV company, the largest cable TV company and largest home Internet service provider in the United States, and the nation’s third-largest home telephone service provider. Comcast services U.S. residential and commercial customers in 40 states and in the District of Columbia.”
- DISH Network – A “U.S. television provider. Based in Meridian, Colorado, it is the owner of the direct-broadcast satellite provider Dish (stylized DISH, formerly and still commonly known as Dish Network), and the over-the-top IPTV service Sling TV. The company has approximately 17,000 employees.”
- Blackstone Group – “An American multinational private equity, alternative asset management, and financial services firm based in New York City. As the largest alternative investment firm in the world, Blackstone specializes in private equity, credit and hedge fund investment strategies.”
Not many in-state firms appear here, but that is no sign of influence or sway. To truly identify any problematic behaviors means taking all that we have learned and comparing it to the work Senator Blackburn has done in the Senate during the current Congress.
9 Legislative Items Senator Blackburn Has Sponsored During the 116th Congress – To Date
For the 116th Congress, to date, Senator Blackburn has 208 pieces of legislation; but she has sponsored only 20 thus far and co-sponsored the remaining 188. The Senator’s official Congressional page indicates that her emphasis in this Congress has been primarily on Health, Armed Forces and National Security and Science, Technology, Communications.
S.105 — Title X Abortion Provider Prohibition Act
Introduced on January 10, this bill looks to cut “all abortion providers, including Planned Parenthood, of federal funding under Title X of the Public Health Service Act,” according to a press release from Senator Blackburn’s office.
Speaking of the legislation before the Senate, she said that “the American people do not want their tax dollars funding abortions. They have made this position clear time and again. Hardworking taxpayers do not want to subsidize the business of abortion providers and entities such as Planned Parenthood.”
With 26 Republican cosponsors, the bill was read twice and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
The Senator also supports the Patients First Act, the Protecting Life and Taxpayers Act, and other pro-life legislation. She is actually the sponsor of the latter and said (in a press release) that “Every year, the abortion industry receives millions of dollars in direct and indirect federal funding, even though federal law has prohibited use of federal funds for abortion since 1976. A January 2018 Marist poll found that 60 percent of Americans oppose using tax dollars for abortion…
Abortion providers also benefit from indirect funding when entities that receive federal funding provide or fund abortions. These resources enable abortion providers to focus their resources on abortion. It is important to end this support for the abortion industry. Entities must choose to associate with the abortion industry or to receive federal funds.
The bill prohibits federal funds from being provided to any entity, either directly or indirectly, unless the entity certifies that it will not perform an abortion or provide funding to any entity that funds an abortion. Exceptions are made for abortions where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother. Hospitals are exempted unless they provide funds to non-hospital entities that perform abortions.”
That item was introduced in June of 2019.
S.Res.61 —A resolution honoring the life of Rosemary Mariner
Introduced on February 7, this resolution seeks to “honor Captain Rosemary Mariner, the Navy’s first female fighter pilot.” She died in early 2019, and “honored with the first all-female piloted flyover in the history of the United States Navy,” according to a press release from Senator Blackburn’s office.
When introducing the legislation, the senator said, “Throughout her life, Captain Mariner broke barriers that paved the way for women to follow in her footsteps. She worked tirelessly for the equality of women in the military, leading the Women Military Aviators organization and working with members of Congress and a Defense Department advisory board to overturn laws and regulations barring women from combat. The all-female flyover was the perfect way to pay tribute to her service and sacrifice and remind people of the inspirational legacy she leaves for young Tennessee women who wish to join our military.”
A resident of Tennessee for the last two decades of her life, she was a teacher at the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
S.1116 — Balancing the Rights of Web Surfers Equally and Responsibly Act of 2019
Also known as the BROWSER Act, this item was introduced on April 10 with two cosponsors. If enacted into law, it would require “communications and technology companies to provide users with clear and conspicuous notice of their privacy policies and the ability to opt-in to the collection of sensitive information and to opt-out of the collection of non-sensitive information. It also prohibits these companies from denying their service to users who refuse to waive their privacy rights, empowers the Federal Trade Commission to enforce these rules, and ensures we have a consistent national law regarding online privacy,” according to a press release from her office.
Speaking of the need for the legislation, she said, “Broadband, or high-speed internet, has absolutely revolutionized the way we communicate, the way we conduct commerce and, actually, the way we participate in government. Broadband is one of the greatest innovations in history. It allows near-instantaneous exchange of information and brings efficiencies to the daily lives of millions of Americans as they move more of their transactional life online.
Thanks to Broadband, entrepreneurs have been able to bring thousands of new applications to consumers. These ‘edge services’ are now an essential part of our lives. We find ourselves everyday saying, ‘I can’t imagine what we did before we had this, or before we had that.’ These ‘apps’ give consumers access to entertainment, news, information, help us drive around town, and access to emergency services.
As consumers use these apps, they generate massive amounts of data about themselves… and that is the problem… Many companies collect this data and use it for a range of purposes without the user’s knowledge…it is time we had a consistent national law regarding online privacy. We need one set of rules and one regulator for the entire internet ecosystem. It just makes sense.”
This bill would also empower the “FTC (the Federal Trade Commission) to enforce these rules using its unfair or deceptive acts or practices authorities.”
It was read twice and referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
S.1166 — Internet Exchange Act of 2019
A bipartisan bill introduced on April 11, this item would “help to improve internet access for consumers, especially those in rural areas,” according to a press release from the senator.
As outlined in that statement, “Internet Exchanges (IXs) are physical locations where networks come together – they allow subscribers of different internet service providers to communicate with one another. IXs also provide opportunities for content delivery networks (CDNs) and others to cache content closer to end-users, thus reducing latency and increasing network efficiency to improve the online experience for consumers, especially in rural areas. IX facilities also provide opportunities for data centers and cloud computing to be collocated at IX sites, thus increasing efficiency and boosting local economies. Currently, IXs are concentrated in big cities and in the coastal states.”
If passed into law, this bill would help overcome the problems by:
- Authorizing matching grants to be administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, to help establish new IX facilities where none exist, or to help an existing one expand if it is the only IX facility in a core-based statistical area
- Permitting eligible recipients under the E-Rate program (for schools and libraries) and Telehealth program to use such funds to contract with a broadband provider to obtain a connection to an IX facility, or to pay for the costs of maintaining a point of presence at an IX facility.
Speaking of the bill, Senator Blackburn said, “We need to strengthen our internet infrastructure to better serve Middle America and rural communities and improve the online experience for people in all parts of our country. This bipartisan measure will help expand broadband access across our country. By investing in our internet infrastructure and adding more internet exchanges in Wisconsin and throughout the heartland, we can help more rural households and rural businesses gain better access to high-speed internet.”
It was read twice and referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
S.1235 —Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commemorative Coin Act
Another bipartisan item from the senator, this one celebrates the “100th anniversary of the passage and ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing women the right to vote. The measure honors the centennial and the legacy of the suffrage activists with a commemorative coin minted by the U.S. Department of Treasury. All twenty-five female Senators support the legislation. For the first time in U.S. history, one-fourth of the members of the U.S. Senate are female.”
As Senator Blackburn said when introducing the bill, “The 2020 centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment is a rare moment to celebrate the milestone in American history that made it possible for women to finally have a voice in government. Ninety-nine years after women gained the right to vote, I became the first woman from Tennessee to serve in the United States Senate. I am honored to work with Senator Gillibrand, and all of the women in the Senate, to commemorate the pioneers and trailblazers who made it possible for us to be members of this chamber.”
With 82 cosponsors, the bill was held at the desk and passed in the Senate in June.
S.1457 —Sharing Urgent, Potentially Problematic Locations that Yield Communications Hazards in American Internet Networks Act of 2019
Introduced May 14, this bill (also known as the SUPPLY CHAIN Act), “directs the Secretary of Commerce to coordinate with the heads of appropriate federal entities and conduct ongoing reviews of the information and communications technology marketplace and its supply chain.”
Explaining why such legislation is important, Senator Blackburn said, “The U.S. is fighting to win the race to 5G. It is essential that we not allow foreign adversaries access to our systems. It is equally important we stop adversaries from exploiting the global marketplace to run trusted suppliers out of business. Information is power, and 5G holds the promise to revolutionize American competitiveness across virtually every industry. Let’s be sure we’re prioritizing national security in the process.”
In a press release about it, the legislation is explained as requiring “long-term scenario and strategic planning between the government and the private sector to: assess the severity of risks to the marketplace; identify counterfeit ICT equipment; assess the ability of foreign entities to exploit the marketplace in manner that raises risks; identify emerging long-term trends that threaten the ICT marketplace; develop strategies to mitigate risks to the ICT marketplace; and analyze strategic opportunities for asymmetric advantage…This bill is complementary to existing programs and efforts; it seeks to leverage the distinct competencies of the Department of Commerce to win the global race to 5G.”
The bill was read twice and referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
S.1532 —Pharmacy Benefit Manager Accountability Study Act of 2019
Introduced on May 16, this bill would, according to a news release about it, “require the Government Accountability Office to submit a report on pharmaceutical benefit managers (PBMs) to the Senate HELP and Finance Committees within one year of the date of enactment.”
The report would have to focus on the “PBMs’ role in the supply chain; the state of competition among PBMs; the use of rebates and fees by PBMs; the structure of formularies; prior authorization approval times for PBMs; factors affecting the use of step therapy by PBMs; and spread pricing.”
Explaining the need for the legislation, Senator Blackburn said, “As Congress looks to reduce prescription drug costs, we need to be sure we are getting complete and accurate information at each stage of the pharmaceutical supply chain. A major component of that effort is bringing transparency and accountability to the role of PBMs.”
It was read twice and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
S.1561 —Accountability for Care of Unaccompanied Alien Children Act of 2019
Introduced on May 21, this bill aims at protecting “children from being trafficked at the southern border.”
It would do this, according to a press release from Senator Blackburn’s office, through three initiatives:
“Protect children in HHS custody from falling victim to traffickers;
Codify the existing agreement between HHS and the Department of Homeland Security to screen sponsors for criminal records or trafficking history; and
Affirm the continued authority of law enforcement agencies to investigate any criminal conduct committed by the adult sponsors.”
The legislation was drafted in response to a “Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, [during which] a Department of Health and Human Services’ official admitted the agency lost track of nearly 1,500 unaccompanied minors after their release from federal custody over a three-month span in 2017.”
Speaking about it, the senator said, “The U.S. has the responsibility to ensure an unaccompanied child in the care of HHS is placed with a responsible adult who will keep them out of harm’s way. This bill will promote greater information sharing between HHS and DHS, and hold them accountable in ensuring those placements are done with the child’s best interest.”
It was read twice and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.
S.1936 —PALS Act
Another bipartisan item from Senator Blackburn, this bill looks to “postpone recommendations from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) that would limit access to breast cancer screening for women in their 40s. It would continue the moratorium on the USPSTF recommendations, which Congress has extended several times.”
Introduced on June 20, a companion bill was placed before the House in May. Speaking of the need for such legislation, Senator Blackburn said, “Breast cancer is far too common a disease. One woman out of eight will develop some form of breast cancer during her life, so most of us know firsthand how devastating it can be for our families and friends. By making these screenings available during an age in which this disease can be most aggressive, it is possible to save the lives of so many sisters, daughters, mothers and even grandmothers.”
The bill was read twice and referred to the Committee on Finance.
Senator Blackburn shows no signs of influence through his actions or work in the Senate. In fact, by supporting certain sanctions, geothermal development, and programs for small business, he clearly is not working towards corporate interests. Though he has that questionable history, there are no signs that any of those concerns are valid or demonstrate any problems or concerns.