Newsletter 39: Assessments of Biden remain murky while assessments of Pelosi’s House remain crystal clear (lethargic)
|Jeff Hauser||May 27|
MoveOn recently polled its membership and found that 62% of respondents would be more likely to vote for Biden if he pledged not to appoint Wall Street executives or lobbyists. As Biden gets serious about his general election effort, he should recognize that principled commitments on personnel are among the most consequential steps he can take to unify the party by building trust with the party’s populist wing. And as Vice President Biden invokes the notion that what America will need next January may “eclipse what F.D.R. faced,” he should recall that FDR promised to build a Cabinet free of financial influence. FDR delivered not only on that personnel commitment but also on his promise to fix the broken country that the economic royalist Herbert Hoover had left him.
2020 (and Potentially 2021)
For now, the frenzied speculation about who will be vice president has seemingly left very little room to consider other potential members of a President Biden’s Cabinet. This is hardly shocking; while presidential candidates don’t tend to announce their Cabinet members until after the election, they announce their vice president in July. It seems, however, that Biden might disregard that customary timeline and announce a slate of Cabinet picks alongside his vice presidential choice. That makes the task of shaping a hypothetical Biden administration all the more urgent.
Many groups have set to work. Over the weekend, Reuters reported that many progressive activists are “sharing personnel preferences privately with Biden campaign officials” and “plan to further make their case through task forces established with Senator Bernie Sanders and other sympathetic members of Congress who support Biden.” That many are so active and engaged this early is notable.
Particularly interesting, however, is the role that this article suggests the policy task forces may play in shaping the next administration. Many, quite reasonably, worried that these assemblages would deliver no more than vague commitments to aspirational ideals. However, by staking out a claim on personnel, the task forces may provide a mechanism for progressive groups to win personnel commitments and real power within a Biden administration.
Meanwhile, through their public and private-facing efforts it seems that progressive groups have already raised the perceived cost of relying on the revolving door. As Reuters reported, “A senior Democrat familiar with the selection process said it will be difficult for Biden to choose the head of a major financial institution for a senior role because it would mean provoking an unnecessary fight with progressives.” Of course, we’re still a long ways off from the election and a lot could change between now and November. In order to ensure that Wall Streeters are kept out of the executive branch (not to mention the many undesirable revolving door appointees from other sectors), progressive groups will surely need to keep up, and even increase, the pressure.
Reporting from the last few weeks on Biden’s continued coziness with Wall Street has made this abundantly clear. While many on the left celebrate what they perceive to be meaningful concessions, Wall Street executives remain confident that they will have Biden’s ear and a spot in the administration if they want it.
On Monday, our Max Moran profiled one of those potential entrants, Peter Scher, in the American Prospect. Scher is a longtime Biden ally who is generally well-liked and is adept at talking up his philanthropic ventures. He also sits at the top of JP Morgan Chase’s lobbying operation, directing efforts to undermine all manner of banking regulation. As Max argues, the former set of characteristics should not eclipse or excuse the latter; Scher should have no place in a Biden administration.
The same, of course, goes for Rahm Emanuel, who we learned yesterday is “informally” advising the Biden campaign (the formal versus informal distinction will only gain relevance once Biden announces his full slate of formal advisors). The list of reasons that one should not listen to Rahm Emanuel is astoundingly long - his key role covering up Laquan MacDonald’s murder and undermining the ACA are just two things that come quickly to mind. Emanuel’s recent interviews - in which he denigrates Biden’s recent shift to a “revolutionary” mindset in response to coronavirus - demonstrate that that basic rule of thumb - don’t listen to Rahm Emanuel - has not changed.
Of course, it’s also possible that Emanuel is overstating his importance (it would not be the first time). If that’s so, Biden should save us all the headache and let us know that’s the case.
And, just like that, stimulus negotiations are back to the Senate. The House passed the HEROES Act earlier this month but, after leadership’s repeated insistence that it’s just a message bill, it’s unclear what impact it will ultimately have. Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell is in no rush to pass stimulus of any kind. What, then, should the House be doing in the meantime? Yes, you guessed it, oversight!
We continue to accumulate oversight suggestions in this twitter thread at an astounding pace. Last week, the project’s Eleanor Eagan took a closer look at one particularly neglected area in need of oversight: agricultural and food policy. The pandemic has disrupted food supply chains creating parallel crises of hunger and food waste. That this would be a problem was clear to many local officials and experts from the beginning, but the Trump administration ignored their calls for federal intervention for weeks. In mid-April, the Department of Agriculture finally announced plans to purchase and distribute produce to hungry families.
That the administration finally acted does not absolve them of culpability for the harm resulting from their initial delays. As Eleanor wrote in Washington Monthly, House Democrats “must draw the direct line between the administration’s choices and the painful reality on the ground. Hearings with Secretary Perdue would likely emphasize the senselessness of his agency’s lethargy through March and April.”
It is also the case, however, that the administration’s failures on agricultural policy have not been limited to that initial failure to act; over the course of the last several weeks, we have learned about numerous problems with the new food purchasing program’s administration. USDA initially awarded contracts to companies with little to no experience in large scale food purchasing. Then, last week, it suddenly revoked many of them. An engaged House Agriculture Committee would be trying to get to the bottom of this, asking why the contracts were initially awarded as they were, and what impact the saga has had on the program’s efficacy. Even more importantly, it would be working to ferret out additional, as yet undiscovered, problems and asking if the administration’s present response is sufficient. (Strongly worded letters simply won’t cut it. We need hearings, especially now that the caucus has made way for remote proceedings. The House Agriculture Committee has never held a coronavirus-related hearing and has no hearings of any kind scheduled as of this writing.)
More broadly, when Democrats fail to do oversight, they cede control of the narrative to other actors. Our Miranda Litwak highlighted this phenomenon in Talking Points Memo last week. As it has become clear that the small business bailout was a disaster, Trump has sought to distance himself from the measures. But as Miranda writes, “Trump officials played a central role in the crafting, negotiations and passage of the CARES Act.” Oversight of all aspects of the administration’s response, including the legislative measures that administration officials crafted, can help to make clear where ultimate responsibility lies.
Such oversight is necessary in its own right, but it would also likely increase pressure for Mitch McConnell and the entire Senate GOP Caucus to take up new stimulus measures. Senate Republicans have made clear that they are all in with Trump. House Democrats can make that proximity more uncomfortable by highlighting Trump’s abject failure to adequately respond to this crisis. And carefully diagnosing the rot in Trump’s Executive Branch could be critical to helping a potential Biden Administration hit the ground running.
After 262 days, the Federal Election Commission has a quorum again. There is, however, little reason to believe that it will be much more functional than before. Newly-confirmed FEC Commissioner Trey Trainor does not believe that election law should be enforced. Furthermore, since the FEC requires four affirmative votes to take any action and the FEC’s commissioners remain deeply divided on the most fundamental questions, it seems unlikely that anything new will be happening there anytime soon. By confirming Trainor, however, McConnell is restoring a quorum to by far the most well known agency that was lacking one. That makes it even less likely that he will be scrutinized for his stubborn refusal to put the three nominees for the Merit Systems Protection Board up for a vote (not that he was getting a lot of heat for it before).
Want more?Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last couple of weeks:
The Rick Smith Show 5/19
A News 5/20