Veep Pick is Big. All of the Other Picks Added Up Matter More

Newsletter 47: Was the Larry Summers news low-key the biggest Biden personnel story of August?

With the choice of Vice President out of the way, the Biden campaign can turn in earnest to planning the rest of its administration. While there’s still a lot up in the air, we know one thing: Biden’s hypothetical administration will not count Larry Summers among its ranks. On Thursday, Summers told an Aspen Institute forum that he had bowed out of the running, stating that he likes his freedom to speak as a private citizen. Some expressed skepticism that the decision was entirely voluntary, speculating instead that Summers had been pushed out. In many ways it hardly matters which account is true. In either scenario, someone - Summers himself or members of the campaign - decided that this veteran of the executive branch had become too politically toxic to make the push for his inclusion worth it. That’s a clear win for progressives who quickly organized to build the case against Summers and demand his ouster when his role in the campaign was revealed this spring.

2020 (and potentially 2021):

But Summers is just one person and, for the time being, it does not appear that the Biden campaign is taking the right lesson from this episode. Instead of heeding progressives’ calls to shut out those who have consistently advanced corporate interests both in and out of public office, the Biden campaign is keeping many of these figures in its inner circle and erecting a higher barrier to keep prying public eyes out. 

This behavior was typical bipartisan politics before the era of Trump. Reagan, Clinton, the disastrous Bush family, Obama -- all of them followed a similar script. But we need better, and we need it NOW. In order to build a functioning political community that can take on concurrent crises, from climate change and COVID-19 to racial injustice and economic inequality, “undeniably cleaner than Trump” is an inadequate goal.

The bits of information that have leaked out paint a concerning picture. Biden’s immense “Innovation Policy Team” includes many current and former employees of the Big Four tech companies (including some who skirt the campaign’s no lobbyist rule thanks to the porous laws governing political influence that allow the leaders of lobbying shops not to register as lobbyists) and senior think tank officials whose institutions receive generous tech funding. Meanwhile, the campaign’s climate advising apparatus includes several adherents to the Obama administration’s “all of the above” strategy which, as the project’s Miranda Litwak and Max Moran wrote for the Intercept last week, “embraced fossil fuel development and technologies like fracking while publicly trumpeting clean energy commitments.” After leaving public office these figures - Heather Zichal, Ernest Moniz, Jason Bordoff, and Brian Deese - all went to work fighting against climate justice. These credentials hardly inspire confidence in a Biden administration’s willingness to follow through on big plans to tackle climate change or rein in Big Tech. 

After this series of leaks, the campaign “doubled down” on ethics commitments by sending an email to policy team members stating that while “‘it is sometimes hard to separate one’s personal views from those of one’s employer or clients,’ members should do their ‘absolute best to ensure that the ideas that you offer up and the contributions that you make are consistent with what is best for the candidate and not what is best for you or your clients or your employer.’” Phew, glad they took care of that! Now we’ll definitely be safe from corporate influence in the next administration, right?

Wrong. Recusal and firewalls simply are not enough at this moment, even if they were the response deemed sufficient under Obama. No onlooker truly believes that Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Apple does not derive some advantage from counting current employees among the advising teams’ ranks. Similarly, not even a credulous observer would buy that those corporate-connected advisers don’t bring their employers’ perspectives into the room. To rebuild trust in the post-Trump era, Biden is going to need to make bolder commitments and start adhering to them early. 

Until he does, there will rightly be skepticism about his willingness to take actions like those the project’s Eleanor Eagan and CEPR’s Eileen Appelbaum laid out in their latest piece “A Day One Agenda for Private Equity.” As Americans for Financial Reform’s Carter Dougherty told the Times last week, “When the candidate doesn’t have a clear plan on something like Wall Street reform, it tilts the playing field toward what is probably the most powerful industry in the world. We need more than ‘not Trump appointees’ when it comes to financial regulation.”

Congressional Oversight

Since the pandemic’s start, 43,000 nursing home residents have lost their lives. Thanks to their age and a high prevalence of underlying conditions, these residents were at greater risk from COVID-19, but their deaths were far from inevitable. That’s the stunning conclusion from new evidence out of California. Out of 2100 people who reside in California Department of Veterans Affairs-run nursing homes, only 2 have died from COVID-19 thus far. Residents of other California nursing homes were, on average, 31 times more likely to die from the disease. 

As evidence mounts of the for-profit nursing care model’s deadly failures - of which private equity-backed nursing care is the most extreme example - the need for further oversight only becomes more clear. Just last week, RDP’s Eleanor Eagan called on Richard Neal to make nursing home companies and their private equity backers account for the blood on their hands. Highlighting nursing homes’ culpability would be particularly salient at the moment as Republicans push to free them from any liability for their negligence. 

Unfortunately, it seems that Richard Neal is too busy once again (!!!) sitting on the tax returns case to get around to it. On Friday, a federal appeals court ruled as expected that House Democrats can sue to enforce their subpoena against former White House Counsel Don McGahn, making way for the Ways and Means committee to move forward on the tax returns case (the judge in their case was explicitly awaiting the higher court’s decision). With that settled, all Ways and Means should need to do is file to expedite the judge’s decision. Easy, right? Apparently not, because it still hasn’t happened.  

Elsewhere, House Democrats are beginning to give some thought to the upcoming transition and the likelihood that an outgoing Trump administration would engage in cover-ups and sabotage. This new orientation could not come soon enough as we rapidly bear down on the election. Besides demonstrating awareness that this will be a problem, however, it is still unclear what exactly members intend to do about it. While many requests for documents are likely to be stonewalled, attempts should still be made to gather and preserve as much information as possible now. Further, actively seeking out potential whistleblowers who may be willing to reveal consequential acts of deceit or sabotage and help guide congressional investigators would surely be fruitful. 

Unfortunately, with the House heading home for the next month, it seems like none of this will be happening anytime soon. Rather than observing the August recess as usual, House Democrats could take this opportunity to continue hammering on this administration’s pandemic-response failures while the White House and Senate Republicans block a relief package. Perhaps the most poignant example? While on vacation, presumably sitting lakeside at her ostentatious Michigan home, Betsy DeVos “continues to echo the president's demand that public schools reopen for in-person instruction, regardless of the levels of infection in their communities. She also insists that it isn't her job to help localities determine how to do so safely.” 

NEW: As the Project’s work expands and we shift to publishing our newsletters once a week, we are adding new sections - Anti-Monopoly and Government Capacity -  to the mix. Don’t worry, we won’t be radically increasing the length of our weekly screed but instead will be picking and choosing the areas we want to highlight for each edition. 

Anti-Monopoly

From public comments, to op-eds, and extensive research, the Revolving Door Project has been busy calling attention to the ways that corporations use revolving door personnel to tighten their grip on power. This week, we’ve put out a new blog that lays out the philosophy that motivates this work and catalogues what we’re getting up to. Check it regularly to keep up with our work. If Biden’s policy advising teams are any guide, the need for this laser focus on antitrust personnel will not subside anytime soon. 

Government Capacity

As the prospect of a transition looms large, the Project is not only being attentive to the people who will fill the upper echelons of executive branch leadership, but giving serious thought to the long-term degradation in government capacity that may stymie a Biden administration’s efforts. Late last month, we made the case for paying close attention to the two million people who ensure that the federal government runs each day and laid out some principles that should guide an administration as it considers how to rebuild. 

That work is essential but it will not be easy as it controverts decades of bipartisan civil service bashing. As the project’s Mariama Eversley explains in Talking Points Memo this week, those attacks have leaned heavily on racist dog whistles, many of which are still in heavy circulation today. Just last month, Senator Tom Cotton took them up when “he compared the private sector employees in the overwhelmingly white state — ‘workers in mining, logging and construction, and 10 times as many workers in manufacturing’ — favorably to D.C.’s labor market, which is based on federal employment.”

As Eversley writes, “in a conservative worldview that sees the U.S. government as by and for white people, Black employment in the public sector becomes a target for the GOP and federal jobs become fodder for racist ‘dog whistle’ politics.”

Initiatives to hack away at government and outsource civil service jobs have disproportionately undermined Black Americans’ pathways to the middle class, especially in DC. “Given that the road to privatization and deregulation was paved with white supremacy, we must embrace anti-racist policies to recover the federal government and expand the civil service. Without it, our democracy remains at stake.”

Want more? Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last week:

On Climate Policy, Biden’s Advisers Reveal More Than His Proposals Do

The Same Racist Rhetoric Used To Oppose DC Statehood Keeps The Federal Government Dysfunctional

A Day One Agenda for Private Equity

The Revolving Door Project on Fighting Monopoly Power

Why Hasn’t The Trump Administration Released Their Organizational Chart For The Office of Management and Budget?

July 2020 Update on the State of Independent Federal Agencies

Climate Hawks Urge Biden to Shun Obama-Era Energy Moderates

Analysis | The Energy 202: Kamala Harris goes big on environmental justice as Biden considers her as running mate

Big Tech Makes Inroads With the Biden Campaign

CAMPAIGN 2020: Inside Biden's network of climate advisers -- Friday, August 7, 2020

'Executive Order Stunt No Substitute for Real Relief,' Say Progressives of Legally Dubious Trump Proposal

What Biden’s No. 2 means for the tech world

Did Summers Jump, or Was He Pushed?

Politico Morning Tech, August 10th, 2020

Climate Activists Push Biden to Cut Ties With Industry-Friendly Energy Advisers

The Rick Smith Show, August 11

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