Zero Hour... for the Press

Newsletter 27: Will moderators finally interview candidates for the job for which they’re running?

2020 (and Potentially 2021)

Tonight is the last debate before the first primary votes are cast. Unfortunately, despite over a year of close campaign coverage, voters still have little readily accessible information about how each candidate would actually do the job of being president, i.e. appointing personnel, setting enforcement priorities, and taking other executive action. That makes it all the more important that tonight’s moderators focus in on presidential power.

We and a coalition of 18 groups — including Americans for Financial Reform, Demand Progress, Center for Popular Democracy, Open Markets Institute, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Public Citizen  — have once again asked them to do just that. By pushing candidates to explain “how they would wield powers specific to the executive branch,” moderators can help voters understand what each candidate would actually do as president and how it might affect regular people like them.  

Of course, motivated voters who are willing to pour over candidates’ plans can find the odd executive branch-focused commitment scattered among the abundant promises to “push for the passage of X bill.” For example, Pete Buttigieg’s new infrastructure plan promises to “prevent and address PFAS contamination by establishing science-based standards that limit the amount of PFAS in drinking water” - something that would be well within his power as president. 

Similarly, Amy Klobuchar’s new housing plan states that, as president, Klobuchar “will direct the Department of Housing and Urban Development to make sure it accurately collects market data about the cost of rental housing and provides flexibility to local housing agencies to adjust voucher amounts in higher-cost areas.” While data collection may not make for sexy policy, it is both foundational to good policymaking and can independently set in motion big, tangible improvements.

Some candidates have also promised to use their power over the disbursal of federal funds to encourage wide-reaching changes at the state and municipal levels. For example, in her new Disability Rights plan, Elizabeth Warren promises to withhold federal funds from police departments that arrest people for living outside. If put into effect, that could be a major step towards reversing the criminalization of homelessness, all without help from Congress.

But most voters are not spending their free time reading candidates’ plans. And without the media asking about it, most people probably are not aware of those executive branch-focused commitments that candidates have already made. 

Furthermore, while better than nothing, these commitments are still not enough. No candidate has moved beyond piecemeal promises to articulate a broader vision of executive branch power including who it will serve and how. As we’ve stated on numerous occasions, this must include a plan for personnel, regulations, enforcement, information-gathering, and more. 

But, as David Leonhardt argues in The New York Times this week, the next administration’s communications strategy will also be a key determinant not only of its legacy but of its political efficacy throughout the next president’s time in office. While Leonhardt focuses a bit more on legislative accomplishments, the lesson applies equally to the exercise of executive branch power. A president who employs executive power actively and creatively to advance the public interest will surely face fierce resistance from corporate America and accompanying cries of overreach. To effectively overcome these forces, they will need to not only deliver tangible benefits to regular people, but remind those people that they did.

However, even if moderators fail to ask questions related to any of these planks of executive power, all is not lost; using other sources, we can get a pretty good idea of what a candidate’s presidency would actually look like. Chief among these is a candidate’s list of bundlers. 

Amy Klobuchar belatedly released the names of her bundlers last week, joining Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden, who finally heeded our longstanding call to release the names of their fundraisers last month. With Klobuchar’s late entry, all of the major candidates who have a bundler program have now released their lists. 

It should be noted that both the timing of the lists’ release and their contents represent serious transparency backsliding. In the 2008 primary cycle, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama began disclosing the names of their bundlers by the first half of 2007. Furthermore, Obama included the amount that bundlers had raised, broken down into tiers from $50k to $100k, $100k to $200k, $200k to $500k, and $500k+. In contrast, candidates this cycle are simply releasing the names of those who raise more than $25k. 

These issues aside, however, the bundler lists are still highly informative. If history is any guide, many of the people on these lists will have a spot in their beneficiary’s administration, or at least a non-trivial say in who does. Before you watch tonight’s debate, we encourage you to read our recent article on Joe Biden’s bundlers and why they should worry you. While you’re at it, check out our twitter thread on Joe Biden’s bundlers as well as our Debate Watch Guide

And as always, follow along @revolvingdoorDC for live commentary as the debate unfolds.

P.S. Expect much more research from us on the threat posed by big money bundlers in the near future -- and reporters ought to feel free to ping us for an advance peek!

Congressional Oversight of the Executive Branch

With impeachment effectively out of the House, there is even more time to focus on the Trump administration’s other rule-breaking. We will be watching to see which committees take up that mantle and which committees choose to ignore this administration’s destructive corruption and plain cruelty. So far, it seems that effective oversight will continue to come from the usual suspects, the House Financial Services Committee and the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee. Yesterday, the antitrust subcommittee continued its inquiry into tech companies, while the House Financial Services Committee will be hearing tomorrow from the Chair of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB). Not sure why you should care about that last one? Check out this deep dive from the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) to find out!

Independent Agencies

While we certainly spend a lot of time complaining that seats on independent agency boards aren’t filled, we are not merely concerned with process, but also with what these agencies are doing. Sadly, things are not so great on that front, either, as we make clear in a recent letter to the House Financial Services and Senate Banking Committees calling for an investigation into the SEC’s dealings with WeCompany. 

As it turns out, revolving door attorneys have represented WeCompany in all of its dealings with the SEC. First, John White, former Director of the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance represented WeCompany as it underwent the review for its plainly laughable potential IPO. Next, Andrew Ceresney, the former Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, represented WeCompany as the SEC undertook an investigation into potential securities fraud within the company. As we wrote along with the Demand Progress Education Fund, the presence of these revolving door figures “cast[s] doubt on the integrity of the agency review process in both cases.”

Oh, and wondering whether WeCompany will disavow John White’s outrageous efforts to compel his connections to authorize WeWork’s inexcusable accounting? Well, probably not while represented by Ceresney, since Ceresney’s career has been advanced serially by his current law partner, Mary Jo White, the former SEC Chairwoman who is married to John White.

You can see the full letter here and read more about how the revolving door undermines the public interest here

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 Christmas Miracle: Biden’s Unexamined List of High-Powered Fundraisers

Did a Federal Ethics Loophole Worsen the Vaping Crisis?

WeWork’s Revolving-Door Games Called Into Question

The Revolving Door Project and Demand Progress Call On Lawmakers to Investigate Revolving Door's Influence on SEC's WeCompany Review

What an Elizabeth Warren Presidency Would Look Like

If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to subscribe, please click here.

Revolving Door Project is a project of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

2020 Is a Pivot Point for Political Corruption

Newsletter 26: Will political corruption continue its seemingly inexorable rise in America? And a ton of December RDP clips.

Happy New Year! As your inbox might be emptyish this morning… here’s our 26th & final newsletter of 2020!

2020 (and Potentially 2021)

So the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination ended 2019 much like how it began -- with the media leading a national conversation that is largely orthogonal to the job of being the president. Consider Judy Woodruff’s first question of 2019’s last debate:

“But unlike 1974 and President Nixon, congressional Democrats have, so far, not convinced a strong majority of Americans to support impeachment of President Trump. Why do you think that is, and what can you say or do differently in the coming weeks to persuade more Americans that this is the right thing to do?”

Put aside the question’s somewhat debatable premise and consider whether requesting candidates play pundit about Trump’s impeachment is likely to yield anything relevant to voters about how the candidates would run the executive branch. Most of the debate “questions” were similarly unrelated to the day to day responsibilities of the office the candidates are seeking. The word “executive” came up in the debate, questions or answers,… twice. “Regulation”... not at all. No variation on “enforce” was used, and “prosecute” only came up once. 

We and a coalition of 18 groups — including Americans for Financial Reform, Demand Progress, Center for Popular Democracy, Open Markets Institute, Progressive Change 

Campaign Committee, and Public Citizen  — had once again appealed directly to the debate’s moderators to ask that they push candidates to explain “how they would wield powers specific to the executive branch at the next debate.” 

We will continue this push in 2020.But will the media be better in 2020? Who knows?!? However, rest assured that RDP remains a resource for interested reporters interested in issues about executive branch personnel (and if you dislike chatting on the phone, read our debate watch guide!)

Unprompted by the mainstream media, however, some candidates are slowly rolling out more executive branch and personnel-focused commitments. For example, at a Teamsters candidate forum earlier this month, Joe Biden said that his administration would consider criminal prosecutions for companies that impinged on workers’ right to organize. At a time when employers from McDonalds to Google seem increasingly emboldened by their apparent right to violate labor law with impunity, this is a welcome commitment.

At that same forum, Elizabeth Warren promised to appoint Federal Reserve Board Governors, “who believe in full employment, who recognize that inflation fears have been overblown for years, and who are willing to let wages grow.” (A side note: It may have taken a while, but the work of Fed Up, our CEPR colleague Dean Baker, and many others, including the recently deceased William Greider, has definitely paid off.)

Commendably, a few news outlets are starting to get clued in to the need for more discussion of how the next president will wield executive branch power. Last week, Politico published an in-depth consideration of what a Bernie Sanders administration would actually look like, mixing reporting and speculation. While the piece is specific to Sanders, the questions it poses about appointments, priorities, executive orders, and more, are certainly not. And we would all benefit if they were posed more widely. 

Meanwhile, Buttigieg belatedly disclosed the names of his bundlers earlier this month (under pressure fulfilling Lis Smith’s promise from... April). But, as we brought to the attention of Politico, Buttigieg’s list was obviously incomplete.

Given that Buttigieg track’s “investor circle” support meticulously…. That’s not good!

Buttigieg’s list, even after being updated following the Politico article, remains conspicuously vague.  Unlike Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012, the Buttigieg campaign breaks bundlers into ranges internally without sharing that information from the public. Is it because transparency would underscore the centrality of Big Tech and private equity to his campaign?

Following Buttigieg’s bad news cycle, Biden belatedly provided his bundlers -- but still no transparency from Amy Klobuchar. Given Klobuchar’s strength in Iowa and in debates, and her promise in April of 2019 to release her bundlers, the media should treat Klobuchar like the serious candidate she is and demand transparency.

Bundler disclosures or no, we will be doing some deeper dives into candidates big fundraisers and donors next year (happy to preview this to reporters!). And as previewed in this interview of our founder in the Washington Post, we have a particular focus on what bundlers might want out of the next administration--i.e., influence into choosing the people who shape the executive branch’s regulatory and enforcement priorities.

Congressional Oversight of the Executive Branch

Sadly, the dominant storyline from 2019 to us is that the steadfast activists who have been organizing as if Trump is an existential threat from day one have not seen their passion and intensity matched by Democratic Party leadership. We described in March how Pelosi et al were urging a catastrophic stand down last winter, and...we stand by that take. Even as activists across the country continue to do what they can to fight against the tide of #LearnedHelplessness from Democratic Leaders, it becomes harder to get people into the streets when elected leaders tell the media and activists that Washington is operating business as usual (e.g., trade deals and continuing resolutions passing with no drama).

We continue to believe that Trump’s corruption is the central theme of the moment and Democrats would be wise to embrace it, a theory we recently discussed further with HuffPost.

One recent example of the type of oversight that is necessary from House Democrats but not forthcoming: Investigating how and why Trump’s Department of Labor is fighting for… employers against tipped workers, It strikes us that tipped workers and their families might well exist in states like Wisconsin, Arizona, and Michigan -- as well as House & Senate battlegrounds like Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas. 

And in general, we continue to argue that the lack of momentum in favor of the narrowly Ukraine-based impeachment does not stem from insufficiency of evidence. Indeed, the evidence of despicably impeachable conduct is vast and, honestly, uncontroverted! What's needed is a lot more explanation about why a matter esoteric to many of the least politically engaged Americans (distribution of foreign aid, "rule of law," mistreatment of Joe Biden) is indeed quite relevant.

The relevance of the Ukraine story, then, is how it is of a pattern with how Trump is intentionally and explicitly undermining many laws. Consider the implementation of Obamacare and so many other economically meaningful assaults on Trump’s constitutional obligation to execute the law faithfully. Such a broad based approach to the basis of “why impeach” would explain why impeachment in year 4 is merited -- illegality is not a mere one off issue and the victims are not “just” Democratic politicians & “norms.”

Independent Agencies

American labor law has long been one of those unseen scandals that impact millions of Americans with limited media focus… and now the key independent organization protecting the right of workers to organize has become even more opposed to… workers organizing. The National Labor Relations Board is now 3 Republicans to 0 Democrats (by longstanding practice, it is supposed to be 3-2) as Member Lauren McFerran’s term expired in December. 

As we have argued in conjunction with Demand Progress, Democrats must confront GOP attacks on Democratic Seats at the Independent Agencies. Ask yourself -- how loud has Schumer been about the end of Democratic representation at the NLRB or across independent agencies? Do leading Democrats discuss the lack of a quorum at the FEC?

Without a dissenting voice at the NLRB, there is no one inside the agency to draw attention in real time to attacks on workers at odds with pro-worker statutes, rampant conflicts of interest, and other assaults on the agency’s purpose. That denies courts, the press, and civil society needed information and perspective.

Look for more from RDP in 2020 clarifying McConnell and Trump’s assault on independent agencies.

Tech & Antitrust More Generally

In 2020 RDP will be expanding our work monitoring the federal government’s competition regulators. We will examine how the critical work of the FTC and DOJ Antitrust Division is or is not undermined by the revolving door. Our work in this area was one of the initial recipients of support from the Anti-Monopoly Fund -- our project is one of those described here, and the broader project was written up in the New York Times.

In general -- RDP is looking forward to growing ever more useful to you in 2020… including finally having a permanent website!

Please do not hesitate to be in touch with tips, questions, and suggestions, and here's to us all enjoying a happy and healthy New Year!

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

Buttigieg omitted high-powered bundlers from disclosure

What Buttigieg and Warren are really fighting about

Fighting Corruption Is The Most Electable Thing A Democrat Can Do In 2020

Anti-Monopoly Fund announces first round of investments

; context in America’s Top Foundations Bankroll Attack on Big Tech

A Great Big Gift Not on Trump’s Disclosure Form: Giuliani’s Legal Advice; our role explained here

Pete Buttigieg Won’t Talk About His Secret Work At McKinsey

Did Pete Buttigieg Get Hidden Campaign Support From a Real-Estate Developer?

The Democrats Handed Trump a Huge 2020 Policy Win Just After Moving to Impeach Him

The wrong people are really excited about Pete Buttigieg’s campaign

Pete Buttigieg Is Disclosing His Bundlers. What About The Other 2020 Candidates?

Elizabeth Warren Built the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It Became a Revolving Door

Progressive groups are demanding that CFPB critic Brett Kavanaugh recuse himself from Supreme Court case

Pete Buttigieg’s McKinsey Client List And A Canadian Grocery Scandal

Rural America Must Be Contested

Bloomberg News’s Curious Interpretation of Editorial Independence

The Impeachment Case We Should All Be Paying Attention To

Newsletter 25: House Democrats still have not overcome their fear of power

2020 (and Potentially 2021)

While we didn’t get any executive branch-focused questions in the last debate, candidates are slowly starting to talk a bit more about how they would wield executive power. Usefully, a Vox feature this week asked candidates to elaborate their positions in seven key areas of technology policy. Among the notable commitments:

  • Senator Bernie Sanders repeated his promise to “reinvigorate the FTC and appoint an Attorney General who will aggressively investigate and break up these tech giants and other conglomerates that have monopolized nearly every sector of our economy.”

  • Mayor Pete Buttigieg said that his Department of Justice would prioritize antitrust enforcement and engage in post-merger reviews on a regular basis. 

  • Senator Elizabeth Warren pointed back to her plan for Big Tech, which includes a vow to “appoint regulators committed to reversing illegal and anti-competitive tech mergers.” 

  • Citing the Equifax data breach, Sanders promised to create a “public, secure credit registry,” a move that, according to the American Prospect’s Day One Agenda, would be possible under the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s existing authority. 

Sanders and Warren also reiterated their past commitments to holding tech executives criminally liable for negligence and wrongdoing. (Each has made similar statements with regards to pharmaceutical and oil and gas executives.) In contrast, Buttigieg, who has disproportionately been the beneficiary of tech executives’ largesse, made no such promises. 

Sadly, only five candidates — Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Steyer, and Bennet — submitted answers, leaving us to guess at other candidates’ positions on at least some of these issues. A handful of those candidates left us some clues. Michael Bloomberg, for example, announced last week that his campaign had brought on Facebook’s former Chief Marketing Officer, Gary Briggs, as its Digital Director (a role that will arguably be even more essential than usual given Bloomberg’s unconventional, almost entirely advertising-dependent campaign strategy).

Meanwhile, Joe Biden staked out the surprising position that executive orders represent an abuse of power, somewhat contradicting his stance that everything Obama ever did was good and right. More importantly, the next president needs to think creatively about how to use executive power, including in some cases executive orders, to advance the greater good. It’s concerning to see Biden seemingly closing that avenue for action now. One could defend Biden and note that he believes that Republicans will legislate with him in good faith, unlike when he was Obama’s Vice President (“why” is left to the listener’s imagination)... but even bipartisan legislation generally requires executive action to implement successfully. 

Finally, it turns out that that Barclays analysis we wrote about last month was not a one-off, but part of a series assessing the potential impact of a Warren presidency. Read more about fears that Warren could undermine shady Swiss bank practices here.

PS: There are many reasons to mourn the sudden end of Kamala Harris’ candidacy even as a billionaire and a private equity executive make noisy entrances, but there’s one particular angle we wish to highlight. With the cessation of Harris’ campaign, there are now zero candidates with traditional fundraising operations (e.g., Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar) revealing their bundlers.

Congressional Oversight of the Executive Branch

Impeachment continues to progress apace. The House Intelligence Committee released its impeachment report yesterday. Hearings begin in the Judiciary committee this morning. And far from spelling the political ruin that many centrist Democrats predicted, overall support for the process continues to inch upwards. 

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still room for improvement. While a majority of Americans support impeaching the president (and, according to some polls, removing him from office), it remains unlikely that the current level of support will be enough to force Senate Republicans’ hands. 

As you consider what could make the difference, we encourage you to read Alex Pareene’s recent piece in The New Republic, “Making Impeachment Matter.” Many political commentators have leaned heavily on Watergate and Clinton’s impeachment to understand our contemporary political moment, but Pareene reaches back to the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, drawing from Brenda Wineapple’s book The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation.

As Pareene highlights, there are many connections to be drawn between our current president and Andrew Johnson, but the more interesting point of comparison is actually between the 116th Congress and the 40th. Basically, while the former fears power, the latter enthusiastically employed it to achieve transformative ends. When it came to impeachment, that meant unapologetically pursuing a recalcitrant president. Most importantly, as Pareene puts it, “the Radicals had a clear understanding of what they were fighting for — Johnson had to be stopped, not for the sake of restoring a comfortable status quo, but in order to allow the Radicals to remake the country itself.”  That is to say the Radicals’ knowledge that they were fighting for democracy emboldened them despite the assurance that Johnson’s racist “base” would never turn on Johnson for illegally undermining Reconstruction.

No such clear objective exists in the present impeachment inquiry. But it is still not too late to change that. To do so, the House leadership must have a clear sense of what they are fighting for. As we have argued previously, we believe this is best achieved by investigating Trump’s extensive and egregious crimes against regular people. From healthcare to employment, education to water quality, Trump’s often unlawful actions not only benefit him and his allies, illegally, they have put millions at risk. In pursuing him for these actions, lawmakers can simultaneously make clear that they are fighting for something better. 

Hall of Shame:

The Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, is set to release his much-anticipated report on the Russia investigation next week. And Attorney General William Barr is already going on the defensive to protect Trump. He has made clear that he does not agree with Horowitz’s conclusion that the FBI had sufficient basis to open an investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. This is hardly surprising, Barr has shown himself to be an unfailing Trump loyalist. It does, however, beg the question: why haven’t House lawmakers yet opened an impeachment inquiry for Barr, as we recommended two months ago?


We reiterate our recommendation that you read Pareene’s piece on Andrew Johnson and impeachment.

This Week in Tech

It’s a high-profile week for US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer for reasons that have nothing to do with the USMCA. On Monday, his office released a verdict finding France’s controversial digital services tax unfairly discriminates against Silicon Valley tech firms, which came out just as French Junior Digital Minister Cedric O touched down to meet with Washington’s tech policy community. The Trump administration threatened to impose 100 percent tariffs on up to $2.4 billion worth of tariffs on French goods in retaliation.

By now, we know not to treat Trump’s threats too literally, especially when they involve tariffs and large dollar figures. But it’s sure to further alienate a longtime ally, and does show that as much as Trump may claim he detests Amazon, Facebook and others, lowering corporate taxes is always the bedrock of Republican (and plenty of Democratic) policy. We’d certainly like to see something like the French 3 percent tax on digital revenues at home, but even more important is reinvigorating the IRS’ capacity to actually collect the taxes we have on the books.

As far as international trade and the tech sector go, we wish the press would pay as much attention to the industry’s longstanding efforts at locking in worldwide deregulation, including on individual’s data rights and algorithmic bias, through provisions in trade agreements and the WTO. Our CEPR colleague Deborah James and the “Our World Is Not For Sale” coalition have been out front on this for a long time.

Independent Agencies

It will surprise none of you to know that things are still not right in the realm of independent agency personnel. As we highlight in our November Update, 78 of the 182 positions we track are either vacant (46 seats) or expired (32 seats). Yet, Trump has put forward nominations for fewer than one-third of those seats. Furthermore, severe partisan imbalances remain. 50 percent of total Democratic seats are vacant, versus 39 percent of total Republican seats. And pending nominations continue to be unevenly distributed (5 nominations for Democratic seats versus 15 for Republican ones), ensuring that this will be the status quo for the foreseeable future. 

When it comes to what the vast majority of sitting commissioners are doing with their power, things do not look much better. That is especially true for financial regulatory agencies, most of which are busy bending to corporate America’s deregulatory will. And, as a new issue brief from the Center for American Progress makes clear, beyond merely padding corporate profits, these regulators are exacerbating the risk of climate change-related financial collapse. 

In some cases, this takes the form of a simple abdication of responsibility. The Chair of the Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell, has claimed that the climate is not relevant to his agency’s mandate, despite the well-documented threat that climate change poses to financial stability. Others, like the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), have begun to analyze climate risk, but with the help of a whole slate of oil, chemical, and banking executives. If the CFTC’s solutions are palatable to that roster, they are sure to be useless. 

We have all come to expect this sort of thing from Trump’s administration, but we cannot accept it in the next one. We are running out of time to avert climate disaster and to prepare for those changes that are at this point inevitable. Furthermore, it is doubly important that we remain attentive to this aspect of financial regulators’ mandate because most are unlikely to think to assess potential appointees on the basis of their climate policy plans. 

Want more?

Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last couple of weeks:

Bloomberg News’s Curious Interpretation of Editorial Independence

Buttigieg’s ‘big tent’ appeal rises in Silicon Valley

Why Virginia Democrats’ Refusal To Repeal ‘Right-To-Work’ Law Matters

Trump Stocks His Cabinet Increasingly With Business Lobbyists

AOC Raised More for Reelection Campaign Last Quarter Than All Other House Dems, Including Pelosi

November Update on the State of Independent Federal Agencies

Revolving Door Project and Allies Call for Personnel-Focused Debate Questions

Newsletter 24: Will moderators listen?

2020 (and Potentially 2021)

If you have been following this newsletter for any length of time, you are familiar with our frequent laments that moderators and commentators so rarely ask presidential candidates about the thing presidents actually do: appoint personnel. But earlier this month, something strange happened; CNN commentator Angela Rye broke with the norm. Specifically, she pressed Senator Elizabeth Warren to name three black leaders who she “ha[s] to have” in her Cabinet. Pinch us, we must be dreaming! 

Of course, ultimately, we want to hear from candidates about more than just specific names for cabinet appointments. The president is tasked with filling thousands of roles and to do so effectively must articulate a set a criteria by which potential appointees will be assessed. (They can look to this piece by Demand Progress’ David Segal on the current independent agency nomination fight for some ideas of what those criteria could be.) Nonetheless, Rye’s question was a good start for a media environment that otherwise ignores the importance of executive branch personnel altogether. Hopefully, this is a sign of more to come. 

We were less than impressed, however, with Elizabeth Warren’s response to the question. Among those she named was former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who was working at Bain Capital until just a few days ago. Commentators and Twitter users were quick to jump on Patrick’s ties to Bain, but incredibly, his time at Bain may be the least offensive private sector stint on his resume. Patrick embodies the exact type of transactional relationship to public service that the Revolving Door Project exists to combat. From Texaco to Coca-Cola to subprime mortgage lender Ameriquest, Patrick has routinely lent his credibility — earned through his work at the head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division — to bad actors, thereby shielding them from consequences for their actions. Needless to say, we don’t believe that Patrick should have a place in the next administration. Warren’s inclusion of him on her list of names was at odds with her broader, commendable commitments.

Her response, however, highlights why questions like these are so important. Knowing this now, voters can express their disapproval and push her and other candidates to formulate their personnel plans more thoughtfully. Voters are better off when informed about how the next president would actually wield power. Questions like these should feature prominently across the presidential campaign discourse. Candidates leaning on high dollar donors who are less transparent about their associations — like Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, neither of whom is disclosing his campaign’s bundlers — should face particular scrutiny. 

Indeed, we just learned that one of Buttigieg’s advisers on climate issues takes fossil fuel funding and was a Trump Administration witness defending climate inaction just last year

We are grateful, though, that we’re not the only ones insisting that personnel be a bigger part of the conversation. Last week, 15 organizations, including Americans for Financial Reform, Demand Progress, Center for Popular Democracy, Open Markets Institute, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Public Citizen, joined us to call on tonight’s debate moderators to ask candidates about personnel. You can find that letter here

We will be watching closely to see if moderators heed our calls. Follow along @revolvingdoorDC for our live analysis!

Congressional Oversight of the Executive Branch

We’ve consistently argued, here and elsewhere, for a broader impeachment inquiry. In our view, House lawmakers must not only target Trump for Ukraine-gate but also investigate his many assaults on Americans’ kitchen table concerns. 

This is not, however, the only sense in which lawmakers should view their impeachment mandate more broadly. In addition to expanding the universe of issues they consider, lawmakers should also broaden their investigations to include more members of the administration. By now it should be clear that Trump is not the only one who should face impeachment. 

The House should start with Attorney General William Barr. In early October, the Project’s Jeff Hauser and Max Moran laid out the case for Barr’s impeachment. It has only grown stronger in the interim. At every step of the way, Barr has exhibited no qualms about breaking the rules to protect this President. Nor is he coy about his intentions. At a Federalist Society convention late last week he laid out his philosophy of total executive branch power in all of its horrifying detail. Congress cannot let Barr’s project to subvert the system of checks and balances proceed unchallenged. 

While Barr is the most obvious case, his is decidedly not the only one. Lawmakers should also open an investigation into Mick Mulvaney’s misconduct. His wrongdoing goes well beyond the Ukraine affair. Last week, for example, we learned that his defense that OMB delays aid for political reasons “all the time” was not mere hyperbole. In 2017, Mulvaney held up anti-tank missiles that were destined for Ukraine because he was worried about the Russian government’s reaction. Needless to say, his actions overstepped the bounds of his authority and are worthy of further investigation.  

There are doubtless others, from Pompeo to Pence and more. Trump’s rot extends well beyond his person. Lawmakers cannot hope to fight back against it without targeting the president’s accomplices as well. 

Hall of Shame:  Over the course of the last few months we have been treated to one story after another detailing how opportunity zones, supposedly designed to bring investment to struggling communities, have been benefiting friends of the Trump administration. Concerns about opportunity zones are not new, but these stories have thrust them into the spotlight. With this new attention comes a question: why isn’t the Ways and Means committee investigating? Earlier this month Chair Richard Neal joined Senator Ron Wyden in requesting documents from Steven Mnuchin about one case, but he could be doing so much more. The public is demanding answers, and the Ways and Means committee is the only body not controlled by the president’s steadfast allies at present that can oblige. It must investigate opportunity zones using all of the weapons in its arsenal, including but not ending with subpoenas.

Spotlight: Maxine Waters continues to use her committee to pursue some of the country’s worst corporate actors. This week, it was private equity’s turn under the microscope. Yesterday, HFSC members questioned experts (including the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s own Eileen Appelbaum) to better understand private equity’s business model. Questioning from Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Katie Porter stood out, as usual. Hopefully Waters will follow up on this successful effort by calling executives of the largest private equity firms to give testimony. 

This Week in Tech

It's almost getting old to beat up on Facebook — sorry, FACEBOOK — at this point, but we highly recommend you check out this analysis from Sludge showing Mark Zuckerberg's lobbying shop is stacked with revolving-door figures connected to House Democratic leadership. Meanwhile, reporting from Popular Information showed that the actual chiefs of Facebook's lobbying operation are all lifelong Republicans, and that the Federalist Society's well-protested dinner for Brett Kavanaugh this week was subsidized by Facebook

No one should be surprised that Facebook plays the influence game in a bipartisan manner, but even this reporting understates the extent to which it's throwing money around Washington. A Politico analysis found Facebook spent more money on K Street ($4.1 million) than any other single company this year, with Amazon a close second ($4 million). Our own analysis finds that of the 51 lobbyists who performed registered lobbying for Facebook in 2018, all but two were former employees in Congress or the White House. One of those two was a high-ranking navy officer, and the other de-registered as a lobbyist this year.

Of course, registered lobbying is just one branch of the influence game. We've been digging into Big Tech's donations to think tanks around town, and were glad to see Bloomberg Law do some similar muckraking this week. They write about the Center for Democracy and Technology, whose heavy corporate donations (including from Facebook and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative) we and others have covered. CDT sponsored an event on Friday titled "The Future of Speech Online" alongside the Charles Koch Institute and Freedom Forum Institute.

Naturally, the Koch-funded forum discussed the myriad ways governments censor or surveil our online lives (which is an extremely worthy topic to explore), but failed to even acknowledge that the private sector does the same. An early panel on the “technology of censorship” featured, as its sole U.S. politics expert, an analyst from the Koch organization Americans for Prosperity. A later presentation on the “technology of empowerment” included a Pinterest lobbyist who oh-so-conveniently kept circling back to the importance of Section 230, the legal code which protects websites from being held liable for their user-generated content. Koch has risen to Big Tech’s defense on Section 230 and other issues. Other speakers like Jason Feifer of Entrepreneur Magazine promised to “defang the worries of today and prime the successes of tomorrow.” If CDT, Koch, and the Freedom Forum Institute truly want an open internet where debate and dissent can thrive, why control the message so vigorously? 

Independent Agencies

Last week, we took our independent agency argument straight to the Senate. In a memo shared with all Senate offices we, along with the Demand Progress Education Fund, sought to make clear the severity of the crisis in independent agency appointments and encouraged lawmakers to respond. In past newsletters, and in our monthly blog posts, we have highlighted the imbalance between Republicans and Democrats in vacancies. As of the date we sent the memo, 22 percent of Republican seats were vacant versus 32 percent of Democratic seats. 

For the memo, we expanded on that observation to determine the relative lengths of time a seat is vacant or expired without a nomination depending on its party affiliation. Our findings are striking. On average, seats that are destined for Republicans will sit for 331 days without a nomination versus 440 days for Democratic seats. Similarly, according to our findings, Democratic independent agency officials serve an average of 521 days in expired seats without a pending nomination for a successor, while Republicans serve an average of 433 days, or about three months fewer. 

These disparities are not mere coincidence but the result of a concerted effort on the part of President Trump, Mitch McConnell, and others to undermine partisan balance at independent agencies. It is our contention that these attacks should not be costless, now or in the future. For our full analysis, read the memo here.  

Want more?

Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last couple of weeks:

Big Tech’s Yes Men Reassure Each Other at Harvard Law Conference

Dems Must Confront GOP Attacks On Independent Agencies; also in Politico Morning Money (11/13/2019)

Committee on Ways and Means Must Investigate Opportunity Zones

Washington Post Daily 202 (11/13/2019)

We Went on a Bus Tour of Trump’s D.C. Swamp

Freshman Democrats Seek to Make Corporate Oversight Routine Again

Calls for AG Barr’s Impeachment Intensify After ‘Lunatic Authoritarian’ Federalist Society Speech

Biden Accuses Warren of 'Elitism' While Wooing Rich Donors at Big-Money Fundraiser

Less Drowsy Congress Still Less Observant than Bank Lobbyists

Newsletter 23: If only civil society spent less time complaining about Washington DC and more time understanding how DC works and how it can be fixed.

2020 (and Potentially 2021)

It is not often that we tell you to take cues from analysts at Barclays. Yet today we are making a rare exception because, unlike most others tracking presidential politics, it appears Barclays’ analysts are giving careful consideration to executive power. Last week, a leaked “Warren administration policy heatmap” from the Barclays research department showed which flanks of her platform a President Elizabeth Warren could achieve via presidential authority and which would require legislation. It is nearly evenly divided. 

Of course, we don’t endorse the motivation behind such an analysis; Barclays is undoubtedly gearing up to oppose all of these actions, both on the campaign trail and after the next president’s inauguration. There is still, however, something to learn from their orientation. For too long, only proponents of narrow, corporate interests like Barclays have been attentive to executive branch power. It is time that that changed, and that advocates for the public interest gave careful consideration to the potential for presidential authority to advance progress. Most importantly, it is time that we started assessing presidential candidates on their explicit commitment to that goal.  

No candidate has been as forthcoming on this front as we would like and, unfortunately, Barclays “heatmaps” for other candidates have not leaked. Without explicit commitment, we continue to look elsewhere, to candidates’ donors, for hints about their intentions. And the last week has provided a wealth of new clues. 

Following lackluster fundraising in the third quarter and facing a cash crisis, the Biden campaign threw open the doors to an outside super PAC late last month. Although we do not yet know who is contributing to the new Unite the Country PAC, we have learned who is leading the effort. It is not encouraging. The PAC’s leadership includes numerous corporate lobbyists who have advocated on behalf of the healthcare, weapons, and finance industries. What sort of rewards await these deep-pocketed, well-connected individuals if they are able to save Biden’s floundering effort?

Super PAC organizers and contributors are not the only ones we should be worried about, however. In particular, we remain concerned about the overall lack of transparency around bundlers. Those who fundraise for a campaign are far more likely to earn posts in the next administration. Candidates should follow the precedents of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and yes, even Rudy Giuliani and release information about their bundlers. We made that case here last week. 

Congressional Oversight of the Executive Branch

As you surely know, House Democrats voted last week to affirm their ongoing impeachment inquiry. Although the vote received a tremendous amount of attention, it has changed very little, other than to clarify the procedures lawmakers will follow from here on out. That is both good and bad. 

On the one hand, the resolution did not seek to narrow the scope of the inquiry, despite hints that several key lawmakers were leaning in that direction. Instead, it acknowledged and endorsed the ongoing non-Ukraine-related investigative work of numerous committees, including Financial Services, Oversight and Reform, and Ways and Means.

On the other hand, House Democrats did not elect to expand the inquiry along the lines that we have suggested by, for example, endorsing an Energy and Commerce Committee investigation into Trump’s efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act. We made the case for such a line of inquiry in Talking Points Memo last week and continue to believe that such “kitchen table” offenses must be incorporated into the House’s impeachment effort. We hope that, upon their return from recess, House Democrats will change their stance. 

Fears that impeachment would force all other congressional activity to a halt have proven (foreseeably) unfounded. Last week, Rep. Peter DeFazio held a belated hearing with the CEO of Boeing, Dennis Muilenberg, on the anniversary of the Lion Air crash. More than anything, the hours of testimony demonstrated clearly why corporations cannot be allowed to regulate themselves. At every step of the process, Boeing prioritized profit over safety, with ultimately fatal consequences. Yet, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Muilenberg continued to insist that stricter regulation was not necessary and that Boeing remained qualified to inspect its own planes. In other words, even following two fatal accidents, Boeing continues to prioritize its profits above all else. If that doesn’t convince you that they need more oversight, we’re not sure what will. 

Last week, Rep. DeFazio took tentative steps towards more aggressive oversight when he issued his first subpoena to the General Services Administration for information about the Trump Hotel. In light of Muilenberg’s defiance and Boeing’s obvious willingness to withhold information from the committee, we believe it is more important than ever that DeFazio subpoena Boeing as well. 

Hall of Shame: Throughout this year, we have urged lawmakers to take a more adversarial stance against some of this country’s largest corporations and force them to answer for their reprehensible actions. Several members of the Ways and Means Committee have not only failed to heed that advice, but are running in exactly the opposite direction into the arms of some of the worst corporate actors. Last week, several Ways and Means members, including chair Richard Neal, joined insurance giant AIG for its 100th anniversary celebration held, inexplicably, in the committee’s hearing room. Lawmakers in attendance reportedly heaped praise on the company, seemingly forgetting its not-too-distant role in crashing the economy. It seems, then, that we shouldn’t expect any efforts by Ways and Means to hold AIG and others accountable.

Spotlight: Elsewhere, however, some lawmakers are heeding our calls for greater corporate oversight. Last week, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) introduced “The Greater Supervision in Banking Act,” which would require that the CEOs of the Globally Systemically Important Banks (G-SIBs) testify before the House Financial Services Committee and the Senate Banking Committee at least once per year. This hardly seems a radical proposal, but given the fact that these CEOs had not been asked to testify for over a decade before being called for an HFSC hearing earlier this year, it is a big departure from the status quo. 

This Week in Tech

Reps. Anna Eshoo and Zoe Lofgren introduced a new national data privacy bill yesterday. We’d need some more time to review the bill to form a full opinion, but its lack of preemption language already makes it better than the New Democrat-endorsed bill we wrote about in The American Prospect.

The Eshoo-Lofgren bill would create a brand-new Digital Privacy Agency with explicit power over online spaces and the same fine-inducing and legal injunction powers as the Federal Trade Commission. Considering the massive, and warranted, flop of the FTC’s messaging about its historically large Facebook fine (which was just a drop in the bucket against the company’s overall funds), one wonders if a new internet regulator would need a bit more oomph to its powers. But if Congress creates a new agency to address data privacy, then the executive branch will need appointees to fill it.

Which brings us to the Knight Foundation’s latest round of funding for academics and think tankers studying technology’s impact on democracy. Knight deliberately funded groups and individuals who run the gamut ideologically, but several owe some sort of past favor to the tech industry and its corporate allies. There’s an AEIer who lobbied for Paypal and worked for a cryptocurrency trade group, and a past board chair of the notoriously industry-friendly (and industry-funded) think tank Center for Democracy and Technology. If these are to be the bright new thinkers in a post-techlash world, how many would be willing to bite the hand that fed them, should they wind up in a top job? 

Independent Agencies

President Trump’s remarkable failure to nominate replacements for vacancies on the Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s boards received some unusual attention this week. But those seats are far from the only ones that are languishing vacant or expired.  In fact, as we highlight in our October Independent Agency Update, there are a total of 80 seats that are either vacant or expired out of the 182 seats that we track (48 are vacant and 32 are expired). Meanwhile, Trump has only put forward 30 nominations for those seats. 

Nor are these vacancies, expired seats, and nominations evenly distributed across partisan lines. In all, 40 percent of Republican seats are either vacant or expired versus 52 percent of Democratic seats. And 16 of the nominations that Trump has advanced are for Republican seats versus 6 nominations for Democratic seats. For more details, check out the blog post

Despite the fact that these numbers tell a story of crisis, it can be hard to get people to care about these agencies, especially since their relevance to our everyday lives is not always clear or direct. It is, therefore, important to seize on cases where their importance is clear. Take, for example, the Federal Communication Commission’s Lifeline program which subsidizes phone plans for people with low incomes. New rules to prevent fraud appear to be pushing many eligible people out of the program altogether. As the Center for Public Integrity’s reporting on this effectively underlines, having access to a phone is not merely a luxury but a necessity today. Losing it can have wide ripple effects on everything from health to employment and more. The FCC, however, is refusing to acknowledge that there may be a problem and has been rejecting requests to delay the new rules’ implementation while issues are worked out. 

This sort of callousness should be getting more attention from members of Congress (who could conduct oversight of the commission generally and the Lifeline program specifically) and from presidential candidates (who could use it as an opportunity to talk about how their administration would do things differently). 

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 Impeachable Offense That Democrats Should Stop Ignoring; also in Washington Post Happy Hour Roundup (11/1/2019)

Joe Biden is desperate for campaign cash — but he’s staying quiet about who will be raising it for him

Trump’s Hidden Attention to Detail in Avoiding Accountability

Rick Smith Show 11/2/2019

Trump Irks Agency Behind the Jobs Report. Now Researchers Are Ready to Walk

October Update on the State of Independent Federal Agencies

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