Are Democrats Worried About Appointments Now?

The brewing battle over Ruth Bader Ginsburg's seat makes it clearer than ever that personnel is policy.

It would be nice to live in a time when the nation could mourn the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg without immediately needing to mobilize for war over her vacant seat. Sadly, we do not live in such times. Mitch McConnell is not the sort of man to respectfully hold off on an opportunity to fulfill his lifelong ambition of securing rule-by-conservative-minority through the courts.

Our Eleanor Eagan and Jeff Hauser laid out the arrows in Congressional Democrats’ quivers for stopping McConnell in the New Republic on Tuesday. As they make clear, there’s no guarantee that any procedural tactics — from withholding the unanimous consent needed to speed action along on the Senate floor, to barraging McConnell with impeachment articles that he’s Constitutionally forced to prioritize — will work. But for one thing, the stakes are so high that any sort of restraint is unacceptable. For another, an impeachment barrage is the right thing to do anyway. We’ve been laying out cases for re-impeaching Trump and his associates like Bill Barr since 2019.

But as always, House Democrats’ biggest barrier is their own leader, Nancy Pelosi. While she hasn’t ruled out an impeachment barrage, she waved the white flag on one of her biggest points of leverage before the Supreme Court fight even began, by haggling with Steven Mnuchin over a budget deal to...give the public nothing, and just keep the dysfunctional government afloat for a few more months. On Monday, in a turn unsurprising to anyone who knows how the Overton Window works, McConnell announced opposition to Pelosi’s continuing resolution deal, shifting the terms of debate for an eventual budget deal even further to the right.

As Paul Waldmann wrote at the American Prospect, “power is something Democrats in Washington think far too little about.” Or, as comedian Kylie Brakeman put it in response to Pelosi’s latest effort to lead by tweet, “That’s right, pass it on to people in power! Not to me, though, I’m just a lil’ Speaker of the House!”

Still, hopelessness accomplishes nothing. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, ever fearless and clear-eyed, has made herself the new face of the fight over the Supreme Court. Her Green New Deal co-sponsor Ed Markey seconded progressive non-profit Demand Progress’ terms for the court fight — if McConnell jams a nominee through, Democrats will unpack the courts McConnell has been packing since Obama’s presidency. Even Senator Chuck Schumer, perhaps fearful of a primary challenge in 2022, is getting on board with actually meeting the moment, “norms” be damned. Remember that early polling shows strong majorities of the population, including about a third of Republicans, agree that whoever wins on Nov. 3 should fill the vacancy. It’s just one of many appointments the next President will have to make, as we always remind you (Politico’s Alex Thompson reminded readers of our personnel work in this piece today!) But if the Supreme Court fight finally motivates Democrats to think seriously about power, it is long and tragically overdue.

2020 (And Potentially 2021)

As the United Nations celebrates a subdued 75th anniversary in the midst of a global pandemic, we are reminded of the current US administration’s continued commitment to isolationist rhetoric including unilaterally issuing sanctions on Iran and vaccine nationalism. 

This past Monday, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Iran’s defense ministry, with Secretary Pompeo stating

“Rather than wait for the day that Iran threatens the world with a nuclear weapon, the United States is again fulfilling the best traditions of American global leadership and taking responsible action”

It is quite ridiculous that despite pulling out of the multilateral nuclear accord in 2018, Trump and his henchmen, Pompeo and Mnuchin, believe they can dictate global policy to other nations. Unsurprisingly, their latest efforts have been quickly dismissed by European counterparts. Yet Biden’s main foreign policy advisors, Tony Blinken and Michele Flournoy, have both indicated that the candidate will keep these measures in place if he wins the race. That is not welcome news. 

The Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is one of the more successful diplomatic agreements of the past decade and we need executive leadership that recognizes the importance and benefits of fostering good foreign policy decisions through multinational cooperation. Also, as Democrats mull over a replacement for Eliot Engel as House Foreign Affairs Committee chair, economic sanctions relief must be prioritized as an essential promise from all candidates. 

A few months ago, President Trump made the irresponsible decision of formally withdrawing from the World Health Organization even as the novel coronavirus ravaged through millions of lives at home and abroad. Keeping up with this spirit of casting international cooperation as the enemy, Trump, as well as China and Russia, has refused to participate in COVAX, the WHO sponsored vaccine distribution program. The program hopes to pool money from member states and ensure volume guarantees from vaccine candidates to discourage global hoarding. While Trump’s decision to focus only on providing vaccines domestically with Operation Warp Speed may lead to an availability of doses for Americans, we’ve clearly seen in the past year or so that the virus is not confined by borders. As CEPR’s Dean Baker puts it, “It’s not vaccine nationalism, it’s vaccine idiocy.” Thus, we cannot fully move past it and return to normal without a coordinated international response.  

Congressional Oversight

Before this week, only a handful of suspicious activity reports — the forms banks send the federal government when they think a client is laundering money — had ever been publicly disclosed. That all changed when Buzzfeed News and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists began publishing a wave of bombshell stories they’re calling “the FinCEN Files,” based on a leaked trove of thousands of SARs.

The reports mostly confirm in eye-popping detail what everyone has always suspected: the global financial system is riddled with crime; name-brand Wall Street banks facilitate funds for terrorist financiers, drug smugglers, and sex traffickers; and the regulatory cops on the beat are too overwhelmed, under-resourced, and disrespected by the banks and their own bosses to do anything about it. Most SARs go unread, and fewer still are acted upon. “Enforcement” usually means deferred prosecution agreements — the government agrees not to press charges if the bank promises to clean up its act, which the bank never does. It’s cheaper for the overwhelmed regulators (as SARs have doubled over the last decade, FinCEN cut its staff by more than 10 percent), but leaves the system rotting in place. Meanwhile, the banks treat SARs as get-out-of-jail-free cards. Wall Streeters often continue lucrative business with global criminals simply because they file SARs afterwards; once the government has been informed, it’s the Feds’ problem, not the banks.

This should be an overdue wake-up call to any Biden Treasury Secretary (FinCEN is a bureau of the Treasury.) As Robert Kuttner reports at the American Prospect, the current odds-on favorite for that job is Lael Brainard, who’s inched toward progressive affect over the years, but is fundamentally an institutionalist who represents the non-populist wing of the Democratic Party ascendant in the early Obama years. The FinCEN files throw the failures of those institutions into stark relief. They truly were never sufficient, even before Trump and Mnuchin dynamited most of them. If Brainard wants to prove that she isn’t just making friendly with progressives for short-term political gain, she can start by listening to lefties’ recommended reforms in light of these documents.

Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, unsurprisingly, have led the response. Warren called for a new Treasury unit independent of FinCEN, while Sanders said simply “break them up.” That, after all, is perhaps the only ultimate solution to a system of banks Too Big To Manage, Too Big To Prosecute, and Too Big To Fail. If you’ve been understandably distracted by the other dozen crises right now, here are a few of the lowlights Congress ought to investigate:

  •  After whistleblowers showed the FBI that British bank Standard Chartered was laundering Iranian money, the bureau did only a cursory investigation, tipped the bank off to one of the whistleblowers’ names, and let the crime continue for six years.

  • The Department of Justice extended Standard Chartered’s deferred prosecution agreement on the Iranian money laundering six times over seven years.

  • The Department of the Treasury refused to freeze Kaloti Jewellery Group out of the global financial system despite a strong case that it was laundering drug trafficking cash, out of fear of angering the United Arab Emirates.

  • JPMorgan Chase facilitated $89.2 million of business in just two years between individuals linked to North Korea, including smuggling arms into the country. The bank reported the transactions to FinCEN, then continued taking the smugglers’ money. Overwhelmed FinCEN regulators didn’t follow up.

  • After the DOJ fined it $1.9 billion for doing business with El Chapo, HSBC continued laundering money around the world for Ponzi schemers and others. The bank’s compliance staff threatened regulators with slashing jobs in the Rust Belt if they didn’t back off from investigations. HSBC is now in the middle of three deferred prosecution agreements.

Governance

While the Justice Department’s lawsuit against Google appears imminent, the New York Times decided to take another look at the 2007 Google-DoubleClick merger, a $3.1 billion deal that today exemplifies why “lawmakers need to broadly rethink how mergers are regulated” in the tech industry. But the Times glosses over one secret of how the deal was approved in the first place — they quote an anonymous former FTC commissioner, who wouldn’t go on the record due to “potential conflicts with clients of his firm.” Maybe the regularity with which former officials end up working for tech industry giants is a contributing factor to the merger-approval rubber-stamp factory at the enforcement agencies? And perhaps it’s not actually true that, as the anonymous former commissioner suggests, “no one foresaw the power that tech platforms like Google, Facebook and Amazon would amass.” 

We’ve written on one of the revolving door lawyers who pushed for the Google-DoubleClick deal before. In our investigation of the FTC and BigLaw figures who approved the Covidien-Newport merger, (which forestalled medical officials’ plans to build a ventilator stockpile), we looked at the career of Michael McFalls, a former FTC official turned BigLaw counsel who uses his expertise to gain merger approval for his pharma and med-tech clients, including Covidien. Turns out, McFalls advised DoubleClick when it was bought up by Google in 2007. He’s also a Democratic donor who maxed out donations to the 2012 Obama and 2016 Clinton campaigns. McFalls represents the type of opportunistic former official who might seek out power in a future Biden administration — and as we wrote back then, Biden shouldn’t let such figures back into the agencies to continue the endless cycle of harmful merger approvals, even if ostensibly Democratic-aligned. 

Amidst Americans’ growing concerns about the overwhelming economic and political power of Big Tech, antitrust enforcement is being recognized as a vital tool to rein in these giants. This fact, of course, is not lost on tech executives — we recently wrote in the American Prospect on the tech industry’s attempts to infiltrate the Biden transition and sway future policy. These attempts take the form of would-be appointees with similar trajectories of leaving government service for cushy gigs at the corporations they once oversaw. Now, more than ever, Biden has an opportunity to stand up to the tech industry by barring individuals with corporate conflicts of interest from a future administration, and set the stage for ending the revolving door culture at the antitrust enforcement agencies for good. 

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

The Battle To Define The Biden Economic Team, Explained

Democratic Donors Push Biden For A Cabinet Free Of Fossil Fuel Connections

What A Defiant Democratic Party Looks Like

Left Collects Wins On Biden Transition

Liberalish: The Complex Odyssey of Lael Brainard

Congress Knocks on the Transition Team’s Door

Newsletter 51: Will Biden embrace this key ethical standard?

Far away from the decisions about advertising, the debate prep and the carefully curated Instagram posts, a small but growing team is beginning to make some of the most consequential decisions about a Joe Biden administration’s composition and priorities. The power that this select group of unelected individuals has is astounding. But as a Dear Colleague letter from Rep. Raúl Grijalva this week makes clear, it is far from unchecked. 

2020 (and potentially 2021)

While presidential transition teams operate in relative secrecy prior to the election, they do not carry out their work in a vacuum. As we’ve detailed in past editions, through team membership and continuous lobbying, groups from industry (unfortunately) and, increasingly, civil society work to exert influence over the process. 

But these are not the only, nor indeed, the most crucial stakeholders from which the team must earn buy-in. To enact the most effective possible presidential agenda, a Biden administration will need help from Congress in confirming his choices for over a thousand jobs. How readily available that cooperation turns out to be will depend, in part, on results in key Senate races. 

But even if Democrats retake the Senate, it seems the transition team may not be able to count on lawmakers to accept any old nominee. In a letter to his colleagues this week (which, full disclosure, Revolving Door Project enthusiastically endorsed) Rep. Raúl Grijalva called on Senate leaders to “oppose Senate confirmation of any nominee to an executive branch position who is currently or has been a lobbyist for any corporate client or officer for a private corporation, in this or any future administration.” If a critical mass of lawmakers join, it will be a force with which the transition team has no choice but to contend. 

Grijalva’s letter lays out a stronger standard than any that have come before. But, notably, the Biden campaign has actually not yet explicitly committed to replicating the lobbyist ban that President Obama instituted in 2009. That standard, which failed to distinguish between private and public sector lobbyists, was not perfect. But it was a significant commitment to building an administration that took ethics seriously. And, as Rep. Grijalva’s letter demonstrates, it is possible to refine the standard such that those working for the public interest are not shut out. 

It will be important that the incoming administration independently commit itself to strong ethical standards like these, even if lawmakers come together to push for them from the outside. A Biden administration will need to clear over 1000 nominees through the Senate but that still leaves approximately 3000 appointees who can be installed without input from Congress. Some of these positions are minor, but, as our Max Moran writes for The American Prospect this week, some -- like the White House Chief of Staff -- wield tremendous power.

And this role is likely to take on outsized importance in a Biden administration. As Moran writes, “Biden may have been a centrist standard-bearer over the decades, but he was never an ideological one—he just knows which way the wind is blowing.” That has been abundantly clear over the past several months as the pandemic and associated economic crisis have pushed Biden to embrace positions that would have been unthinkable even at the start of this year. But the proper calibration of Biden’s weather vane will depend on the winds people like the chief of staff allow it to come in contact with. A good chief of staff can ensure that Biden is hearing from the people he needs to in order to craft a response that meets the moment. A corporate friendly chief of staff, like influence industry maven Steve Ricchetti, could undermine almost all meaningful action. 

Congressional Oversight

Meanwhile, back in Congress, some Democratic members of the House are beginning to advocate that the caucus accept Senate Republicans’ “skinny” coronavirus bill for fear of the electoral consequences should they fail to deliver any relief before November. It is clearly true that more help is urgently needed, but it is hard to fathom why blowback for the delay should fall on House Democrats. After all, they did pass a major package in May and it is clearly Senate Republicans who are standing in the way of relief. Of course, passing said bill might have had more of an effect if the party’s leadership hadn’t insisted on emphasizing from the start that the HEROES Act was merely a messaging maneuver, not a serious opening offer. And if they were worried that that underwhelmingly marketed set of relief measures would lose what little salience it may have had over time, they could have kept passing it to keep their commitment to fighting on behalf of the public top of mind (as well as to help challengers to McConnell’s lazy and indifferent Senate majority). Instead, it seems the messaging bill has been jettisoned as promised in favor of strategy to meet Mitch McConnell in a middle ground he gets the power to dictate. 

A sober assessment of House Democrats’ failures thus far would suggest that accepting the smaller bill is the last thing they should be considering right now. Leadership’s unwillingness to flex its muscle in March to secure funding for states and municipalities, for mail-in voting, for more automatic stabilizers, or for real oversight measures, is an important factor in how we’ve found ourselves in such a mess at this critical moment. If they don’t fight for what we need now, it’s unclear when it will come. 

Such a righteous fight should be easy to message, especially if House leadership gets out of the way and allows for complementary oversight that uncovers the depths of this administration’s mismanagement, the dire consequences of that incompetence, and Republican lawmakers’ complicity.

That leadership needs to step out of the way of good oversight is a theme that is gaining wider traction. In The New Republic yesterday, Matt Ford juxtaposed Pelosi’s fiery statement on reports that ICE is performing forced hysterectomies on detainees and her underwhelming substantive action: calling for an Inspector General investigation. Faced with this stark contrast and the realities of slow-moving congressional inquiries, Ford concluded that lawmakers should be empowered to undertake investigations of detention facilities independently

Hopefully, beyond merely considering creative proposals like this one, congressional lawmakers are reflecting on the structural failures that have impeded oversight over the past two years. The centralization of decision-making and action on oversight is clearly one of the constraints. More broadly, however, it has become apparent that Congress is not adequately prepared to counter authoritarian threats. One can hope that there will be some will to fix that glaring flaw moving forward. 

Governance

More broadly, the post-Trump era (whenever that may be) must include a period of careful reflection on the institutional failures that have been lurking below the surface but became glaringly apparent in the last few years. Past transitions have featured a reticence to look backwards, an impulse that may seem noble on the surface but that has allowed deep wounds to fester. Only by facing the last few years head on will we be able to address the institutional breakdowns, like the precarity of Inspectors General, the weaknesses in congressional oversight powers and the many, many loopholes in ethics law. 

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

Biden’s Big Test: Selecting a White House Chief of Staff

Congressional Leader Lays Down Marker in Revolving-Door Battle

Wall Street fundraisers turn into wallflowers during 2020 U.S. election

The Biden Adviser Who Gives Climate Activists Nightmares

Black progressives denounce claims they want Wall Street insiders in Biden cabinet

Postal Service Stiffed $20 Million Cost of Delivering Trump COVID-19 Mailer

Being the Next New Deal President Requires More Than Just Good Policy

Newsletter 50: FDR thought “personnel is policy” before it was cool

2020 (and potentially 2021)

Now that the party conventions are over, the process of planning for a potential transition begins in earnest. On Saturday, CNN reported that the Biden campaign has expanded its transition team and established a new advisory board to contribute to the transition effort. Like most of the Biden campaign’s concrete actions thus far, the newly announced membership can best be described as a mixed bag for those hoping to reduce corporate influence in the next administration. Alongside a handful of trusted labor leaders and other progressive figures are some more troubling individuals who remain closely tied to private sector interests. 

Take Jeffrey Zients, one of the team’s newest co-chairs, who was until recently running the Cranemere Group, a Berkshire Hathaway-esque holding company. As David Dayen details in his latest book, Monopolized, such companies’ profits are dependent on consolidation and monopolization (solutions for which a Biden administration would have a great deal of power to implement). We know from his time in the Obama administration that Zients is not particularly effective at separating his private sector mindset from the task of governing in the public interest. He once referred to corporate CEOs as the federal government’s customers! 

The Biden team also elected to bring on a former Associate General Counsel on regulatory policy for Facebook, Jessica Hertz, as a staffer. With each passing day it becomes clearer than ever that Facebook’s dominance and shocking lack of accountability is a threat to safety and democracy; it is frankly surprising that amidst this reckoning the Biden team would elevate someone who until recently was responsible for shielding the company from even a modicum of regulatory action. (Of course, Zients himself was on Facebook’s Board of Directors until less than six months ago.)

And then there’s the fact that the campaign has also elevated Pete Buttigieg into an advisory role. While Buttigieg’s recent private sector work is primarily podcasting, it should not be lost that his recent campaign enjoyed overwhelming support from many of corporate America’s most unsavory figures, Big Tech very much included. When paired with his relatively limited experience (and thus non-existent record of meaningful policy commitments), it is worth asking whether he will serve as a door through which corporate America exerts its influence.

The transition team has tremendous power to shape the next administration and determine its priorities. Its membership is, therefore, hugely consequential. In a July letter, 48 groups told the presidential campaigns that, in this moment in which public trust in government has fallen to new lows, “there should be no room for doubt that your selections [of personnel] serve no interest but the public’s.” They further emphasized that “that must start with [your] choice of stewards for the presidential transition.” The Biden campaign elevated some, like Teresa Romero of the United Farm Workers and Felicia Wong of the Roosevelt Institute, who clear this threshold easily. However, it is not clear if the Biden team is feeling sufficient pressure to put these ideals fully into action.

As if that wasn’t enough, The Washington Post reported on Monday that Biden aides have been reassuring Wall Streeters that any talk of economic populism is just a way to appease “the Warren people.”

Some of those quoted attempted to wave away concerns by framing this as a question of pragmatism; a President Biden will be flexible so as to get the best deals possible through Congress. But this misses a key point: Biden will not, primarily be a legislator. And for many of the policies that were specifically cited, like basic Postal Banking, the primary factors constraining Biden will be his own will to act and who he chooses to carry out his agenda. 

In truth, that these factors are very much in flux should hardly come as a surprise. The pandemic has cast a light on the deeper illnesses afflicting this country and Joe Biden has shifted his vision and tone to match the newly obvious scale of the problems we face. But he has not shed all vestiges of his previous self overnight. While the campaign and transition teams include several populist members (thanks in part to early agitation from the left), former lobbyists, executives, and other establishment figures are well-represented as well. 

As Biden looks to FDR’s example, he should take note of more than just his policies. Joe Biden must also emulate Roosevelt’s approach on personnel if he hopes to get transformative policies implemented. Roosevelt promised that, if elected, he would not appoint anyone from the world of finance to his Cabinet and he followed through. Will Biden take this aspect of FDR’s legacy to heart as well?

Congressional Oversight

Panic over changes at the Postal Service has somewhat subsided (although certainly not disappeared) over the past few weeks, but Congress happily has not let up. The House Oversight Committee issued a subpoena to DeJoy last Wednesday after he failed to meet their deadline to turn over requested documents. Then, after reporting from the Washington Post uncovered that DeJoy had been reimbursing his employees at New Breed Logistics for political contributions to his preferred candidates (a violation of state and federal election law), the Committee announced that it was opening an investigation. Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) has also called for the USPS Board of Governors to fire DeJoy following these revelations. 

This is encouraging but, as always, focusing on just one scandal at a time is not enough under Trump’s reign. Every committee needs to be engaged. As is clear from our over 300-tweet-long thread of oversight targets, there is no shortage of work to go around. To take just one recent example, it is exceedingly clear that the Farmers to Families Food Box program in Puerto Rico is lining someone’s pockets at the public’s expense. So where is the House Agriculture Committee?

Beyond the still-too-limited scope of House oversight efforts, there is the matter of tactics. After almost two years of watching traditional oversight mechanisms struggle to produce results in the face of this administration’s lawlessness, House leadership continues to be startlingly reluctant to use other tools in the toolbox like the power of the purse. Time and time again, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has handed this administration what it wants -- clean spending bills -- without demanding any concessions in return. And she appears set to do it again. 

Lawmakers will need to negotiate a continuing resolution before the end of the month if they want to avert a government shutdown. Nancy Pelosi has already indicated that she will negotiate a bill that is free from riders, thus trading away House Democrats’ leverage for what could be the remainder of the Trump presidency. To be clear, that means that they are not using this moment to fight for election funding for states, support for USPS, or conditions that would constrain Trump’s ability to interfere with free and fair elections. With an appropriation that lasts through the election in hand, Trump will have even less incentive to heed Congress’ requests or, indeed, abide by the law, than usual. 

Relying on an election as the final form of oversight on the president really depends on that election not being tilted in favor of the president by the very type of behavior oversight is necessary to prevent. But assuming that House Democrats’ refusal to use their leverage at this moment doesn’t undermine the possibility of a transition, it will still limit their ability to perform critical oversight that could advance that effort come November. As the Biden campaign ramps up its transition planning, Congress could be pursuing a complementary effort to map the challenges that an incoming Biden administration would face. Oversight that seeks to uncover the resource, personnel, and other infrastructural damage with which a Biden administration will have to contend will greatly improve its chances of success. Assuming that is something that Democratic lawmakers want, it seems unwise to sacrifice the leverage that could help them get answers (especially when doing so carries no obvious policy or political benefits). 

Independent Agencies

Aside from the excitement at USPS, it was a relatively slow month in the world of independent agencies. Trump only nominated one person this month, a Republican to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). Just before recess, two new nominees, one Democrat and one Republican, were confirmed to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), restoring that agency to full membership for the first time since February of this year. Overall, however, the situation remains fairly bleak. As of the end of August, out of the 174 positions that we track, 70 were either vacant or expired, with only 26 nominations to fill those languishing seats. The political imbalance in nominations remains, with 16 nominations for Republicans and only 5 for Democrats. 

Governance

The Trump administration has shown itself willing to trample norms around independence and nonpartisanship and break the law in broad daylight, leading us at the Revolving Door Project to worry about what it has been getting up to out of the public eye. Namely, we are concerned that Trump and his cronies could be working to politicize corners of the civil service through hiring, without attracting much public attention. For that reason, we have issued Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to several different departments and agencies for the resumes of senior career hires. As we noted in our announcement for the project, 

Many of our society’s most basic functions depend on the tireless work of over 2 million career officials who ensure that the federal government fulfills its mandates, no matter the party that occupies the White House. One need only look to the chaos that has resulted from this administration’s attacks on the Postal Service – from prescription drugs delayed, to small businesses’ suffering doubly from the pandemic and slowed delivery services – to understand how essential these people and structures are to our daily lives. Any partisan effort to overtake corners of this workforce represents a troubling threat to good governance, now and into the future. 

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

Biden Stiff-Arming Big Tech Would Be Good Politics, Policy

Wall Street Critics Target Biden’s Co-Leader of Transition Team

Revolving Door Project Seeks to Uncover Politicization of Career Hiring Under Trump

August 2020 Update on the State of Independent Federal Agencies 

Liberals try to block Obama centrists from Biden climate team

In Bid for TikTok, Microsoft Flexes Its Power in Washington

Running Mate, 9/1/2020

The Rick Smith Show 8/28/20

Environmentalists to Biden: Say no to fossil fuel advisers

Purity test: Democrats clash over Biden diversity goals

This Massachusetts primary is everything wrong with the Democratic Party

At RNC, Party Endorses Trump’s Every Whim

Newsletter 49: And in Postal Service hearings, Democrats underline why that should scare you

This week’s Republican National Convention, just halfway over, has already featured more than its fair share of implausible, ridiculous, and downright horrifying claims. And RAMPANT criminality neither Pelosi nor much of the media are well-equipped to address. By far the most far-fetched of these was the suggestion that President Trump’s handling of the pandemic has been laudable. But it’s not just Trump’s surrogates who are boosting this wholly unconvincing assertion; the official Republican party is throwing its full support behind “Trump’s impulses” as well, by neglecting to enact a platform. 

So far, those impulses have been towards criminal mismanagement and, sometimes, just plain contempt. Endorsing such a “platform,” just as its deadliest effects are becoming apparent, frankly seems like a political gift to their opponents. Will Democrats capitalize?

Congressional Oversight

Whereas just a few weeks ago it appeared that the answer was a resounding “no,” now there seems to be reason for optimism. The threat to the US Postal Service pushed House Democrats to a fever pitch that hopefully has yet to cool.

After putting up with seemingly endless delays to its oversight efforts over the past year, lawmakers appear to be done waiting. For some, even waiting a week before hearing Postmaster General DeJoy’s testimony was too long to pause the effort to understand the unfolding catastrophe at USPS. 

Rather than simply biding its time, the Congressional Progressive Caucus sought out other sources to advance the investigation. On Thursday, they heard from David Williams, a former USPS Inspector General and board member, who resigned his seat in protest this April. In what turned out to be explosive testimony, Williams detailed a highly unusual process that led to DeJoy’s hiring and troubling, ongoing interference from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Cumulatively, these intrusions led Williams to conclude that USPS’ “independent role had been marginalized" and "representations of an independent postal service for the nation were no longer truthful.”

By getting this information out ahead of the Republican-led Senate hearing scheduled for Friday, the CPC somewhat undercut Senator Ron Johnson’s effort to allow DeJoy to set the narrative before testifying to a “‘hostile’ Democratic-led House panel.” Of course, that timing would have been even more effective had Senator Kamala Harris - a famously sharp cross-examiner - chosen to appear for the remote hearing rather than merely submitting questions in writing and leaving the direct questioning to her more somnolent colleagues. 

The information revealed during that briefing was also undoubtedly a boon to the House Oversight committee’s hearing with Postmaster General DeJoy Monday. If DeJoy had hoped that minor concessions might have earned him some goodwill, he was surely quickly disappointed. Lawmakers did not hold back, skewering DeJoy for his lack of expertise and his callous disregard for the potentially fatal consequences of his reorganization effort. Many also took the opportunity to underline the committee’s willingness to issue a subpoena should DeJoy fail to cooperate with requests for information. Music to our ears!

(Of course, 5 minutes per member remains a ridiculous format. A significant allocation of time to a professional staffer or one of the more facile questioners, like AOC or Porter, to interrogate DeJoy would have been better than the current, antiquated format designed to maximize the number of members generating local television news clips, not understanding gleaned.)

It’s important, however, that the committee not just follow through on the threat of subpoenas but follow up on other promising lines of inquiry. There is, for example, surely more that could be learned from former USPS board member David Williams in an official hearing. Members should also be working to learn more about the Treasury Department’s interference from other sources. How involved was Mnuchin in selecting DeJoy? And how involved was Trump in pushing Mnuchin? These are the sorts of questions the Oversight committee must answer; DeJoy’s testimony is no more than a start.

2020 (and potentially 2021):

With the nomination officially in hand, the Biden-Harris campaign is now reportedly turning more seriously to the question of who will fill their hypothetical administration. There are still, however, very few clear signs about what they’re thinking. For the time being, contradictory assessments and predictions abound, likely because very few concrete decisions have been made. 

Nonetheless, it is clear that the campaign has taken note of the progressive left’s demands on personnel and is making an effort to appease that wing. Senator Sherrod Brown, for example, is reportedly advising Biden on “‘where he needs to look and who he needs to look at’ as he begins to form a potential administration.” 

But that positive signal last week was also accompanied by a much more troubling one. In an interview Wednesday, Ted Kaufman offered the first hints of a Biden administration’s potential turn to austerity. While the campaign later walked back the statement slightly, it’s follow-up still indicated a fundamental discomfort with deficit spending that could severely hamper efforts like the Green New Deal or those to offset mass layoffs by state and local government. The comments were all the more jarring for having come from Kaufman, a man many progressives see as a potential ally in the Biden transition and administration. 

As millions rally to save the Postal Service from Trump, it’s worth noting that some high-ranking deficit hawks in the Obama administration thought privatizing the beloved institution wasn’t such a bad idea. Here, for example, is former Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Peter Orszag arguing for just that in 2012. (It shouldn’t shock you that Orszag is now an investment banker; can you imagine the fees generated in taking the USPS private? We’re confident that Orszag can!)

Independent Agencies

In his testimony to the Congressional Progressive Caucus, former USPS board member David Williams revealed how Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had breached the Postal Service’s independence. While this latest attack is extreme, the animating impulse, to extend executive control over purportedly independent agencies, is troublingly familiar. By strategically withholding or stalling nominations, President Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell have been quietly tightening their grip over critical agencies for years now. 

One such example is the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which took a turn in the spotlight this week after issuing some startling anti-labor decisions. In its first official release of guidance since the start of the pandemic, the NLRB indicated that it did not consider workers’ speaking up about safety conditions related to COVID-19 to qualify as protected speech. 

The normally five member board currently has 4 sitting officials (3 Republicans and 1 Democrat). That should be 3 Republicans and 2 Democrats but Trump has neglected to nominate someone to fill the open seat. 

While it is unlikely that the additional Democrat would have impacted the board’s decision in this case, the vacancy may have severe consequences leading into the next administration. Rather than just needing to confirm one Democrat to retake the board’s majority, a President Biden would now need to get 2 Democratic nominees through the Senate. Depending on the results in November, that may be difficult. As the pandemic continues to rage, the ongoing damage from Trump and Mitch McConnell’s “stealth nuclear option” may well be life or death for many workers. 

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

Biden Back Better?

Kamala Harris's Big Tech Connections

The Revolving Door Project On Aggressive Climate Action From The Executive Branch

Haunted houses band together to lobby for virus relief

Postmaster General Finds Postal Service Sabotage is Harder than Promised

Newsletter 48: He would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those meddling lawmakers!

Even when compared to this year of month-long weeks, the past seven days have been a doozy. From the Vice Presidential announcement to the Democratic National Convention and the rapidly accelerating collapse of the Postal Service, it’s been hard to keep up. Enjoy our attempt to make sense of it all!

Congressional Oversight:

Over the past few months, the news out of USPS has been nothing but worrying. We were quoted in Politico as deeply alarmed in March! But aside from some angry tweets, no one in power really seemed to be doing anything about it. That finally changed over the weekend as the onslaught of increasingly alarming developments was followed by overwhelming pressure for action from the grassroots. 

Early this month, we learned that newly-installed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy had carried out a major organizational shakeup, moving 23 experienced officials into new roles in what looked like a bid for greater control. Then, it came to light that many mail-sorting machines across the country were being decommissioned, putting USPS’ ability to sort flat mail rapidly (like, I don’t know, millions of mail-in ballots) at risk. Soon reports were coming in that mail collection boxes were being removed. And before long, it emerged that USPS had warned 46 states that operational problems could lead to significant delays that disenfranchise many who choose to vote-by-mail this fall. Finally, add to all of this Trump’s alarming assertion that, thanks to mail-in voting, we may not know the presidential election result for “months” or even “years.” 

As the weight of these stories piled up, we at Revolving Door Project began to wonder, will House Democrats do anything other than tweet? And then, they did! 

Thanks to the efforts of thousands (if not millions) who were angered to see the Postal Service and, perhaps, our democratic system crumble before their very eyes and were determined to do something about it, Democrats sprang into action. Suddenly, members across the caucus’ ideological spectrum were calling for the sort of aggressive oversight measures we’ve been clamoring for but that Democratic leadership had made clear were out of the question since the 116th Congress’ start. In a remarkable rebellion against Speaker Pelosi’s line, members demanded that the recess be cancelled, that a hearing with the Postmaster General be called right away, and that the Sergeant-at-Arms be deployed should DeJoy refuse to appear. 

Before long, Pelosi who, until the weekend, seemed perfectly content to limit the House majority’s response to a sternly-worded letter, had listened. She agreed to gavel the House back into session, greenlighted a hearing with DeJoy for next week, and assented to a vote on Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s postal funding bill. Still, members of her caucus continue to keep the pressure on with calls for even more aggressive moves, like a criminal investigation into DeJoy’s conduct. 

That seems to be encouraging other lawmakers to take their oversight task seriously too. In preparation for DeJoy’s testimony next Monday, the House Progressive Caucus will hear from former USPS board member and inspector general David Williams, who many have argued will be a key source in making sense of the current mess. 

Most importantly, however, this new aggressive posture quickly won major concessions from DeJoy. On Tuesday, DeJoy agreed to suspend operational changes to avoid any appearance of election interference.

These are consequential wins that underline the power of the sorts of oversight tactics and targets that Nancy Pelosi has scorned over the past year and a half. Credible threats to use all tools in the House’s toolbox yield results. That is especially true when members are targeting issues that have a direct impact in people’s everyday lives. Spotlighting these sorts of kitchen-table issues is exactly the strategy we encouraged on impeachment. House Democrats’ success here sadly underlines the degree to which their chosen approach was a missed opportunity. 

While they can’t go back in time to rectify their mistakes, they can learn from them. As the project’s Eleanor Eagan and Jeff Hauser wrote in the Daily Beast today, it’s critical that they keep the pressure on. House Democrats must ensure that DeJoy makes good on his promise and reverses any harmful changes that have already been carried out (a commitment they have not yet secured). They have a long list of suggestions for how lawmakers can continue to apply the heat. 

And, of course, we think that Democrats should take this new oversight energy to other targets as well. After failing to hold Trump to account for abandoning Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, we hope that House Democrats are at least as attentive as Ashton Kutcher to Trump’s failed response to the devastation in Iowa following a powerful derecho storm last week. After dragging his feet, Trump approved a disaster declaration that fails to provide aid for homeowners or farmers. Democratic lawmakers should draw attention to this callous abandonment and apply pressure for an improved response. 

Government Capacity:

The Trump administration’s attacks on the Postal Service over the last several months have been extraordinary. But, they are not that far out of step with a well-established pattern on the right in which lawmakers defund necessary institutions and then decry their dysfunction. The Internal Revenue Service comes to mind. Its degradation also represents a crisis for our democracy, if a less acute one in this moment. 

2020 (and potentially 2021):

Any space this week not allocated to the Postal Service crisis seemingly went to stories about Joe Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris for the Vice Presidency. That’s understandable, there’s a lot to say about the historical significance of this moment, her record, and what her selection means for many. One notable subgenre has appeared in this voluminous body of work: corporate industries that are reassured to see Harris on the ticket. Many executives, from Big Tech to Wall Street, reportedly breathed a sigh of relief when her name was announced. 

But, as David Dayen wrote for the American Prospect last week, Harris need not fulfill their expectations. Her record on tech regulation and big bank prosecutions is what it is, there’s no changing that. As Vice President, however, she can chart a different course. Arguably the best way to do that is to fight hard for appointees who are committed to the public interest, rather than her corporate superfans. 

When it comes to tech-relevant appointments, it’s not just domestic policy-focused positions that matter, as the project’s Miranda Litwak and Timi Iwayemi outlined in the American Prospect yesterday. If they are committed to curbing tech’s increasingly awesome power, a Biden-Harris administration will need to appoint public-minded figures with the resolve to take on tech in trade-relevant positions. 

Litwak and Iwayemi also cover a number of other foreign policy personnel priorities in their piece. In addition to being adequately attuned to the tech industry’s power, trade officials should be committed to advancing labor rights and taking on other predatory industries, like pharma. Defense Department appointees will need to be willing to reject the famously cozy relationship between the department and defense contractors. And practically every foreign policy official that the Biden-Harris administration elevates will need to center climate change in everything that they do, because the climate crisis cannot be solved through domestic action alone. 

Some have bristled at progressives’ imposition of litmus tests, but there’s a lot of evidence that these lines in the sand represent good politics as well as good policy. Biden’s failure to take this to heart when it comes to agricultural and anti-monopoly policy is likely to cost him votes, as David Dayen laid out last week. When it comes to anti-monopoly concerns, Biden’s policy platform on agricultural policy is less ambitious than the Obama-Biden platform in 2008. Perhaps more importantly, Biden is being advised by former Secretary of Agriculture-turned-dairy lobbyist Tom Vilsack, who is in no small part responsible for that ambitious platform not seeing the light of day. In the view of many advocates, Biden’s decision to return to “the same old corporate-ag well” is going to make winning back rural America that much harder. 

And it’s not just farmers who bristle when corporate insiders are given top roles to set policy. Data for Progress polling shows that a majority of voters think it’s a problem when officials “oversee an industry they previously lobbied for,” or “an industry that they plan to be an executive in after leaving government” (among other configurations). In short, they don’t like the revolving door. The Biden-Harris ticket should take note. 

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

The Way to Enact a Progressive Foreign-Policy Agenda? Personnel.

Nancy Pelosi Needs to Do More to Save the Postal Service—and the Election

Is Kamala Harris a win for Silicon Valley?

Why Silicon Valley will breathe a sigh of relief if Kamala Harris enters the White House

Farmers Reject Biden’s Pro-Corporate Rural Advisers

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