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