Corrosive revolving door corruption doesn’t believe in a recess

Newsletter 17: The presidential wing of the Democratic Party seems more responsive to reality than its Congressional counterpart

Personnel remains policy even when many people are on vacation -- hence, this newsletter’s respite is over! However, we won’t blame you if you only skim our latest set of desultory tales from our broken politics if you’re on a beach or in a cabin (even as we insist that we try each go around to highlight some glimmers of optimism).

2020 (and Potentially 2021)

With Congress out, 2020 candidates are seizing on the (marginally) less saturated news environment to release a veritable flood of policy proposals. While these plans still overwhelmingly depend on congressional action, we are starting to see a few more promises relating directly to executive branch power. Below we include a smattering of examples (this list is by no means comprehensive, and as always, none of this should be interpreted as an endorsement):

  • In his criminal justice plan, Sanders promises to “Revitalize the executive clemency process by creating an independent clemency board removed from the Department of Justice and placed in White House.”

  • Warren promises to “revoke the ill-advised and improperly granted permits for the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines,” and ensure that future projects not proceed without “the free, prior and informed consent of the Tribal Nation concerned.”

  • Beto will combat gun violence by “Ensur[ing] that the FBI and DOJ prioritize right wing violence.”

  • Kamala Harris’ gun control plan includes promises to...“Revoke the licenses of gun manufacturers and dealers that break the law and take the most egregious offenders to court” among other things. 

  • Pete Buttigieg will “appoint an FCC Chair who is committed to using better data to provide more equitable [broadband] coverage.” 

At next week’s Climate Town Hall we will hope to hear more about the candidates' plans to use executive power to combat climate change. For an idea of what those promises might look like, check out this Mother Jones piece on what a President can do even without Congress. And, of course, if Congress manages to pass Green legislation, the implementation of such laws will depend significantly on the president’s executive branch team.

However, in addition to laying out explicit proposals and talking more about the personnel who will be responsible for carrying them out, we will also hope to hear more from candidates about their vision for the executive branch. As we wrote in the Daily Beast this week, candidates must not only make good hiring decisions but also “articulat[e] a governing ideology that establishes the values by which [personnel] will be expected to govern.”

And as always, as you watch the debates, assess candidates’ promises with an eye to their donors. You are, for example, sure to hear reference to the ongoing fires in the Amazon and to the necessity of stopping Amazon deforestation. Yet as we’ve previously highlighted, many candidates are receiving support from executives at the private equity firm Blackstone. Blackstone, to the eternal discredit of its senior leadership, holds large investments in companies playing a leading role in the Amazon’s destruction. Blackstone insists that it is “committed to responsible environmental stewardship,” but its actions make clear that those are just empty words. For this and many other reasons, Blackstone should have no role in a future administration; it’s time candidates made clear that they agree. 

Finally, if you haven’t already, you should read these two articles on Demand Justice’s request that the next president not appoint Big Law partners to federal judgeships. An important and very complementary take to our effort to rid the executive branch of dominance by BigLaw!

Congressional Oversight of the Executive Branch

By now it has become clear that Nancy Pelosi’s apparent hope that recess would slow the growth of momentum for impeachment was nothing more than wishful thinking. Voters have showed up in force at impeachment-phobic lawmakers’ in-district events to apply pressure directly. Every few days a new lawmaker comes out in favor of an impeachment inquiry, including Representative Ben Ray Lujan, the highest ranking member of Democratic leadership to do so. 

Yet, Pelosi and others continue to resist, making Democrats’ position appear confused and their actions disorganized. According to some, including Chair of the Judiciary Committee Jerry Nadler, we are in the midst of an impeachment inquiry. The committee has not, however, voted to formally begin one, nor has anyone made a formal statement making clear how and why Democrats are proceeding. By stumbling into impeachment, Democrats are undermining the process’ utility as a vehicle to unify their message surrounding Trump’s corruption and misdeeds. If Democrats hold an impeachment inquiry in a forest without any hearings open to voters, does it make a sound?

Consider, for example, the fact that there are Democratic lawmakers across the country making the dangerous, contradictory claim that Trump’s actions do not rise to the level of impeachable offenses. This argument is not only harmful to the impeachment effort, but also shameful. Just this week, Trump instructed his associates to break the law to speed construction of his precious wall and promised to pardon any of those who were caught. 

Meanwhile, a hurricane just passed over Puerto Rico, which is still far from making a full recovery two years after Hurricane Maria. The failure of the federal government’s response to that disaster provides a sobering reminder that Trump’s racism, incompetence, and corruption are not merely spectacle, but have fatal consequences for Americans. As observers of the executive branch, we fail to see how this willful disdain for taking care to execute the laws of the country equally is anything other than a high crime against the Constitution.  

Nancy Pelosi is famous for her ability to whip her caucus like no other. It’s about time she got started on impeachment. She should pay attention to the perspectives and advice of oversight experts and practiced hands, including this one:

Storytelling must be the mission. And the story has to go beyond the act of corruption, says Paul C. Light, an oversight specialist and professor of public service at New York University; it needs to include the injury to government’s ability to do right by everyday people. “There’s a lot of outrage in the Democratic bloodstream,” Light says. “Unfortunately the House has not paid much attention so far to the effects of Trump’s corruption. Why does it matter to the American people? How does it affect your pocketbook or your children’s future? Who’s he robbing?

Wise words.

Spotlight: Several people have pointed out that it feels odd for Congress to go on recess as usual with a constitutional crisis unfolding. Not all lawmakers are totally disengaging, however. Throughout this month, HFSC Chair Maxine Waters has made crystal clear that she is keeping a watchful eye by releasing statements in response to nefarious activity at HUD, CFPB, FDIC and OCC.

Hall of Shame: In a vast crowd of oversight laggards, Chair of the House Agriculture Committee,  Representative Collin Peterson, stands out. That is not for a shortage of potential targets. The agriculture industry has been the site of severe corporate consolidation that has been steadily killing family farms. Additionally, the increased rate of natural disasters resulting from climate change has made farming far more precarious. To add insult to injury, the Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, is one of President Trump’s most enthusiastic deregulatory crusaders. 

One explanation for Peterson’s lethargy? He has received considerable support from those who stand to lose from greater oversight and accountability. According to an article this week in Sludge, Collin Peterson received more money from KochPAC between 1996 and the present than any other Democratic lawmaker. Koch Industries has interests in many of the sectors under Peterson’s jurisdiction, including fertilizer, cattle, energy, and forestry and conservation. Friends like these, are we right?

Independent Agencies

This week Matthew Petersen announced that he will leave the Federal Election Commission at the end of this month, eleven years after he first joined and eight years since his seat expired. His departure will leave the FEC with only three out of six members and thus without a quorum. As a result, it will no longer be able to convene, make enforcement decisions, or issue rules. While there is a pending nomination for Petersen’s soon-to-be vacant seat, it has not moved since being received in the Senate in mid-January. Furthermore, there are no pending nominations for the two additional vacant seats, nor to replace the three sitting commissioners, all of whom are serving expired terms. 

The FEC will be one of five agencies that lack a quorum. This extreme failure to staff agency boards can have severe consequences. You might be wondering, for example, how it is possible that senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway still has a job after so many unabashed violations of the Hatch Act. There is a simple, infuriating explanation. The body responsible for enforcing the Hatch Act, the Merit Systems Protection Board, has been without a quorum for over a year and without any members since March of this year. Nominations for two of those seats (enough to restore a quorum) were voted out of committee in February, but Mitch McConnell has yet to hold a confirmation vote. 

Finally, the FDIC’s decision to gut the Volcker Rule earlier this month received a lot of coverage. To our knowledge, however, no outlet highlighted the fact that the FDIC continues to lack one of its Democratic commissioners and that President Trump has thus far failed to nominate a candidate to fill the long-running vacancy. 

Want more? 

Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to since last Tuesday:

2020 Dems Must Use Trump’s Incompetence Against Him

Tech fight puts former FTC officials in high demand and Tech Company Skirmishes Highlight Biglaw’s Revolving Door With The FTC

With A Conference In Colorado, Big Tech Woos Its Regulators

Democrats Insist They Haven’t Been Wasting Time On Trump’s Tax Returns

Have Democrats Forgotten How to Do Oversight?

SEC Chief Accountant's Trip(s) through the Revolving Door are Emblematic of a Broader Problem

The Actual Facts Behind Jeffrey Epstein's Death Are Worse Than the Conspiracy Theories

Morning Tax, August 5th

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