How Will DC Grapple With Most Corrupt Executive Branch in Lived Memory?

RDP Newsletter 9

The breadth and depth of Trumpian corruption is still comprehended fully by far fewer members of the national media or the Democratic Party than you might think. That’s why reporters well-sourced with the Democratic Establishment started reporting on the risk of Democratic oversight “overreach” before Democrats even won the midterm elections. And that’s why we wrote a piece for the Washington Monthly on how contrary to the perceptions of those worrywarts, Democrats have actually been far too timid, rather than too aggressive, in conducting oversight during the first months of their majority.

As Congress returns from recess to a ramped up constitutional crisis and the number of Democratic contenders who believe the system was working until recently continues to grow, we urge readers to think about what has become normalized under Trump -- ans also what was wrongly normalized well before Trump stopped branding steaks and began branding “the media” as the enemy of the people.

Housekeeping: Follow us @revolvingdoorDC if you have not already.

Congressional Oversight

As Congressional Democrats return from recess this week, they will need to wrap their minds around not only Trumpian “crimes and misdemeanors,” but also Trump’s gleeful refusal to follow the law and take Congressional oversight requests literally or seriously. As HuffPost has reported, Trump’s overall obstruction of Congress is vast and unprecedented.

Just over the weekend we learned “that Attorney General William Barr may skip a Thursday hearing on special counsel Robert Mueller’s report if committee lawyers seek to question him.”

That’s unacceptable! And the fact that much of the media and Democratic Party will not deem the truancy of Trump officials from congressional testimony a crisis is *itself* an additional worrisome crisis. Texas Law Professor Steve Vladeck is generally much more moderate than us, but even he agrees that Trump’s behavior constitutes a significant assault on the constitutional separation of powers. Even Democrats who have been desperate to avoid opening a long overdue impeachment inquiry are increasingly aware that Article 3 of impeachment against Richard Nixon was for Nixon disregarding Congressional subpoenas. Trump’s behavior reflects similar contempt for Congress and ought to soon elicit a similar response.

None of Trump’s behavior should be unexpected. The Revolving Door Project sought to elevate the risks of Democratic slothfulness and timidity in oversight from the beginning of the 116th Congress by focusing on Richard Neal’s unwillingness to move forward on Trump’s tax returns. That shirking was significant, representative, and counter-productive. Democrats may have felt moving slowly in the winter would generate a consensus that they were being judicious, but instead their fear of conflict made Trump confident that Democrats lack the courage of their stated convictions. Similarly, needless Democratic Party cowardice has taught the media the false lesson that oversight is politically dangerous (despite Democrats having run on it in 2018!) and an act of extremism, rather than the fulfillment of a constitutional imperative.

Congress has options to move to expedite litigation as well as to utilize their “power of the purse.” Trump will try to claim that even contemplating these acts is “extreme.” Will the media be cowed? Will Democratic leadership be cowed? While historians and law professors be heard from? We all have agency how this constitutional crisis unfolds, and we will all be judged by our actions.

But the most important thing for all concerned is to recognize that Trump’s undermining of congressional oversight -- and the underlying acts he is covering up, as the obstruction is quite rational -- is a constitutional crisis.

Hall of Shame: Everyone who discusses the perils of “Democratic overreach,” including the “leadership staffers” who intentionally installed the go slow playbook back in November 2018. Not only is oversight not a thing (Democrats have been timid, and it is not clear what would constitute “overreach” proportionate to Trump’s behavior), the notion there are political “perils” is based on analogy to the wildly inapplicable example of Clinton. The charges swirling around Trump are VASTLY more serious than those against Clinton, and while Clinton was widely judged an effective president by the American people, Trump continues to maintain historically low job approval numbers.

Media: If a source worries about “overreach,” consider… getting new sources.

Spotlight: Senator Kamala Harris joining Senator Elizabeth Warren’s call for an impeachment inquiry offers helpful high stature backup to the leadership being demonstrated by younger Democrats like Rashida Tlaib.

Executive Branch:

Five to ten years from now we’re going to be amazed at how little of Trump’s corruption was known back in the day. Much of that is due to its scope, much of it is because the people who follow, say, the Agriculture Department do not know what is going on at the Education Department -- and vice versa.

But obstruction plays an increasingly great role, which is why the administration is generally refusing all subpoena requests. It’s why Barr is also blocking Congress from obtaining evidence of how the Trump Justice Department is undermining the constitutional obligation of a fair and accurate census.

Trump Administration corruption is ubiquitous. trump is even undermining the ability of Americans to get accurate weather reports!

Under the radar corruption is everywhere. For instance, we are also monitoring an obscure but important effort by the Trump Administration to undermine the ability of the federal government to obtain accurate information about farming and nutrition. Why? Experts we have talked to suggest that anti-government zealots at the Heritage Foundation and elsewhere seek to undermine professional civil servants while splitting up the historic alliance between agricultural producers and people in need of a nutritional safety net.

With showy corruption occupying center stage, quieter corruption with the potential for huge, long tail impacts continues in the shadows. That’s why Congress must provide oversight -- and why Democratic candidates for president ought to be pressed to explain how they will “Detrumpify” the executive branch.

2020 (and Potentially 2021)

However, mere “Detrumpification” isn’t enough -- Trump is the reductio ad absurdum of decades of degradation of the power of civil servants and concomitant enhancement of corporate influence under presidents of both parties. Some presidential candidates seem to not get that sad fact.

Joe Biden’s brand new candidacy is already, frankly, seeming pretty out of touch Consider his fundraising strategies. His fundraising strategy is old school -- and not in a neat way, like offering up policy ideas that require more than 280 characters to explain, but in the sense of reviving the idea that money corrupts each party roughly equally. There is nothing seemly or appropriate about how Biden is raising money.

How do you restore faith in government by raising money from the people who oversee Washington lobbying operations for a deeply unpopular corporation like Comcast?

Will, for instance, Comcast get what it wants from a Biden administration (think FCC, DOJ Antitrust, FTC, etc…), given how Biden sought to signal financial competitiveness with a Comcast hosted fundraiser as literally the first event of his presidential campaign? The implications for net neutrality, for instance, are very worrisome.

Biden is not alone in questionable fundraising practices that undermine the party’s ability to offer a sharp contrast with Trumpian corruption. However, while we had thought we were going to have to spend a ton of time on “Mayor Pete’s” fundraising in this newsletter, we were encouraged to learn that “Pete Buttigieg Swears Off the Lobbyist Money He Once Accepted.”

Buttigieg’s greedy (and, pragmatically, unnecessary -- his fundraising is more than fine on its own!) embrace of corporate lobbyist money was a frankly dumb “own goal.” And there are additional aspects of his fundraising that merit further scrutiny. Yet Buttigieg reversed course on a clear mistake rapidly, and for that he deserves recognition. We hope Biden shows similar responsiveness -- but we’re not optimistic.

Independent Agencies

Thanks to the congressional recess, there has been zero movement on independent agency nominations or confirmations since our last newsletter. As ever, however, there are no shortage of examples of how this neglect is undermining our safety and security. One such instance is the high-profile merger between BB&T and SunTrust bank which is currently under consideration at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). In addition to being the largest bank merger since the financial crisis, this deal would create the largest bank that the FDIC has ever overseen. As such, it must receive especially careful consideration.

It is not at all clear, however, that Chairwoman Jelena McWilliams will be inclined or able to consider this deal impartially. In addition to having been deeply involved in crafting and pushing an early iteration of the legislation that facilitated mergers such as this one, she is tied to a SunTrust lobbyist, Mark Oesterle. The concerns related to McWilliams, as well as those stemming from the significance of this particular merger, make it all the more consequential that the FDIC board continues to lack a minority commissioner. We agree with Senator and Ranking Member of the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, Sherrod Brown that no decision should be taken on this merger until the FDIC has a full board.

The vacancy at the FDIC, however, is not the only one posing a threat. As laid out in an excellent report from Issue One, vacancies at the Federal Election Commission (FEC) have contributed to severe dysfunction at that agency, with dire consequences for the safety and integrity of our election system.

Want more?

Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to this month:

House Democrats Are Failing to Investigate the White House

Maxine Waters is the Wall Street sheriff the people deserve

How a powerful ex-lawmaker’s move to UBS ranks in the revolving-door game

Democrats Are Hoping You Don’t Understand What “Impeachment” Entails

The “Shelby Mafia” Is Muscling Through a Major New Bank Merger

Let’s face it: On the accountability front, things look pretty bleak

Politico Morning Money, April 24, 2019

The Daily 202, April 25, 2019

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