In 2019, Politics as Usual Has Failed the #Resistance

Newsletter 13: From generally slothful congressional oversight to residual corporate capture, leading Democrats have mostly disappointed in 2019

2019 was supposed to be different. Democrats would have “subpoena cannons.” Trump would face a serious countervailing force.

2019 is not, however, different. Instead, Nancy Pelosi continues to seek to “protect” the base from its “misguided” belief that normal politics are inadequate to the moment. A rightly frightened, angry populace has been demobilized because, activists are told implicitly and explicitly alike, that “Democrats have got this.” 

What is the strategy of Pelosi, Schumer, and their consultants? 18 more months of passing decent center-left legislation in the House destined to get no vote in the Senate, no attention from traditional media, and no penetration in social media. 

We focus on executive branch personnel, and we’d like to see both Congress and candidates alike do the same. So as we turn more to the presidential race in the coming months, we will be examining to what extent various presidential candidates promulgate an appropriately urgent and reformist-minded agenda or, instead, fall into a Pelosi-style “this is basically normal” fallacy. 

Are candidates being pressed to reveal plans to activate the executive branch to take on economic inequality, the climate crisis, and systemic racism? Have any candidates demonstrated they will address how expertise and the civil service have for too long been subordinated within the executive branch to revolving door corporatist appointees of each party? What can we infer from the individuals and institutions funding candidates for president, as well as the support networks for each candidate’s policy teams?

Congressional Oversight and the Executive Branch

Fortunately, Pelosi has not been able to stop all congressional oversight. Strong work by House Energy and Commerce Democrats is compelling the resignation of an EPA air pollution chief whose web of revolving door influences was so great it required violating a typically lax Trump-era “ethics agreement.” Too unethical for Trump’s EPA is… an accomplishment?!?!?

And, as always, Chairwoman Maxine Waters is pursuing the misuse of economic power. Waters just announced a broad set of July hearings featuring several interesting convenings, including an inquiry into a problematic bank merger (Branch Banking and Trust Company (BB&T) and SunTrust Bank) and Facebook’s dystopic endrun on democracy, Libra. (Here was our May 2019 comment to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the Federal Reserve System Board of Governors regarding the proposed merger)

But so much is not getting done and so many opportunities to make a difference are being left on the table.

For example, the House Armed Services Committee should issue subpoenas to follow up on Senator Warren’s inquiry into fraud at the Defense Department.

The somnolent House Agriculture Committee should investigate how Trump’s Department of Agriculture is undermining the professional public servants working to address the dramatic impact of climate change on farmers and farming.

More broadly, several committees need to explore how Trump’s war on public service involves moving positions across the country in order to coerce talented public servants into quitting their jobs.

Trust us -- we can go on and on. If you’re ever looking for story ideas on congressional oversight -- or, especially, the lack thereof -- please be in touch!

2020 (and Potentially 2021)

As we bemoaned in our debate follow-up (and on twitter as it was happening), the 2020 conversation generally, and the debates specifically, include little discussion of how these presidential hopefuls would use their executive branch power. And indeed, the hodge-podge of questions and topics undermined all substantive debate, which is why we agree with climate activists arguing that the DNC ought to host a debate devoted to climate issues.

For a sense of what we would like to see more of in coming debates and throughout the campaign, read The Revolving Door Project’s Debate (& Campaign) Watch Guide.

And while 2020 candidates generally are not giving executive branch management as much attention as we would like, many are offering more than was on display at last week’s debates. Two positive developments worth highlighting:

  1. Senator Amy Klobuchar did a great job highlighting her plans for executive action in her new “first 100 days” plan

  2. Senator Warren now has a plan for addressing the erosion of US State Department capacity that began decades ago and has been accelerated dramatically by Trump, Tillerson, and Pompeo. This plan is useful for illustrating how ostensibly “domestic” issues such as systemic racism and money in politics undermine foreign policy -- e.g., US diplomats are on the whole too white and male to understand the world fully, and too many Ambassadors secure their jobs through campaign contributions rather than diplomatic experience.

For those who haven’t made promises regarding executive branch appointments, however, there is a continuing cause for concern. Last week in the American Prospect we wrote about how Buttigieg’s closeness with big Silicon Valley and Wall Street donors makes his strategic ambiguity on so many critical policy details especially worrisome. (and indeed Buttigieg seems likely to be one of the top 1-3 fundraisers this quarter despite weak polling). 

Independent Agencies

This month, five people were confirmed to independent agency boards, including Allison Lee to the Securities and Exchange Commission (finally!). Additionally, two new members and one old one were confirmed to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) while the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) gained a new chairperson, Heath Tarbert. This brings the total number of confirmations this year to fifteen.

President Trump also made six nominations this month, to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSHIB), Federal Maritime Commission (FMC), National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC), Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC), and the United States International Trade Commission (USITC). 

However, while these advancements are welcome, they remain insufficient to even keep up with the pace at which seats are expiring and commissioners are leaving their posts. In June alone, 5 commissioners’ terms expired. Since January 3, 2019, eleven people have left their seats and six people have had their seats expire but have continued to serve. 

Of course, we cannot solely blame Trump for these delays; Mitch McConnell bears some of the burden for the holdup. For example, nominations to the Merit Systems Protection Board have all been voted out of committee (two since February), but have gone nowhere. 

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that President Trump is dragging his feet. We are in the process of learning just how much (i.e. how long on average Trump has taken to make nominations for vacant or expired seats) and will be releasing our findings in the next couple of days in our monthly independent agency update.  Be sure to watch out for that, and please reach out if you have any questions about this pernicious strain of Trump-era corruption. 

Want more? 

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

Do Pete Buttigieg’s Donors Know Him Better Than We Do?

How Well Do Leading 2020 Candidates Understand the Executive Branch?

KPMG US settles PCAOB case for $50 million

Trump says he can fire Fed's Powell; it's not that simple

Democrats in No Hurry to Get Trump’s Tax Returns

The Revolving Door Project’s Debate (& Campaign) Watch Guide

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