Is a Surfeit of Corruption Confusing Congress?

Newsletter 18: We are out of satisfying potential explanations for the House of Representatives’ oversight fecklessness.

This week, Trump — to no one’s surprise — showed that he is not beyond manipulating career civil servants to mask a stupid mistake. If he takes such extraordinary steps for something so small, it is natural to wonder how far he will go when the stakes are higher. Say, if he is facing the prospect of losing the election. Engaging in thought experiments like these serves to underline just how inadequate House Democrats’ response to Trump has been and continues to be. The Judiciary committee may have muddled their way into an impeachment inquiry this week, but House Democrats still have a long way to go in proving they are up to the challenge of countering Trump’s authoritarian overreach. 

2020 (and Potentially 2021)

After a brief respite, it’s time for another Democratic primary debate. With only ten candidates qualifying under the new, more restrictive rules, we will only have to sit through one session. Unfortunately, that still leaves ten candidates on a single stage. While this debate will last three hours (versus two-and-a-half for the last set), the format of rapid-fire answers to right wing attacks on candidates’ plans dressed up as questions, and the candidates’ thoughts on polling and political tactics, is unlikely to yield a great deal more substance than prior encounters. 

Nonetheless, we will be watching closely for any crumbs related to personnel and executive branch powers. For a review of how we approach these debates, check out our debate watch guide. And follow along in real time @revolvingdoorDC!

Although we recognize that all presidential forums cannot last seven hours, last week’s climate town hall offered a refreshingly in-depth look at candidates’ climate plans. Even in this more generous format, however, executive branch-focused questions and answers were rare. A few candidates assured viewers that they would reverse Trump’s environmental regulatory rollbacks, which is… almost literally the least they can do. 

We did hear from at least two candidates — Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders — who promised, were they to be elected, to direct the Department of Justice to pursue fossil fuel companies and their executives for their contributions to global warming. And while we would have liked to hear more specifics, the extended format was still welcome. It gave candidates more space to articulate their climate priorities and how their values will inform their approach to this challenge — both questions with direct relevance to how they will actually do the job of president. 

We were also pleasantly surprised to hear a moderator confront Joe Biden about his planned fundraiser with the co-founder of a natural gas company. It’s too bad campaign finance questions are not a more common feature of debates, because a candidate’s donor base is highly relevant information, and all the more important in a packed field where voters are looking extra hard for ways to distinguish the candidates. Of course, debates are not the only place where voters can get information about candidates, but they do offer an important forum in which to judge candidates’ credibility. As a project with particular focus on “financialization,” we would love to hear questions about how support from, say, Blackstone and BlackRock might influence a potential president’s appointments. Adding this nuance would not only benefit debates over health care policy, but those surrounding climate, housing, environmental, competition, and foreign policies, among many others. 

Congressional Oversight of the Executive Branch

Now that the House Judiciary Committee has voted to officially open an impeachment inquiry, we thought that Pelosi’s wrongheaded opposition to the effort would have dissipated. You would think that, with impeachment underway, Pelosi would see the political value in ensuring that that effort was a success. Instead, however, she seems to be rooting for its failure by, at best, ignoring the whole effort altogether and at worst, continuing to actively advocate against it. If Democrats are going to convince the public, they’re going to need a unified message. 

Even if Pelosi abandons her losing political strategy today, however, Democrats will need to contend with the consequences stemming from months of delay. Yes, having spent the better part of this year working to de-escalate impeachment fervor, Democrats will have to work doubly hard to convince the public that they are serious enough for hearings to merit their attention. (Hearings whose obvious goal is to reduce tough questions at town halls are unlikely to be billed “must watch” TV by most Americans.)

We believe the best way to regain credibility is to center impeachment around how Trump has used his power to hurt regular people. There is no shortage of examples, including his Department of Justice’s attacks on the Affordable Care Act, his administration’s abject failure to administer disaster relief to Puerto Rico, DeVos’ corrupt support of for-profit colleges, Trump’s installation of three Mar-a-Lago members and donors as “shadow rulers” of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and much more. House Democrats can and absolutely should view their inquiry’s scope broadly, but should also work to contextualize their impeachment case against Trump, above all, in his attacks on the “kitchen table” issues that keep regular people up at night. 

Meanwhile, House Democrats who are not on the Judiciary Committee should not be standing down, but rather be thinking creatively about other avenues by which they may act as a check on this president. The upcoming appropriations fight presents a potentially fruitful opportunity. Despite Trump and his advisors’ repeated assurances that the economy is better than ever, it is clear that the president is nervous about an economic downturn and its effect on his reelection chances. In other words, he and his faithful Republican lackeys in Congress have a lot more riding on this than the Democrats. That is called leverage, and we’ve heard it can be a useful tool in politics. Perhaps Nancy Pelosi should try employing it to protect migrant children, or to procure compliance with congressional oversight, or to prohibit reallocation of funds from the Defense Department to Trump’s wall?

In short, Democrats cannot rest on the mere fact of having procedurally invoked impeachment. They must, even if belatedly, make clear that they are serious about taking on this president, both through impeachment and by other means. If not, Trump will continue to feel comfortable in the knowledge that he is beyond accountability and will act accordingly.

Hall of Shame: Betsy DeVos may be among the most natural targets for oversight in an administration packed full of crooks, grifters, and white supremacists. It is, therefore, truly a wonder that she has only been asked to testify under oath one time since the start of the 116th Congress. That was in April, and since then any number of new revelations about her Department’s abuses — all deserving of investigation — have come to the surface. Just last week, the Education Department finalized rules that would severely limit access to loan forgiveness for students of failed for profit colleges. It is, thus, puzzling that the only committee to hold a hearing on the student loan crisis this week was the House Financial Services Committee. DeVos’ shameless revolving door senior team has yet to be grilled by the House Education and Labor Committee.   

(Sort of) Spotlight: Late last month, the New York Times reported that President Trump had offered to pardon aides who broke the law in an effort to speed construction of his border wall. Exactly one week later, the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed officials at the Department of Homeland Security for more information. This shouldn’t be extraordinary, but in the context of the House’s general sluggishness throughout this year, it is encouraging. Of course, we will be most impressed if the committee sues to enforce their subpoena promptly when Trump continues to “fight all subpoenas.” Here’s hoping. 

Independent Agencies

Last week we released our independent agency update for the month of August. Despite the recess, there were some interesting developments last month. First, nine people were confirmed to independent agency boards, more than in any other month since the start of the 116th Congress. That brings the total confirmed this Congress to 24. Since most of these nine nominations were for expired — rather than vacant — seats, and an additional two commissioners vacated their seats last month, the total number of vacant seats remained unchanged compared to the month before. 

The contrast between Trump’s enthusiasm for packing the courts versus staffing independent agency leadership roles remains stark. While Trump has found the time to nominate seven judges since Congress returned on Monday, he has yet to put forward any new nominations for the 76 vacant or expired seats on independent agency boards. 

In other independent agency news, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the watchdog responsible for preventing fraud, seems to be engaged in an effort to scam consumers out of their Equifax settlement. Between the Equifax mess and its failure to meaningfully hold Facebook accountable in July, the FTC has been getting a lot of bad press lately. Curiously, however, its arguably equally scandalous decision to slap Google and YouTube with a fine of only $170 million (a fraction of Facebook’s) last week for having illegally harvested children’s personal data elicited much less public outrage. This week in the American Prospect, RDP’s Max Moran explored why it is that Google so consistently seems to enjoy friendlier treatment than Facebook here in DC. In a blog post, he further highlights how — surprise! surprise! — revolving door lawyers helped Google get this specific, satisfactory result. 

Want more?

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

Trump’s Going to Manipulate the Government to Stay in Power

Student-loan behemoth tightens its ties to Trump and DeVos

August Update on the State of Independent Federal Agencies

Google Is Like Facebook—but a Lot Smarter

Trump can spin economic numbers – but he likely can’t manipulate them, experts say

How Larry Fink, Joe Biden’s Wall Street Ally, Profits From Amazon Cattle Ranching, a Force Behind Deforestation

BlackRock’s Washington Playbook

Google’s Settlement With The FTC Shows A Culture Of Corruption Thriving