Less Drowsy Congress Still Less Observant than Bank Lobbyists

Newsletter 23: If only civil society spent less time complaining about Washington DC and more time understanding how DC works and how it can be fixed.

2020 (and Potentially 2021)

It is not often that we tell you to take cues from analysts at Barclays. Yet today we are making a rare exception because, unlike most others tracking presidential politics, it appears Barclays’ analysts are giving careful consideration to executive power. Last week, a leaked “Warren administration policy heatmap” from the Barclays research department showed which flanks of her platform a President Elizabeth Warren could achieve via presidential authority and which would require legislation. It is nearly evenly divided. 

Of course, we don’t endorse the motivation behind such an analysis; Barclays is undoubtedly gearing up to oppose all of these actions, both on the campaign trail and after the next president’s inauguration. There is still, however, something to learn from their orientation. For too long, only proponents of narrow, corporate interests like Barclays have been attentive to executive branch power. It is time that that changed, and that advocates for the public interest gave careful consideration to the potential for presidential authority to advance progress. Most importantly, it is time that we started assessing presidential candidates on their explicit commitment to that goal.  

No candidate has been as forthcoming on this front as we would like and, unfortunately, Barclays “heatmaps” for other candidates have not leaked. Without explicit commitment, we continue to look elsewhere, to candidates’ donors, for hints about their intentions. And the last week has provided a wealth of new clues. 

Following lackluster fundraising in the third quarter and facing a cash crisis, the Biden campaign threw open the doors to an outside super PAC late last month. Although we do not yet know who is contributing to the new Unite the Country PAC, we have learned who is leading the effort. It is not encouraging. The PAC’s leadership includes numerous corporate lobbyists who have advocated on behalf of the healthcare, weapons, and finance industries. What sort of rewards await these deep-pocketed, well-connected individuals if they are able to save Biden’s floundering effort?

Super PAC organizers and contributors are not the only ones we should be worried about, however. In particular, we remain concerned about the overall lack of transparency around bundlers. Those who fundraise for a campaign are far more likely to earn posts in the next administration. Candidates should follow the precedents of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and yes, even Rudy Giuliani and release information about their bundlers. We made that case here last week. 

Congressional Oversight of the Executive Branch

As you surely know, House Democrats voted last week to affirm their ongoing impeachment inquiry. Although the vote received a tremendous amount of attention, it has changed very little, other than to clarify the procedures lawmakers will follow from here on out. That is both good and bad. 

On the one hand, the resolution did not seek to narrow the scope of the inquiry, despite hints that several key lawmakers were leaning in that direction. Instead, it acknowledged and endorsed the ongoing non-Ukraine-related investigative work of numerous committees, including Financial Services, Oversight and Reform, and Ways and Means.

On the other hand, House Democrats did not elect to expand the inquiry along the lines that we have suggested by, for example, endorsing an Energy and Commerce Committee investigation into Trump’s efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act. We made the case for such a line of inquiry in Talking Points Memo last week and continue to believe that such “kitchen table” offenses must be incorporated into the House’s impeachment effort. We hope that, upon their return from recess, House Democrats will change their stance. 

Fears that impeachment would force all other congressional activity to a halt have proven (foreseeably) unfounded. Last week, Rep. Peter DeFazio held a belated hearing with the CEO of Boeing, Dennis Muilenberg, on the anniversary of the Lion Air crash. More than anything, the hours of testimony demonstrated clearly why corporations cannot be allowed to regulate themselves. At every step of the process, Boeing prioritized profit over safety, with ultimately fatal consequences. Yet, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Muilenberg continued to insist that stricter regulation was not necessary and that Boeing remained qualified to inspect its own planes. In other words, even following two fatal accidents, Boeing continues to prioritize its profits above all else. If that doesn’t convince you that they need more oversight, we’re not sure what will. 

Last week, Rep. DeFazio took tentative steps towards more aggressive oversight when he issued his first subpoena to the General Services Administration for information about the Trump Hotel. In light of Muilenberg’s defiance and Boeing’s obvious willingness to withhold information from the committee, we believe it is more important than ever that DeFazio subpoena Boeing as well. 

Hall of Shame: Throughout this year, we have urged lawmakers to take a more adversarial stance against some of this country’s largest corporations and force them to answer for their reprehensible actions. Several members of the Ways and Means Committee have not only failed to heed that advice, but are running in exactly the opposite direction into the arms of some of the worst corporate actors. Last week, several Ways and Means members, including chair Richard Neal, joined insurance giant AIG for its 100th anniversary celebration held, inexplicably, in the committee’s hearing room. Lawmakers in attendance reportedly heaped praise on the company, seemingly forgetting its not-too-distant role in crashing the economy. It seems, then, that we shouldn’t expect any efforts by Ways and Means to hold AIG and others accountable.

Spotlight: Elsewhere, however, some lawmakers are heeding our calls for greater corporate oversight. Last week, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) introduced “The Greater Supervision in Banking Act,” which would require that the CEOs of the Globally Systemically Important Banks (G-SIBs) testify before the House Financial Services Committee and the Senate Banking Committee at least once per year. This hardly seems a radical proposal, but given the fact that these CEOs had not been asked to testify for over a decade before being called for an HFSC hearing earlier this year, it is a big departure from the status quo. 

This Week in Tech

Reps. Anna Eshoo and Zoe Lofgren introduced a new national data privacy bill yesterday. We’d need some more time to review the bill to form a full opinion, but its lack of preemption language already makes it better than the New Democrat-endorsed bill we wrote about in The American Prospect.

The Eshoo-Lofgren bill would create a brand-new Digital Privacy Agency with explicit power over online spaces and the same fine-inducing and legal injunction powers as the Federal Trade Commission. Considering the massive, and warranted, flop of the FTC’s messaging about its historically large Facebook fine (which was just a drop in the bucket against the company’s overall funds), one wonders if a new internet regulator would need a bit more oomph to its powers. But if Congress creates a new agency to address data privacy, then the executive branch will need appointees to fill it.

Which brings us to the Knight Foundation’s latest round of funding for academics and think tankers studying technology’s impact on democracy. Knight deliberately funded groups and individuals who run the gamut ideologically, but several owe some sort of past favor to the tech industry and its corporate allies. There’s an AEIer who lobbied for Paypal and worked for a cryptocurrency trade group, and a past board chair of the notoriously industry-friendly (and industry-funded) think tank Center for Democracy and Technology. If these are to be the bright new thinkers in a post-techlash world, how many would be willing to bite the hand that fed them, should they wind up in a top job? 

Independent Agencies

President Trump’s remarkable failure to nominate replacements for vacancies on the Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s boards received some unusual attention this week. But those seats are far from the only ones that are languishing vacant or expired.  In fact, as we highlight in our October Independent Agency Update, there are a total of 80 seats that are either vacant or expired out of the 182 seats that we track (48 are vacant and 32 are expired). Meanwhile, Trump has only put forward 30 nominations for those seats. 

Nor are these vacancies, expired seats, and nominations evenly distributed across partisan lines. In all, 40 percent of Republican seats are either vacant or expired versus 52 percent of Democratic seats. And 16 of the nominations that Trump has advanced are for Republican seats versus 6 nominations for Democratic seats. For more details, check out the blog post

Despite the fact that these numbers tell a story of crisis, it can be hard to get people to care about these agencies, especially since their relevance to our everyday lives is not always clear or direct. It is, therefore, important to seize on cases where their importance is clear. Take, for example, the Federal Communication Commission’s Lifeline program which subsidizes phone plans for people with low incomes. New rules to prevent fraud appear to be pushing many eligible people out of the program altogether. As the Center for Public Integrity’s reporting on this effectively underlines, having access to a phone is not merely a luxury but a necessity today. Losing it can have wide ripple effects on everything from health to employment and more. The FCC, however, is refusing to acknowledge that there may be a problem and has been rejecting requests to delay the new rules’ implementation while issues are worked out. 

This sort of callousness should be getting more attention from members of Congress (who could conduct oversight of the commission generally and the Lifeline program specifically) and from presidential candidates (who could use it as an opportunity to talk about how their administration would do things differently). 

Want more?

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

The Impeachable Offense That Democrats Should Stop Ignoring; also in Washington Post Happy Hour Roundup (11/1/2019)

Joe Biden is desperate for campaign cash — but he’s staying quiet about who will be raising it for him

Trump’s Hidden Attention to Detail in Avoiding Accountability

Rick Smith Show 11/2/2019

Trump Irks Agency Behind the Jobs Report. Now Researchers Are Ready to Walk

October Update on the State of Independent Federal Agencies