Reflections on Democrats and the Executive Branch

Newsletter 16: August gives the House a different excuse (recess!) for not ratcheting up serious oversight than they’ve had heretofore.

Late last week the twittersphere was awash in competing opinions about the recent primary debates. Some, for example, thought Democrats were too mean to Obama, or too mean to each other. Others griped that there were too many candidates on stage, while still others argued that those long shots added real value to the conversation. Yet, even with this proliferation of “hot takes” we have seen only a few nods at what is obviously the most important critique: candidates did not speak about executive branch personnel. 

Clearly, we still have a lot of work to do to make personnel the center of the presidential conversation. The first two debates have admittedly been poor forums for such a discussion, what with their heavy focus on the disagreements that most engage TV anchors. Impossibly short time limits also discourage substantive policy discussion. The next debates, however, will be smaller (eventually? right?) and will therefore afford candidates more opportunities to lay out details of how they plan to do the job they’re running for, i.e. managing the executive branch. 

With these higher-stakes contests rapidly approaching, the Revolving Door Project will be shifting more of its focus towards the 2020 race. That means you can expect more analysis of candidates plans, fundraisers, advisers, and anything else that is relevant to the question of how they will actually use their presidential powers. We will still, however, monitor congressional oversight--and hope to see House Committees begin to think through what “DeTrumpification” of the desiccated executive branch might entail. Exposing members who lack the oversight instincts to draw attention to how this administration’s corruption harms ordinary people remains essential to building the case for a better executive branch in the next administration. 

Congressional Oversight of the Executive Branch

We have made no secret of our disappointment in this Congress’ lackluster oversight efforts thus far. But, do we think there’s any chance of a change on the return from recess?

Maybe? The decision to dump the Mueller hearing right before recess, and thus destroy any possibility of generating momentum for impeachment, has clearly not been as successful as Pelosi might have hoped. Since Mueller’s testimony, at least 23 more Democrats have added their names to the roster of lawmakers who support opening an impeachment inquiry, bringing the total to at least 118, or a majority of Democrats. Will Pelosi embrace the opportunity to empower a congressional committee to very publicly test whether Trump’s manifold abuses of power merit impeachment?

As we’ve argued, the resistance to impeachment is not just blocking Russia-related oversight, but also slowing any investigation that could turn up information that would bolster the case for impeachment. That includes Trump’s tax returns but also, arguably, meaningful oversight of everyone from Betsy DeVos to Elaine Chao. Once Democrats take the step of opening an inquiry, however, we hope that this misguided calculus will change and that all Democrats will instead work to add fodder to the impeachment flame.

Nonetheless, we are under no illusion that things will definitely proceed in this manner. Momentum for impeachment could still stall over the August recess. And no matter what, we will have to contend with those voices who are already telling us it is too late for oversight

This is, of course, ridiculous. Oversight is part of the job of governing and is not limited to the first 7 months of a two-year congressional term. What’s more, you can be sure that Trump’s corruption and its dangerous effects will not be on hold for campaign season. If anything it is only likely to intensify as his corporate allies feverishly work to achieve their agendas before he is potentially ousted from office. The responsibility to act as a check on these exploits does not go away because you have a campaign to run. 

Furthermore, this sort of thinking demonstrates that many lawmakers have still not come to understand what we have been shouting for months: oversight is good politics! While governing is separate from campaigning, good governing should make the job of campaigning easier. So it could be with oversight. Above all, Democrats should be investigating Trump because it is both inherent to their Constitutional responsibilities and what they promised to do. They should also be doing it, however, because many topics crying out for oversight would allow members to emphasize their core policy stances and values. Just look at freshman Representative Katie Porter who flipped a traditionally Republican seat in last year’s midterm. Far from shrinking away from aggressive oversight (or from impeachment), she has taken every opportunity to grill the corporate executives and corrupt Trump officials who come before the Financial Services Committee. 

2020 (and Potentially 2021)

Unless you enjoy watching politicians go at each other’s throats, it can be hard to see the value in such large, adversarially-designed debates. Still, sift through the theatrics and these forums do provide some useful insight into the state of the 2020 conversation and clues as to how it might improve. 

For one, many candidates are missing an opportunity to lodge substantive critiques of Trump that go beyond his incivility or his twitter habits. While these things are by no means inconsequential, they are not the primary means through which Trump’s administration threatens regular people. More candidates should be pointing to the fact that President Trump has stacked his administration with corporate shills who are doing everything from rolling back labor protections and environmental regulations to protecting for-profit college fraudsters and Wall Street financiers (and much, much more!). Doing so would not only allow candidates to mount an even stronger critique of Trump, but would also provide an opening for them to talk about how they would run their executive branch differently. 

No matter how we get there though, the bottom line is that we need to hear more from candidates on this subject. Rather than posing questions designed to start fights, moderators should be asking questions about how candidates will reinvigorate a struggling administrative state and who they will appoint to do so. This, not passing legislation, will be the future president’s primary job so it is imperative that we learn how they intend to do it before they are installed. If past experience is any indication, absent such assurances we are likely to see wealthy bundlers with a vested interest in the status quo calling the shots and putting the brakes on bold reform in the next administration. 

For some clues as to the types of people we are worried about and the stakes involved, check out these recent articles on Buttigieg’s support from Silicon Valley executives and on how private equity divides the Democratic field

Independent Agencies

After a slow July, the Senate got to work yesterday confirming independent agency officials (although still far from enough). They confirmed three people to the United States Postal Service board, restoring that body’s quorum after almost five years. Meanwhile, one person was confirmed to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) while two were confirmed to the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) and the United States International Trade Commission (USITC). The addition of these nine people brings the total number of people confirmed this Congress to 24. There are still, however, 79 seats (out of 177) that are either vacant or expired.

President Trump has only nominated people for 25 of those positions, meaning that blame cannot be placed on Senate obstructionism alone. Nonetheless, McConnell’s lack of enthusiasm for confirming people who aren’t judges is still a problem. For example, although the Senate restored a quorum to the USPS, it has yet to do so for the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) which has had zero members since March of this year. 

Want more? 

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

Private Equity’s Next Leveraged Buyout Might Be the Oval Office

Opinion: Mayor Pete Is Silicon Valley's Hottest New Startup

Who’s Writing the 2020 Candidates’ Policies?

July Update on the State of Independent Federal Agencies

After Slapping Facebook on the Wrist, Will Kohm Go Through the Revolving Door?