Revolving Door Project and Allies Call for Personnel-Focused Debate Questions

Newsletter 24: Will moderators listen?

2020 (and Potentially 2021)

If you have been following this newsletter for any length of time, you are familiar with our frequent laments that moderators and commentators so rarely ask presidential candidates about the thing presidents actually do: appoint personnel. But earlier this month, something strange happened; CNN commentator Angela Rye broke with the norm. Specifically, she pressed Senator Elizabeth Warren to name three black leaders who she “ha[s] to have” in her Cabinet. Pinch us, we must be dreaming! 

Of course, ultimately, we want to hear from candidates about more than just specific names for cabinet appointments. The president is tasked with filling thousands of roles and to do so effectively must articulate a set a criteria by which potential appointees will be assessed. (They can look to this piece by Demand Progress’ David Segal on the current independent agency nomination fight for some ideas of what those criteria could be.) Nonetheless, Rye’s question was a good start for a media environment that otherwise ignores the importance of executive branch personnel altogether. Hopefully, this is a sign of more to come. 

We were less than impressed, however, with Elizabeth Warren’s response to the question. Among those she named was former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who was working at Bain Capital until just a few days ago. Commentators and Twitter users were quick to jump on Patrick’s ties to Bain, but incredibly, his time at Bain may be the least offensive private sector stint on his resume. Patrick embodies the exact type of transactional relationship to public service that the Revolving Door Project exists to combat. From Texaco to Coca-Cola to subprime mortgage lender Ameriquest, Patrick has routinely lent his credibility — earned through his work at the head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division — to bad actors, thereby shielding them from consequences for their actions. Needless to say, we don’t believe that Patrick should have a place in the next administration. Warren’s inclusion of him on her list of names was at odds with her broader, commendable commitments.

Her response, however, highlights why questions like these are so important. Knowing this now, voters can express their disapproval and push her and other candidates to formulate their personnel plans more thoughtfully. Voters are better off when informed about how the next president would actually wield power. Questions like these should feature prominently across the presidential campaign discourse. Candidates leaning on high dollar donors who are less transparent about their associations — like Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, neither of whom is disclosing his campaign’s bundlers — should face particular scrutiny. 

Indeed, we just learned that one of Buttigieg’s advisers on climate issues takes fossil fuel funding and was a Trump Administration witness defending climate inaction just last year

We are grateful, though, that we’re not the only ones insisting that personnel be a bigger part of the conversation. Last week, 15 organizations, including Americans for Financial Reform, Demand Progress, Center for Popular Democracy, Open Markets Institute, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Public Citizen, joined us to call on tonight’s debate moderators to ask candidates about personnel. You can find that letter here

We will be watching closely to see if moderators heed our calls. Follow along @revolvingdoorDC for our live analysis!

Congressional Oversight of the Executive Branch

We’ve consistently argued, here and elsewhere, for a broader impeachment inquiry. In our view, House lawmakers must not only target Trump for Ukraine-gate but also investigate his many assaults on Americans’ kitchen table concerns. 

This is not, however, the only sense in which lawmakers should view their impeachment mandate more broadly. In addition to expanding the universe of issues they consider, lawmakers should also broaden their investigations to include more members of the administration. By now it should be clear that Trump is not the only one who should face impeachment. 

The House should start with Attorney General William Barr. In early October, the Project’s Jeff Hauser and Max Moran laid out the case for Barr’s impeachment. It has only grown stronger in the interim. At every step of the way, Barr has exhibited no qualms about breaking the rules to protect this President. Nor is he coy about his intentions. At a Federalist Society convention late last week he laid out his philosophy of total executive branch power in all of its horrifying detail. Congress cannot let Barr’s project to subvert the system of checks and balances proceed unchallenged. 

While Barr is the most obvious case, his is decidedly not the only one. Lawmakers should also open an investigation into Mick Mulvaney’s misconduct. His wrongdoing goes well beyond the Ukraine affair. Last week, for example, we learned that his defense that OMB delays aid for political reasons “all the time” was not mere hyperbole. In 2017, Mulvaney held up anti-tank missiles that were destined for Ukraine because he was worried about the Russian government’s reaction. Needless to say, his actions overstepped the bounds of his authority and are worthy of further investigation.  

There are doubtless others, from Pompeo to Pence and more. Trump’s rot extends well beyond his person. Lawmakers cannot hope to fight back against it without targeting the president’s accomplices as well. 

Hall of Shame:  Over the course of the last few months we have been treated to one story after another detailing how opportunity zones, supposedly designed to bring investment to struggling communities, have been benefiting friends of the Trump administration. Concerns about opportunity zones are not new, but these stories have thrust them into the spotlight. With this new attention comes a question: why isn’t the Ways and Means committee investigating? Earlier this month Chair Richard Neal joined Senator Ron Wyden in requesting documents from Steven Mnuchin about one case, but he could be doing so much more. The public is demanding answers, and the Ways and Means committee is the only body not controlled by the president’s steadfast allies at present that can oblige. It must investigate opportunity zones using all of the weapons in its arsenal, including but not ending with subpoenas.

Spotlight: Maxine Waters continues to use her committee to pursue some of the country’s worst corporate actors. This week, it was private equity’s turn under the microscope. Yesterday, HFSC members questioned experts (including the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s own Eileen Appelbaum) to better understand private equity’s business model. Questioning from Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Katie Porter stood out, as usual. Hopefully Waters will follow up on this successful effort by calling executives of the largest private equity firms to give testimony. 

This Week in Tech

It's almost getting old to beat up on Facebook — sorry, FACEBOOK — at this point, but we highly recommend you check out this analysis from Sludge showing Mark Zuckerberg's lobbying shop is stacked with revolving-door figures connected to House Democratic leadership. Meanwhile, reporting from Popular Information showed that the actual chiefs of Facebook's lobbying operation are all lifelong Republicans, and that the Federalist Society's well-protested dinner for Brett Kavanaugh this week was subsidized by Facebook

No one should be surprised that Facebook plays the influence game in a bipartisan manner, but even this reporting understates the extent to which it's throwing money around Washington. A Politico analysis found Facebook spent more money on K Street ($4.1 million) than any other single company this year, with Amazon a close second ($4 million). Our own analysis finds that of the 51 lobbyists who performed registered lobbying for Facebook in 2018, all but two were former employees in Congress or the White House. One of those two was a high-ranking navy officer, and the other de-registered as a lobbyist this year.

Of course, registered lobbying is just one branch of the influence game. We've been digging into Big Tech's donations to think tanks around town, and were glad to see Bloomberg Law do some similar muckraking this week. They write about the Center for Democracy and Technology, whose heavy corporate donations (including from Facebook and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative) we and others have covered. CDT sponsored an event on Friday titled "The Future of Speech Online" alongside the Charles Koch Institute and Freedom Forum Institute.

Naturally, the Koch-funded forum discussed the myriad ways governments censor or surveil our online lives (which is an extremely worthy topic to explore), but failed to even acknowledge that the private sector does the same. An early panel on the “technology of censorship” featured, as its sole U.S. politics expert, an analyst from the Koch organization Americans for Prosperity. A later presentation on the “technology of empowerment” included a Pinterest lobbyist who oh-so-conveniently kept circling back to the importance of Section 230, the legal code which protects websites from being held liable for their user-generated content. Koch has risen to Big Tech’s defense on Section 230 and other issues. Other speakers like Jason Feifer of Entrepreneur Magazine promised to “defang the worries of today and prime the successes of tomorrow.” If CDT, Koch, and the Freedom Forum Institute truly want an open internet where debate and dissent can thrive, why control the message so vigorously? 

Independent Agencies

Last week, we took our independent agency argument straight to the Senate. In a memo shared with all Senate offices we, along with the Demand Progress Education Fund, sought to make clear the severity of the crisis in independent agency appointments and encouraged lawmakers to respond. In past newsletters, and in our monthly blog posts, we have highlighted the imbalance between Republicans and Democrats in vacancies. As of the date we sent the memo, 22 percent of Republican seats were vacant versus 32 percent of Democratic seats. 

For the memo, we expanded on that observation to determine the relative lengths of time a seat is vacant or expired without a nomination depending on its party affiliation. Our findings are striking. On average, seats that are destined for Republicans will sit for 331 days without a nomination versus 440 days for Democratic seats. Similarly, according to our findings, Democratic independent agency officials serve an average of 521 days in expired seats without a pending nomination for a successor, while Republicans serve an average of 433 days, or about three months fewer. 

These disparities are not mere coincidence but the result of a concerted effort on the part of President Trump, Mitch McConnell, and others to undermine partisan balance at independent agencies. It is our contention that these attacks should not be costless, now or in the future. For our full analysis, read the memo here.  

Want more?

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

Big Tech’s Yes Men Reassure Each Other at Harvard Law Conference

Dems Must Confront GOP Attacks On Independent Agencies; also in Politico Morning Money (11/13/2019)

Committee on Ways and Means Must Investigate Opportunity Zones

Washington Post Daily 202 (11/13/2019)

We Went on a Bus Tour of Trump’s D.C. Swamp

Freshman Democrats Seek to Make Corporate Oversight Routine Again

Calls for AG Barr’s Impeachment Intensify After ‘Lunatic Authoritarian’ Federalist Society Speech

Biden Accuses Warren of 'Elitism' While Wooing Rich Donors at Big-Money Fundraiser