So much relevant corruption, such a glacial response

Newsletter 15: Everything you need to know as Congress goes on recess having, in the main, failed to do nearly enough oversight

As we wrote in our April 1st newsletter

it was always unlikely that Mueller’s investigation would prove a silver bullet capable of taking down this President without Congress needing to exert itself. The scope of the Mueller probe was always narrow, capturing only the slightest fraction of Trump’s potential wrongdoing. There are tens, if not hundreds, of allegations against this President that have nothing to do with Russian election interference and for which there is a mountain of evidence laying out in the open. 

Of course, this does not mean that the Mueller investigation was either unimportant or unnecessary. Indeed, we must fight to have the Special Counsel’s full findings (not just his report on prosecutorial decisions) made public because it is clear from Mueller’s court filings that he uncovered a great deal of damning information.

And as our founder tweeted a few weeks ago, Speaker Pelosi set up Robert Mueller (and, more directly, the idea of impeachment) to fail. Coerced, terse, and unenthusiastic testimony months after the report became (largely) public roughly 30 hours before a month and a half Congressional recess was not an effort designed to build support for impeachment, but rather to end it. (odd to see otherwise smart pundits like Nate Silver completely miss the point)

And yet, measured by members of the House or Senate leaders (Senators Murray & Stabenow, #3 & #4 in Senate Democratic leadership), momentum for impeachment has ratcheted up higher. The partial undermining of Pelosi’s intent is unsurprising. The president continues to be unabashedly racist and new evidence of his love of selling out the United States emerges all too frequently

Still, we remain worried that Pelosi’s Democrats are not acting as urgently as we have long recommended. Mueller’s investigation revealed some impeachable crimes: first, Trump and his team’s encouragement of the Russian government’s attacks on the integrity of the 2016 election, then his obstruction of justice in the wake of those assaults.

Yet important as the Mueller Report and the issues it raised were (and remain), we continue to believe congressional oversight and the impeachment debate should not be narrowly focused on Robert Mueller. The Trump administration’s pervasive corruption and abuses of power should be front and center across all 20 standing committees of the House of Representatives.

HOUSEKEEPING: We are growing! Max Moran has joined the Revolving Door Project team and will be focusing in particular on how technology companies influence everything in DC from Congress and the media to think tanks and presidential candidates. Check out his first two articles and FOIAs and be in touch if you’re looking for unpublished research. 

Congressional Oversight 

It is more with sadness than fury that we note that Donald Trump seems more scared that the House Ways and Means Committee will see any aspects of his tax returns than Committee Chairman Neal is interested in, well, doing what makes Trump nervous. That’s why Trump is suing to block Neal from doing what New York state has offered Neal --  a chance to review Trump’s state tax returns. And while the House Judiciary Committee is now investigating Trump with an eye toward impeachment, there is no indication that Neal will similarly point to the constitutional remedy of impeachment as a basis to get a federal court to speed up the process to vindicate the Committee’s belated subpoena of Trump’s illegally withheld federal tax returns.

Recall that seeing the tax returns will likely have knock on effects we cannot foresee. Republicans’ ridiculous and repetitive investigation into Clinton and Benghazi turned up her use of a private email server, leading to James Comey becoming famous and Trump becoming president. What might a forceful impeachment inquiry into, say, Trump and Lido City reveal?

Some real oversight is occurring, even if below the radar of the political press. Chairwoman Waters’ Financial Services Committee held a hearing on the merger between BB&T and SunTrust simultaneously with Mueller’s testimony last week. This merger, the largest since the financial crisis of 2007/2008, is no small matter, as we co-wrote in previewing this hearing. The resultant bank, to be named Truist, will be the nation’s sixth largest and the biggest bank in three states. 

One would hope that regulators would be taking the task of reviewing this merger seriously, but as we highlighted in a May 2 comment to the FDIC, there is reason to doubt this is the case. First, neither of the two Democratic seats on the FDIC board are in good standing; Martin Gruenberg’s seat is expired and the other seat has been vacant, with no nomination, for over a year. Second, FDIC Chair Jelena McWilliams, SunTrust lobbyist Mark Oesterle, and White House Special Assistant for Financial Policy Andrew Olmem (who is responsible for advising Trump on financial regulatory nominations) are all members of Senator Richard Shelby’s “mafia.” While we were disappointed to see that the hearing in general did not enjoy a higher profile, we were delighted to see Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hone in on these issues in her questioning. In so doing, AOC has officially given more public attention to Trump’s attacks on the FDIC than Senate Minority Leader Schumer. We hope she’ll continue to work to raise this problem’s profile!

Executive Branch

We know that we’re a broken record, but with executive branch misconduct so overwhelming and so much great journalism already out there, what the ecosystem requires most for accountability is serious congressional oversight. For instance, we remain disappointed in otherwise populist Congressman Pete DeFazio’s serial aversion to digging into Elaine Chao and the Trump Administration’s culpability for Boeing’s disastrous safety record. He has also ignored Chao’s numerous conflicts of interest with respect to her family’s shipping company.

This excellent Bloomberg deep dive demonstrates that the thoroughgoing rot goes even deeper than previously understood as revolving door ex-judge turned Boeing fixer Michael Luttig buttresses what ought to be Boeing’s tenuous position in DC. Read the article and ask yourself why House Transportation has yet to stir itself to adversarial hearings?

Similarly, Trump’s Labor Department policies are an open invitation for Congress to investigate how America’s worst employers and corporate interests exert corrupt influence over the executive branch. As the invaluable Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times writes, “Trump has turned the Department of Labor into the Department of Employer Rights.” With the rise of Acting Secretary Patrick Pizzella and nomination of Eugene Scalia, recall that Alex Acosta’s time within the Trump Administration became untenable because he was insufficiently ardent in opposing workers, not because he went soft on the malevolent Jeffrey Epstein.

2020 (and Potentially 2021)

We will have much more on the presidential field after the debates -- look for a post-mortem presidential focused newsletter to post this Thursday.

Independent Agencies

Last week the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced settlements in two high profile cases and the public balked at their leniency. Equifax and Facebook got away with a mere slap on the wrist despite monstrous abuses of privacy. Worse, in exchange for Facebook paying what amounts to an operating expense, the FTC agreed not to complete its investigation into the company’s privacy breaches, leaving what is likely a wealth of valuable information about the extent of Facebook’s wrongdoing and its effects untouched.

How did this happen? Both firms followed the standard corporate-misconduct-playbook and hired revolving door officials from the FTC to up their chances of escaping meaningful accountability. We note in the Daily Beast that cynical investments in Sean Royall, former deputy director of the Bureau of Competition, and Edith Ramirez, former Democratic FTC commissioner, paid off handsomely for Facebook and Equifax, respectively. 

These settlements, and the insider tactics used to reach them, help to highlight the number of barriers that will need to be overcome to transform the FTC into a body that serves the public interest above all else. Those committed to seeing this outcome achieved must not only focus on the commissioners leading the FTC, but the people staffing the commission at all levels. 

Unfortunately, this challenge is no less formidable at other independent agencies. Take, for example, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) which is tasked with the essential job of overseeing nuclear power plants. Earlier this month the NRC’s staff released recommendations that would reduce the frequency and stringency of plant inspections while loosening requirements that plants inform the public when things go wrong. In so doing, the NRC is handing the industry many of the items on its wish list. While the lone Democrat on the commission (the other Democratic seat has been vacant since April of this year and - Surprise! Surprise! - Trump has yet to nominate someone to fill it) has voiced his opposition to these changes, the three Republican commissioners seem eager to put the public at great risk to supercharge corporate profits. 

Although this administration has not attempted to hide its contempt for public safety, decisions like this help to drive that disdain home in a new way. They also help to illustrate that the problem lies not just with commissioners but often with senior level staff who are all too happy to accommodate demands from the regulated industry (and their likely future employer).

And color us naive, but we think voters might find the threat of a nuclear accident worthy of kitchen table discussion -- indeed, HBO just produced a buzz-inducing mini-series on the Chernobyl disaster.

Oh, and sadly, as we noted in the pages of The American Prospect in conjunction Demand Progress’ David Segal, “The SEC Remains a Secondary Concern to Chuck Schumer.”

Want more? 

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

Why Facebook’s $5 billion settlement with the FTC won’t change a thing

Facebook and Equifax Scammed Customers — and Revolving-Door Corporate Lawyers Made Sure They Got Off Easy

The Rick Smith Show 7/18/19

Big Tech Has an App for Fighting Political Scrutiny: $$$$

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez outraises PAC-backed Democrats on finance panel

Boeing Has Friends in High Places, Thanks to Its 737 Crash Czar

The SEC Remains a Secondary Concern to Chuck Schumer

Politico Morning Tech  7/24/19

Mega-Bank Merger Exemplifies Dangerous Trends

Revolving Door Project Requests Info On Big Tech Regulators

Consumer protection groups ask Libra Association members to withdraw from Facebook crypto

Libra hasn't even launched yet, and Facebook is already in trouble over it

Revolving Door Project Requests Info On Big Tech Regulators

Checks and Balance: The Nation's Business Back in Charge (paywalled, Congressional Quarterly), July 22, 2019 by Mike Magner, CQ