Zero Hour... for the Press

Newsletter 27: Will moderators finally interview candidates for the job for which they’re running?

2020 (and Potentially 2021)

Tonight is the last debate before the first primary votes are cast. Unfortunately, despite over a year of close campaign coverage, voters still have little readily accessible information about how each candidate would actually do the job of being president, i.e. appointing personnel, setting enforcement priorities, and taking other executive action. That makes it all the more important that tonight’s moderators focus in on presidential power.

We and a coalition of 18 groups — including Americans for Financial Reform, Demand Progress, Center for Popular Democracy, Open Markets Institute, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Public Citizen  — have once again asked them to do just that. By pushing candidates to explain “how they would wield powers specific to the executive branch,” moderators can help voters understand what each candidate would actually do as president and how it might affect regular people like them.  

Of course, motivated voters who are willing to pour over candidates’ plans can find the odd executive branch-focused commitment scattered among the abundant promises to “push for the passage of X bill.” For example, Pete Buttigieg’s new infrastructure plan promises to “prevent and address PFAS contamination by establishing science-based standards that limit the amount of PFAS in drinking water” - something that would be well within his power as president. 

Similarly, Amy Klobuchar’s new housing plan states that, as president, Klobuchar “will direct the Department of Housing and Urban Development to make sure it accurately collects market data about the cost of rental housing and provides flexibility to local housing agencies to adjust voucher amounts in higher-cost areas.” While data collection may not make for sexy policy, it is both foundational to good policymaking and can independently set in motion big, tangible improvements.

Some candidates have also promised to use their power over the disbursal of federal funds to encourage wide-reaching changes at the state and municipal levels. For example, in her new Disability Rights plan, Elizabeth Warren promises to withhold federal funds from police departments that arrest people for living outside. If put into effect, that could be a major step towards reversing the criminalization of homelessness, all without help from Congress.

But most voters are not spending their free time reading candidates’ plans. And without the media asking about it, most people probably are not aware of those executive branch-focused commitments that candidates have already made. 

Furthermore, while better than nothing, these commitments are still not enough. No candidate has moved beyond piecemeal promises to articulate a broader vision of executive branch power including who it will serve and how. As we’ve stated on numerous occasions, this must include a plan for personnel, regulations, enforcement, information-gathering, and more. 

But, as David Leonhardt argues in The New York Times this week, the next administration’s communications strategy will also be a key determinant not only of its legacy but of its political efficacy throughout the next president’s time in office. While Leonhardt focuses a bit more on legislative accomplishments, the lesson applies equally to the exercise of executive branch power. A president who employs executive power actively and creatively to advance the public interest will surely face fierce resistance from corporate America and accompanying cries of overreach. To effectively overcome these forces, they will need to not only deliver tangible benefits to regular people, but remind those people that they did.

However, even if moderators fail to ask questions related to any of these planks of executive power, all is not lost; using other sources, we can get a pretty good idea of what a candidate’s presidency would actually look like. Chief among these is a candidate’s list of bundlers. 

Amy Klobuchar belatedly released the names of her bundlers last week, joining Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden, who finally heeded our longstanding call to release the names of their fundraisers last month. With Klobuchar’s late entry, all of the major candidates who have a bundler program have now released their lists. 

It should be noted that both the timing of the lists’ release and their contents represent serious transparency backsliding. In the 2008 primary cycle, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama began disclosing the names of their bundlers by the first half of 2007. Furthermore, Obama included the amount that bundlers had raised, broken down into tiers from $50k to $100k, $100k to $200k, $200k to $500k, and $500k+. In contrast, candidates this cycle are simply releasing the names of those who raise more than $25k. 

These issues aside, however, the bundler lists are still highly informative. If history is any guide, many of the people on these lists will have a spot in their beneficiary’s administration, or at least a non-trivial say in who does. Before you watch tonight’s debate, we encourage you to read our recent article on Joe Biden’s bundlers and why they should worry you. While you’re at it, check out our twitter thread on Joe Biden’s bundlers as well as our Debate Watch Guide

And as always, follow along @revolvingdoorDC for live commentary as the debate unfolds.

P.S. Expect much more research from us on the threat posed by big money bundlers in the near future -- and reporters ought to feel free to ping us for an advance peek!

Congressional Oversight of the Executive Branch

With impeachment effectively out of the House, there is even more time to focus on the Trump administration’s other rule-breaking. We will be watching to see which committees take up that mantle and which committees choose to ignore this administration’s destructive corruption and plain cruelty. So far, it seems that effective oversight will continue to come from the usual suspects, the House Financial Services Committee and the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee. Yesterday, the antitrust subcommittee continued its inquiry into tech companies, while the House Financial Services Committee will be hearing tomorrow from the Chair of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB). Not sure why you should care about that last one? Check out this deep dive from the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) to find out!

Independent Agencies

While we certainly spend a lot of time complaining that seats on independent agency boards aren’t filled, we are not merely concerned with process, but also with what these agencies are doing. Sadly, things are not so great on that front, either, as we make clear in a recent letter to the House Financial Services and Senate Banking Committees calling for an investigation into the SEC’s dealings with WeCompany. 

As it turns out, revolving door attorneys have represented WeCompany in all of its dealings with the SEC. First, John White, former Director of the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance represented WeCompany as it underwent the review for its plainly laughable potential IPO. Next, Andrew Ceresney, the former Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, represented WeCompany as the SEC undertook an investigation into potential securities fraud within the company. As we wrote along with the Demand Progress Education Fund, the presence of these revolving door figures “cast[s] doubt on the integrity of the agency review process in both cases.”

Oh, and wondering whether WeCompany will disavow John White’s outrageous efforts to compel his connections to authorize WeWork’s inexcusable accounting? Well, probably not while represented by Ceresney, since Ceresney’s career has been advanced serially by his current law partner, Mary Jo White, the former SEC Chairwoman who is married to John White.

You can see the full letter here and read more about how the revolving door undermines the public interest 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:

The Christmas Miracle: Biden’s Unexamined List of High-Powered Fundraisers

Did a Federal Ethics Loophole Worsen the Vaping Crisis?

WeWork’s Revolving-Door Games Called Into Question

The Revolving Door Project and Demand Progress Call On Lawmakers to Investigate Revolving Door's Influence on SEC's WeCompany Review

What an Elizabeth Warren Presidency Would Look Like

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Revolving Door Project is a project of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.