For Immediate Release
Date: February 25, 2021
Contact: Maria Langholz, [email protected] (715) 209-6463
Demand Progress and Revolving Door Project Release Personnel Report Card on the Biden Administration’s Appointments (So Far)
After four years of Donald Trump deploying the government to serve powerful corporations – at the expense of everyday Americans – Joe Biden is now one month into the process of staffing his new administration. By the end of his term, Biden will have sent to the Senate well over 1,000 nominees across the executive branch and the judiciary while making more than 3,000 other appointments without Senate confirmation.
“If Joe Biden’s administration is to build back from this crisis and remedy longstanding ills like corporate monopolies, structural economic inequities, systemic racism, the climate crisis, endless wars, and more, it must be run by people dedicated to working in service of the general welfare,” said David Segal, executive director at Demand Progress. “In some areas the Biden team has far exceeded expectations — but in others we are concerned that they haven’t set themselves up to meet the moment.”
“While this administration has made great progress in comparison to past Democratic administrations when it comes to the economy, financial regulation, and climate change, there is much left to be desired on national security and the Department of Justice,” said Jeff Hauser, director of the Revolving Door Project. “In recent decades, the revolving door between BigLaw and the Justice Department has meant declining corporate and elite accountability. Our populist moment demands a shake up that will make ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ a reality.”
Below is a rundown of President Biden’s nominations to date — where we believe they’ve done well, where they’ve disappointed, and where there are remaining opportunities to shape the trajectory of the administration.
GRADING THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION
Building Back Better (Than Expected)
- Going into 2020, progressives mobilized in historic fashion, building out the infrastructure to ensure more attention was paid to presidential appointments after the election than was the case in 2008 or 1992. This effort has borne some promising early results, but legitimate concerns remain.
- Positive developments include most of Biden’s choices to date related to the economy, financial regulation, and climate. These are areas that show significant improvement from previous Democratic administrations, and signal a real interest in addressing the historic challenges of this time.
- Perhaps most concerning are the administration’s choices related to national security and its posture at the Department of Justice. On the national security front, we see troubling records on torture and military intervention. While much remains to be seen within the DoJ, Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland’s deep-rooted centrism must be paired with more aggressive progressive deputies.
Economic Policy: B
Mostly Bullish (With Some Notable Exceptions)
President Biden’s team is aggressively pressing for a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package that stands in stark contrast to the “go small” mentality of Obama’s advisers in 2009, which contributed to years of slowed economic recovery. The Biden Administration’s posture is reflective of the strength of the nominees to economic positions, and provides a hopeful sign of what could be to come.
- Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, a lifelong student of how to reduce unemployment, is a promising addition to the Biden Administration. Notably, she has moved to create a senior climate post within the Treasury Department and is urging the International Monetary Fund to release a quasi-currency “special drawing rights” to help poorer nations weather the pandemic and economic fallout. But the $7.2 million Yellen earned giving corporate speeches suggest there’s cause to keep a watchful eye. We hope this doesn’t impact her policymaking.
- Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council, deserves cautious optimism. While progressives have had concerns about his past alignment with Larry Summers and Robert Rubin, as well as his work at financial behemoth BlackRock post-Obama administration, he has been responsive to economic populist concerns in crafting the COVID relief bill and bringing in strong progressive personnel like former Elizabeth Warren aide Bharat Ramamurti as NEC deputy director and former CFPB Deputy Director Leandra English as NEC Chief of Staff.
- Cecilia Rouse, Heather Boushey, and Jared Bernstein are solid picks for the Council of Economic Advisers with strong progressive bona fides.
- Marcia Fudge was unfortunately passed over for Secretary of Agriculture, but was instead chosen for head of Housing and Urban Development. She has sent early signals that she will prioritize both gender and racial equity, and is ready to push for expanded funding for housing aid. In Congress, she has focused on support for low-income and poor families, primarily focusing on health, education, and expanded employment opportunities (including a jobs guarantee pilot).
- Gina Raimondo’s nomination for Secretary of Commerce is the most glaring problem in this space. Her record of selling out state pensioners to Wall Street hedge funds and cutting aid to poorer cities in the middle of the COVID crisis should not have been rewarded with a cabinet post. Her failed record of public benefits administration in Rhode Island and the state’s status as one of the worst in the nation in COVID prevention and vaccine rollout belie her well-managed branding as a hyper competent technocrat — and, moreover, make it unfathomable that she was nearly chosen to run Health and Human Services.
- Notably, certain other concerning figures who sought entry to the administration, like Larry Summers — omnipresent as National Economic Council director during the Obama administration — have been relegated to espousing his positions from outside the White House. Summers has already attacked the size of the COVID relief package – and reportedly being soundly ignored inside the White House.
Financial Regulation: Incomplete
Trading Indicators Are Mixed
In stark contrast to the Obama years, certain banking and financial market regulators stand out as among President Biden’s strongest personnel decisions to date — but potentially concerning decisions loom.
- Gary Gensler, chosen by Biden to head up the Securities and Exchange Commission, was one of the very best regulators during the Obama administration and is an excellent choice by the Biden administration.
- Rohit Chopra, Biden’s nominee for CFPB director, has spent the last two years charting a new path for consumer protection and competition as a commissioner at the Federal Trade Commision.
- Michael Barr, a leading contender for Comptroller of the Currency, has significant conflicts of interest when it comes to regulating banks, and more specifically fintech. Progressive pushback on Barr has seemingly stalled the nomination process, and may succeed in getting racial justice scholar Mehrsa Baradan seated in the role. Meanwhile the Acting Comptroller of the Currency is a Trump holdover who’s pushing forward with his predecessor’s agenda.
- The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation has profound authority over racial equity in banking, mergers, and many banks’ basic authority to operate. It must be staffed with people who are willing to stand up to Wall Street. The CFPB and OCC directors will serve ex-officio, but a chair is yet to be chosen.
Department of Justice: D
(But we’ll let Biden retake for full credit)
In contrast to some other key agencies, which seem well-poised to tackle the crises of this moment, the DOJ is shaping up in a deeply worrisome fashion.
- Merrick Garland, Biden’s choice for Attorney General, has deeply-held centrist views and should be paired with more aggressive progressive deputies. So far, we are not optimistic that this will happen.
- We have particular concern about the DoJ’s Antitrust Division, as potential nominees have been floated that have deep corporate ties. While prominent corporate lawyers like Renata Hesse and Susan Davies have seemingly seen their stars fall over recent weeks, lawyers who’ve worked for Big Tech and other key industries are still being considered.
- Acting officials, who hold jobs temporarily while permanent appointees go through confirmation processes, can be holdovers from the previous administration, extending their policies into the present. Right now the DoJ’s Antitrust Division lacks a nominee from Biden, and therefore Trump’s appointees are still there setting the agenda. In the Civil Division, Brian Boynon — corporate lawyer and Betsy DeVos apologist — is serving as acting head. This is cause for concern, and we hope that the Biden Administration will act swiftly to fill vacant positions within the DoJ with permanent appointments.
Other Top Independent Agencies: Incomplete
There are acting chairs, alongside open Democratic seats, at two key multi-member commissions with significant corporate regulatory power, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission. These seats need to be filled quickly to ensure that they can enforce the law and engage in key rulemakings.
- With the departure of Rohit Chopra for the CFPB, there are two open Federal Trade Commission seats. These should be filled with strong advocates with expertises in the areas encompassed by the FTC’s dual mandate — consumer protection and competition — and it is especially critical to ensure that they pick up right where Chopra left off in emboldening the FTC’s posture around enforcement, especially in the competition space. Moreover, there’s a risk of a Republican majority here if no seats are filled as of Chopra’s departure.
- Similarly, President Biden is yet to fill an empty seat on the Federal Communications Commission. This should be a priority for the administration given the importance of restoring Title II net neutrality protections, expanding broadband access, and pushing back against media and telecom consolidation. We are watching this closely, as a mix of progressive and corporate figures seem to be in play.
Climate, Energy, and the Environment: B+
A (Good) Sea Change
Across the board, Biden’s team has shown a commitment to centering the climate crisis as a top priority — and has nominated some excellent leaders in this realm. Fossil fuel insiders have been kept (mostly) outside the White House, and the folks in charge largely understand the messy relationships between labor, environment, and justice.
- Congresswoman Deb Haaland’s selection to be Secretary of the Interior marks a fundamental shift in the Democratic Party. She has stated that she is “wholeheartedly against fracking and drilling on public lands.” If confirmed, she will also become the first Native American in a Cabinet position.
- The choices of John Kerry to fill a new, Cabinet-level climate position and former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy coordinating domestic policy from the White House are strong signals of this administration’s intentions to prioritize climate policy.
- Jennifer Granholm, Biden’s choice for the Department of Energy, is one of the clearest signals of where this administration’s thinking is on climate. Granholm has spoken out forcefully about disastrous fossil fuel projects like the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, and will be the first true clean energy advocate to head up the agency. BP advisor Ernest Moniz — and other fossil fuel representatives — out of this role which he previously held.
- We have cautious optimism about Michael Regan, Biden’s choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. During his time leading the Department of Environmental Quality in North Carolina, Regan pushed massive utility Duke Energy to clean up its toxic coal ash and fought Trump’s offshore oil drilling plans. It’s this corporate accountability we hope to see from him at the EPA. Some in-state groups have raised issues about his record on environment justice, and this is something we will be monitoring closely.
- Tom Vilsack’s his friendliness toward corporate conglomerates in his earlier stint as Secretary of Agriculture — not to mention his poor record of supporting Black farmers — unfortunately make this a space to watch with a skeptical eye.
No Major Grievances
The Biden team has so far installed people who genuinely care about the wellbeing of workers.
- Katherine Tai, Biden’s choice for US Trade Representative, has promised “worker-centered” trade policy and managed to help insert pro-labor policies into the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement signed by Donald Trump.
- Marty Walsh, nominee for Labor Secretary, has a track record on workers’ rights that befits a union worker who rose through the ranks to lead the Boston Building Trades before becoming mayor of Boston.
- The number two at Labor will be Julie Su, who gained a sharp reputation as she “battled with major corporations” as California’s labor secretary and was pushed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
- It is commendable that Biden fired Trump’s notoriously anti-union National Labor Relations Board general counsel, Peter Robb, on the first day of his presidency and replaced Robb with CWA lawyer Jennifer Abruzzo.
- While these appointments on a whole provide a good starting point for Biden’s Department of Labor, there are still many positions remaining — and some reason for concern about how these positions will be filled. Big Tech hopes to insert allies as her deputies, aided by the revolving door between USTR and corporations, notably Big Tech, which have much to gain or lose from trade deals
National Security: C
Will They Extend an Olive Branch to Progressives?
Many of the leading foreign policy figures in the Biden Administration are re-treads from the Obama administration with troubling records on torture and military intervention. But there might be reason to be hopeful that their worldviews have shifted to align with Biden’s more recent skepticism of major military interventions.
- In choosing William Burns to head the CIA, Biden passed over “torture apologist” Michael Morell and selected a career diplomat who was responsible for starting the negotiations for the original Iran Nuclear Deal.
- Lloyd Austin, Biden’s pick for Secretary of Defense, at least fills that role with an expert in troop drawdowns, which lends reason for hope about Biden’s plans to end the so-called endless wars. He was also an early opponent to U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. He raises concerns, though, regarding conflicts of interest with the military-industrial complex, including service on the board of the arms dealer Raytheon.
- Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan both have concerning hawkish histories and corporate entanglements. Over recent years they came to recognize that U.S. support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen was a mistake — and certain early moves, like a swift effort to return to the Iran Deal and an end for support for Saudi “offensive operations” in Yemen, give reason for hope about their postures moving forward.
- Avril Haines, the new Director of National Intelligence, has a concerning record from her time as deputy head of the CIA. She repeatedly covered up evidence of the Bush-era torture program, declined to discipline agents who illegally hacked into the computers of the Senate committee investigating CIA misconduct, and then came out loudly in support of Donald Trump’s selection of Gina Haspel for CIA director, even though Haspel had overseen a black site where torture took place.
- What had been seen as the inevitable choice of Michèle Flournoy for Secretary of Defense was stopped. Her historically hawkish views in favor of military escalation and arms sales could have undermined the will to institute a more progressive vision for national security. She even supported continued sales to the Saudi government after party consensus decided that this was beyond the pale.
Vital Signs Are Improving
The Biden team has chosen top people who appear committed to following the science — and making healthcare better, more affordable, and more accessible.
- Xavier Becerra, nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, is a solid choice. He has backed Medicare for All and supported the use of “march-in rights” to seize patents for pharmaceutical drugs made with federal support. In his time as California’s attorney general, he helped lead efforts amongst state attorneys general to fight back against Trump’s attacks on the Affordable Care Act.
- When it comes to policy, Dr. Vivek Murthy is a promising choice for surgeon general. He was surgeon general under Obama, he advised Biden on the coronavirus pandemic, and is a strong public health advocate. However, Murthy also made millions advising companies during the pandemic and we have concerns about how his relationships with these corporations could impact his advice as surgeon general.
A Key Trump Holdover Needs to Be Expelled
There are early encouraging signs for K-12 in particular — but the department’s principal powers are Higher Ed.
- Miguel Cardona, nominee for education secretary, is a fervent advocate for public schools — a much welcomed change from the years of DeVos. We have cautious optimism for Cardona given his record, though much will be determined by how the administration chooses to handle the rest of the department. And Cardona should push through resistance and ensure forgiveness of large sums of student debt.
- It is concerning that Mark Brown continues to lead the student loan program at the Department of Education, a holdover from the Trump administration. As calls for student debt forgiveness grow, it is alarming that someone who broke the law in an attempt to deny aid to student borrowers is in this position.
More from Revolving Door Project and Demand Progress:
This report card builds on our previous work to push back on corporatism and advocate for effective, people-centered appointments to the administration. To learn more about which agencies and positions specific industries are seeking to influence, as well as the industry-tied individuals who might seek to lead them, check out NoCorporateCabinet.com from the Revolving Door Project and Demand Progress, the Revolving Door Project Industry Agenda reports and Personnel Map, and Demand Progress polling showing the overwhelming bipartisan support for a corporate-free Biden Administration.
About Revolving Door Project
The Revolving Door Project (RDP), a project of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), scrutinizes executive branch appointees to ensure they use their office to serve the broad public interest, rather than to entrench corporate power or seek personal advancement. For more information, visit: https://therevolvingdoorproject.org/.
About Demand Progress
Demand Progress and our more than two million members seek to protect the democratic character of the internet – and wield it to make the government accountable and contest concentrated corporate power. For more information, visit: http://demandprogress.org.