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Blog Post | April 8, 2021

Biden Cabinet Confirmations Show Continued Political Potency Of Revolving Door Critiques

CabinetDepartment of JusticeEthics in GovernmentExecutive BranchRevolving DoorRight-Wing MediaTreasury Department
Biden Cabinet Confirmations Show Continued Political Potency Of Revolving Door Critiques

This article is an update to our ongoing efforts tracking the right-wing’s revolving door attacks on Biden. Read our previous installment here.

It’s April, and after some lengthy hearing delays and razor-thin final votes, President Biden finally has a nearly-full Cabinet.

As the battle to confirm other executive branch officials rages on, one clear lesson to draw from Biden’s first round of confirmations is the continued importance of revolving door critiques. While some Biden nominees did face absurd and offensive attacks from Senate Republicans, others were criticized by conservatives in Congress and the media for their well-documented ties to corporate America and potential conflicts-of-interest.

As we’ve written on this blog before, the GOP’s hypocritical co-opting of anti-corruption arguments is dangerous. Republicans have time and again proven more interested in creating electoral liabilities for Democrats than in holding public officials accountable for blatant conflicts of interest or unethical conduct they have previously criticized Democrats for. Further, the right-wing’s revolving-door attacks serve to discredit and undermine efforts by progressive reformers to restore ethics in government and keep corporate revolvers out of the Executive Branch.

Here’s our roundup of the revolving door critiques levied by right-wing lawmakers and media outlets against Biden’s first batch of nominees. 

Merrick Garland

Garland, who was famously denied a hearing by Senate Republicans in 2016, finally got his chance to appear before the Judiciary Committee in February. While he encountered far less GOP resistance this time around, Garland did face tough questions from Senator Josh Hawley, who asked Garland about an Intercept/Prospect report that his former aide Susan Davies — who represented Facebook in a 2012 antitrust suit — was being considered to lead the DOJ’s Antitrust Division. Garland denied these rumors, but alarmingly praised Davies as a “fantastic lawyer […] with strong ethical judgment” and left open the possibility she could join the DOJ in a different role. Ted Cruz, fresh off his weekend getaway to Cancun, seized upon Garland’s response to ask how he would handle the DOJ’s ongoing antitrust lawsuit against Google. While Garland bluntly brushed aside concerns he would drop the case by noting that he did not own Google stock, Cruz and Hawley’s arguments were promptly picked up by other anti-Big Tech Republicans like Congressman Ken Buck. Reflecting on Garland’s hearing in a New York Post op-ed, Trump campaign advisor Harmeet Dhillon argued that Garland’s “vague platitudes and nebulous talking points” about Big Tech should “make the Senate think twice” about confirming him.

Setting aside how Cruz (who once helped Google defeat an antitrust case), Hawley (whose pseudo-populist act is undermined by his own opposition to workers’ collective bargaining rights), and the GOP’s critique of Tech is an incoherent extension of the culture war rather than a meaningful opposition to monopoly power, Garland’s ties to Big Tech allies are a genuine concern. In addition to Susan Davies, Tech allies like Renata Hesse (who represented Google and Amazon in antitrust cases), Emily Loeb (who helped Apple obstruct the House’s Big Tech investigation), Karen Dunn (another Apple lawyer who prepared Garland for his committee hearing), and longtime Garland friend Jamie Gorelick (an Amazon board member) have been floated for or named to top DOJ posts. Garland himself has made the erroneous and deeply revealing claim that keeping corporate lawyers out of the antitrust division would be impractical, despite an appeal from 37 progressive and good-governance groups, including ours. Given the troubling attempts by Big Tech to influence the Biden transition, there remains ample reason to be concerned about how Attorney General Garland will approach antitrust enforcement.

Lloyd Austin

Austin, a former Raytheon board member, has been criticized by Republican anti-interventionists over his ties to the defense contracting giant. While Austin has divested his entire $1.7M Raytheon portfolio and formally recused himself from official DoD matters relating to Raytheon, he remains a potent target for revolving door attacks. Fox host and former Bubba the Love Sponge guest Tucker Carlson said of Austin’s transition from the defense industry to government: “If you saw something like this happen in a Central American country, you would call it corruption, and you would be right.” In February, prominent conservatives — including NewsMax contributor John Cardillo, political strategist Alexander Bruesewitz, and accused sexual predator Madison Cawthorn  — blasted Austin (who by then had already divested his Raytheon shares) for permitting a lucrative DoD contract with Raytheon to go through. Many of these same Republicans had never voiced similar concerns about Trump Defense Secretary (and former Raytheon lobbyist) Mark Esper, who refused to recuse himself from matters relating to Raytheon while in office.

The right-wing backlash to Austin follows genuine efforts by progressives like Mark Pocan and Barbara Lee (the sole “no” vote on the 2001 AUMF) to rein in the military-industrial complex. As both I and my Revolving Door Project colleagues have written, defense contractors like Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin have a vested financial interest in promoting violence abroad and should be kept away from influencing public policy. Other watchdog groups and journalists like LittleSis and David Sirota have highlighted Austin’s troubling ties to private equity firm Pine Island Capital Partners, a prolific pandemic profiteer. While certainly less overtly hawkish than potential nominee Michele Flournoy, Austin (whose first major action was to recommend and carry out deadly airstrikes in Syria) remains in the revolving door spotlight for good reason. 

Neera Tanden

Center for American Progress (CAP) President and legendary poster Neera Tanden, the first major Biden nominee to be withdrawn, was grilled by Republicans not only for her caustic tweets, but also for CAP’s receipt of millions in donations from corporations like Blackstone, Facebook, Walmart, BlueCross BlueShield, Northrop Grumman, and DeVry. In Tanden’s first confirmation hearing, Josh Hawley listed donations to CAP from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Bain Capital, and the UAE government as potential conflicts of interest had she been confirmed to lead OMB. Noted dialectic-lover John Neely Kennedy echoed Hawley in a subsequent Budget Committee hearing, asking Tanden what she would do in office “if Wall Street [came] calling”. Over the course of Tanden’s botched nomination, these revolving door concerns were also echoed by pundits like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham

While some in media and political circles were quick to criticize Republicans’ handling of Tanden’s nomination as hypocritical (it was) or racist (I’d strongly beg to differ), few acknowledged the legitimate revolving-door concerns about Tanden voiced by progressives. Senator Bernie Sanders, a frequent target of Tanden’s Twitter tirades, called out CAP’s corporate fundraising under Tanden and asked her to pledge that CAP’s corporate donations would not influence her decision-making at OMB. Anti-corruption expert Zephyr Teachout has similarly cited CAP as “one of the most aggressive think tanks courting corporate donors”, while our own Jeff Hauser has called CAP’s corporate fundraising “corrosive” and “a way for [corporations] to build credibility in Washington.” Others on the left have blasted Tanden for previously supporting cuts to social safety net programs, censoring reporting at big donors’ request, and allegedly shutting down CAP affiliate ThinkProgress after its staff unionized.

Expect many of these concerns about Tanden to resurface if she receives a consolation-prize job in the White House as promised.

Vanita Gupta

Gupta’s nomination, like Tanden’s, has been plagued by not only disingenuous complaints about her social media presence, but also her connections to private industry. Gupta’s multimillion dollar stake in chemical giant Avantor, whose board is chaired by her father Rajiv, has come under fire from multiple Republican Senators. Dairy Queen aficionado Chuck Grassley, outraged that Avantor’s products have been easily diverted by drug cartels to produce heroin, grilled Gupta for further details on her ownership stake in the company. John Cornyn (evidently still angry about Gupta’s work freeing 35 people wrongfully convicted and imprisoned by him) similarly criticized Gupta during her confirmation hearing in a heated exchange that was covered by the Daily Caller, Fox News, and the National Review. The Gupta family’s ownership stake in auto parts manufacturer Aptiv PLC also prompted the Washington Free Beacon and Breitbart to contrast Gupta’s support for a $15 minimum wage with Aptiv’s $1.30 hourly wage at its Zacatecas, Mexico plant. 

The right-wing’s strong opposition to Gupta has caused her nomination to stall in the Senate, prompting a prolific campaign by leading civil rights organizations to get her confirmed. While she will likely prevail in a final floor vote, Gupta (who spearheaded the DOJ’s landmark investigations of police departments in Ferguson and Baltimore) is yet another example of a nominee with troubling corporate ties being derailed by cynical partisan actors. 

Janet Yellen

We last mentioned the right-wing’s reaction to Yellen, whose financial disclosures revealed millions in corporate speaking fees, in our January blog update. A mere two days after we published our update, Yellen’s ties to the Ken Griffin-owned hedge fund Citadel (from whom she received over $800,000 in speaking fees) received newfound attention amidst the Gamestop stock frenzy. Yellen’s lucrative speaking gig for Citadel — which invested $2 billion into Gamestop short-seller Melvin Capital Management and whose affiliate Citadel Securities executed trades placed on investing app Robinhood — was seized upon by right-wing pundits Sean Hannity, Dinesh D’Souza, and Jack Posobiec, as a textbook example of crony capitalism and called for Yellen to recuse herself from any related matters.

We have urged Yellen (and all former paid speakers joining the Biden administration) to publish in full all of the paid speeches she delivered to major corporations and industry trade groups. Absent greater disclosure, we can expect the right-wing’s revolving door attacks to only increase. 

Tom Vilsack

Vilsack — whose catastrophic prior stint as Agriculture Secretary was a massive windfall for Big Ag and factory farms at the expense of black farmers, family farms, and meatpacking workers — has returned to the Department of Agriculture after spending the past four years as the president and CEO of a dairy industry trade group. Following Vilsack’s nomination, The Daily Caller seized upon shockingly-true reports that he had mulled resigning as Agriculture Secretary in 2015 because he had “literally nothing to do.” Fox News, meanwhile, took note of Vilsack’s revolving-door journey, reporting that his $1 million 2018 salary as a dairy lobbyist was “funded by mandatory fees from struggling dairy farmers” amid a downturn in milk price that had driven some farmers to suicide. Fox’s report also made note of progressive opposition to Vilsack, quoting organizers from anti-Big Ag group Family Farm Action. White nationalist outlet Breitbart, whose 2010 smear campaign against USDA official Shirley Sherrod led to Vilsack’s appalling decision to fire her, joined Fox in reporting on progressive opposition to Vilsack’s selection for USDA over agriculture policy expert Marcia Fudge. 

While a broad coalition of environmental, racial, agricultural, and economic justice groups opposed Vilsack’s nomination from the very beginning, right-wing media coverage of Vilsack indicates that conservatives will exploit revolving door critiques to not only embarrass Biden, but to discredit and disrupt progressives as well. Given Vilsack’s alarming suggestion last month that the U.S. restart the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations — an issue that partly cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 election — we can expect this type of coverage to continue. 

Vivek Murthy

Like Vilsack, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is another Obama-era official returning to a position he’s held before, and much like Vilsack, Murthy spent the Trump years offering his government expertise to powerful corporations. During the pandemic, he earned over $1 million consulting for Carnival Corporation (whose Grand Princess cruise ship became an early Covid superspreader site), Airbnb (whose abrupt cancellation policy changes and subsequent bailout lobbying during the pandemic angered many gig workers), and Netflix (which aggressively lobbied to weaken California’s lockdown restrictions). Murthy’s ethics filings — which we have previously discussed — quickly became a top news story on Breitbart and were amplified by conservatives like far-right Senator Marsha Blackburn and self-described “grandma-killerBethany Mandel

For pointing out Murthy’s problematic corporate connections, our own Jeff Hauser faced strong pushback from indignant Biden defenders and zealous Biden supporters who insisted that Murthy was being unfairly criticized and was simply “an expert in [his] field paid to provide advice on safety measures.” This is both a laughable excuse and a disturbing refusal to hold public officials accountable. Murthy’s former employers could easily lean on their existing connections to him to gain regulatory exemptions or lax oversight of their activities. The revolving door works in both directions: what services a government-to-industry revolver can render for corporate clients AND the unique insider access an industry-to-government revolver can grant to former clients. 

As my colleague Elias Alsbergas put it, “It is questionable what people like Murthy bring to the table that’s worth so much in the first place — surely his clients don’t need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for a fraction of his time to be told to social distance?”

Other Executive Branch Officials

Beyond the high-profile Cabinet nominees, lesser-known Biden personnel have also received the right-wing’s revolving door spotlight. Fox has recently highlighted the alarming hires of for-profit college allies Alicia O’Brien and Brian Boynton to high-ranking executive branch positions, a scoop first broken by our friends at the Republic Report. The National Review mentioned our open letter to White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain urging him to keep Big Tech-connected staff like Steve Ricchetti and Lisa Monaco away from antitrust personnel decisions.

The release (after weeks of delays and repeated inquiries) of financial disclosure forms for top White House staff (which we and our friends at The Prospect, The Daily Poster, and The Intercept are continuing to cover) has also become a source of content for right-wing outlets. The Wall Street Journal has reported on the financial holdings of senior White House staff members Susan Rice and Jake Sullivan, who were heavily invested in companies like Microsoft, Netflix, and Pfizer. Fox has gone a step farther, noting that certain staff like Andy Slavitt, Bechara Choucair, and the infamous corporate lobbyist Anita Dunn are shockingly exempt from disclosing their income sources, former employers, debts, and assets. 

Why Does Any Of This Matter?

As we’ve mentioned before, the right-wing’s revolving-door critiques of Biden administration personnel are absolutely hypocritical, but remain a powerful political strategy for the GOP to deploy ahead of the crucial 2022 midterms. As our Jeff Hauser said, “If [Democrats] don’t listen to the left on this, they’re going to get eaten up by the right on this.”

Also crucial? The fact that voters like clean, ethical governance! Polling from Data for Progress finds that Democrats, Republicans, AND Independents want Biden to close corporate America’s revolving door into the executive branch. Following through on this desire for a conflict-of-interest-free government would help Biden draw an explicit contrast with the corrupt, dysfunctional governance style of his predecessor and solidify his support across the electorate. In other words, responding to the right-wing’s cynical attacks isn’t just a defensive necessity — it’s a political slam-dunk waiting to happen! 

While President Biden has made some promising early efforts at promoting ethical transparency (including a better-than-expected ethics pledge that went further than his Democratic predecessors), he can still do more to restore public confidence in government after four years of Trumpian kleptocracy. In doing so, he can turn a potential political liability into an opportunity to win support from voters across the political spectrum. 

As my colleagues Eleanor Eagan and Elias Alsbergas wrote recently, one area where Biden could start is with financial disclosures, which currently offer administration officials several pathways for shielding the details of their private sector work. Biden should ensure that appointees cannot hide behind entities like S corporations or invoke federally-preempted rules to hide the true names of their clients (as BigLaw revolvers like Jonathan Su have done) by setting a new disclosure standard for his administration. As over four dozen good-governance groups have noted, Biden should also require appointees to include detailed descriptions of their private sector work in financial disclosure forms, rather than vague one-word descriptors like “consulting” or “legal”. And in the case of high-ranking administration staff like Anita Dunn seemingly taking low salaries to evade transparency requirements, Biden should make them file full financial disclosures regardless or demand they resign from their positions. Together, these transparency efforts will go a long way towards bolstering public trust in the Biden administration. 

Beyond transparency efforts, Biden can also implement stronger ethics enforcement by demanding that executive branch officials divest from all single-name stocks and financial assets while in office. Such a move, supported by progressive lawmakers like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Jeff Merkley, would help prevent officials’ undetected conflicts of interest from arising later on and spawning negative news cycles. Similarly crucial to ethics enforcement would be stronger recusal rules. Biden should require that officials with strong financial or employment ties to a particular industry (such as Susan Rice and the fossil fuel industry, or Jake Sullivan and Big Tech) recuse themselves entirely from policy decisions impacting that industry. 

Above all, the Biden administration should seek to elevate, nominate, and appoint career government officials and public interest advocates, rather than BigLaw partners or corporate revolvers, to future executive branch vacancies. Revolving-door hires like Gina Raimondo, Tom Vilsack, or Mark Gallogly are unforced errors that only fuel the right-wing’s disingenuous narratives. It would also serve Biden well not to get bogged-down in perpetuating the false choice of “diversity versus ideology.” Instead, as our Jeff Hauser and Demand Progress’ David Segal wrote recently, Biden would be well-advised to follow the model of FDR, whose pledge to name a Cabinet “free of financial influence” resulted in BOTH barrier-breaking appointments like Frances Perkins AND the implementation of popular policies like the minimum wage, 40-hour workweek, and Social Security. The upside here is abundantly clear — shutting the revolving door, as history shows us, makes for good politics and good policy. 

Rebuilding trust in government after Trump shattered will indeed be a challenging task, but Biden can work to accomplish it by setting a higher ethical bar than any of his predecessors. Doing so will not just neuter one of the most potent right-wing attacks against his administration, but also empower him to win support from all corners of the electorate ahead of an election that will define his presidency. 

But if Biden doesn’t close corporate America’s revolving door into government soon, the GOP will ensure that he pays a steep political price. 

PHOTO: “Attorney General Confirmation Hearing, Day 1“, C-SPAN.

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