It’s been over a month since Biden took office and four months since he and his transition team began choosing appointees in earnest. That makes it an apt time for a tentative assessment.
In a new release with Demand Progress, we gave him a B- overall, with wide variation across issue areas. In some, like climate, labor, and economic policy, the transition has largely exceeded expectations and earned high marks. But in others, like national security and at the Justice Department, the effort has left much to be desired. For still others, like financial regulation, we don’t yet have enough information to make even an interim assessment (which, given the important role financial regulators will play in our response to the economic, climate, and racial justice crises, is itself a problem).
The transition process, of course, is still far from over. As the administration continues to fill hundreds of lower-profile positions, it can either be reinforcing its progress and rectifying missteps or be undermining progressives’ reasons for optimism.
There is a particular risk of backsliding now that public interest in new appointments is waning. Many of the posts that remain to be filled are very powerful, but there’s no doubt that the vast majority of them are not widely understood outside of policy circles (and, in some cases, not even within them). Selecting a conflict-riddled individual to fill one of those positions is simply not going to generate the same sort of coverage as that following a Cabinet pick. (Of course, in an ideal world the administration would avoid conflicts of interest because they’re objectively bad for governance, not just because of the public backlash. But we’re not so naive to count on that.)
To see what we mean, look at Mark Gallogly, a private equity titan and mega-donor who will be joining John Kerry’s climate team. Long-time readers of our newsletter will know that we first raised alarm bells about Gallogly in April 2019, when outlets reported on his support for Beto O’Rourke’s presidential run. Despite his generous giving to Democratic candidates, Gallogly’s background — in private equity and a vulture fund that led the charge to extract as much money as possible from Puerto Rico, no matter the consequences — would likely have made him a tough sell for a high profile spot. Now, however, with public attention overwhelmingly elsewhere, he is quietly sliding into a role from which he can exert tremendous influence over climate policy. Hopefully, this is not the start of a broader trend.
As we continue to fight for unconflicted, public-minded appointees to fill remaining executive branch roles, we are also keeping our eyes on those who are just now taking up their posts. One question at the top of our minds is: how exactly are conflicted individuals managing their conflicts of interest? Do their arrangements satisfy the spirit and not just the letter of ethics law? This is particularly important as it concerns appointees with illiquid or difficult-to-value financial holdings that are difficult to unwind. That last problem, in particular, was the subject of some interest this week following an announcement that the consultancy Teneo had purchased a stake in WestExec Advisors (the timing suggests that they may have purchased Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s stake, which we know he had promised to sell). But what is a stake in WestExec worth? It’s hard to say, meaning that it’s also hard to say if the firm might have overpaid to earn favor. This is, unfortunately, just one example of the sorts of under-the-radar conflicts that could be bubbling and that require close attention.
We are also watching closely to see how appointees wield their power, particularly those with conflicts of interest. On Tuesday, for example, we joined the Center for Economic and Policy Research in calling on the White House’s COVID-19 Task Force Director Jeffrey Zients “to demand that Pfizer, Moderna, and other American pharmaceutical firms open-source their COVID-19 vaccines.” And as regulators speak at a major energy industry conference this week, we’ll be watching closely for signs of needless deference to the fossil fuel and finance industry’s preferred course of action: recommendations in place of regulation and self-policing wherever possible.
President Biden’s picks for the Postal Service Board of Governors could not have come soon enough. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy continues to signal his plans to charge ahead with an agenda that may well destroy the beleaguered agency. At a hearing last week he even told lawmakers to “get used to [him].” Luckily, Biden does not appear to be taking his advice, nor heeding the example of House Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney, who has reportedly been working behind the scenes with DeJoy on a postal reform bill.
Now that Biden has his picks for the three vacancies on the board, he should move without delay to formally submit the nominations to the Senate. If Senators are serious about saving the Postal Service, they will advance them quickly, including by sweeping aside procedural obstacles that may be slowing these and other important nominations.
Note that Biden only announced three nominees, not four. Given that USPS Governor Ron Bloom will be required to leave his seat in December of this year, and that Governor John Barger’s seat expires at the same time, this means USPS nominations will be dominating the conversation again soon. With those two additional nominations, Biden will have the power to remake the board even more extensively and make way for more ambitious reforms. That is particularly true if he nominates two Democrats for the positions. While the law stipulates that only five members of the USPS Board of Governors may belong to the same party, Biden’s decision to nominate an individual without a partisan affiliation to the USPS board this time around leaves open the possibility of having a board made up of 5 Democrats, 1 unaffiliated governor, and 3 Republicans. It will be interesting to see if he seizes that opportunity. It would be an entirely appropriate response following Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump’s all out war on the norms governing minority party independent agency nominations.
Even as we all celebrate the current nominations to the USPS board, however, it’s important to note that they represent just a fraction of the independent agency seats that will need to be filled. Across the 39 agencies that RDP tracks there are 41 vacant and 30 expired seats. So far, Biden has only announced 5 nominees for these roles.
It did not attract much attention, but last week Biden announced his nominee for one position that will have an outsized impact on his administration’s success: Kiran Ahuja to be the Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). OPM will be critical to any effort to rebuild the civil service, rapidly expand the federal government’s capacity, and stop outsourcing. Read more about what we’ll be watching for from OPM.
Want more? Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last week: