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Blog PostReport | December 2, 2020

Important Economic Policy Jobs Which Remain Unannounced

2020 Election/TransitionExecutive Branch

To: Interested Parties

From: Revolving Door Project and Demand Progress

Date: November 30, 1020

Re: Important Economic Policy Jobs Which Remain Unannounced

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Many crucial economic policy jobs in the nascent Biden administration have already been announced or reported, but lesser-known, equally crucial positions remain unclear. These positions will dictate whether a Biden administration’s worker, regulatory, and enforcement agendas succeed, fail, or are smothered before they are even initiated. In no particular order, here are several of the most important economic policy positions which progressives will be closely scrutinizing going forward. 

Director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs

  • Master agency: Executive Office of the President, via the Office of Management and Budget

OIRA is perhaps the most powerful agency that almost no one outside of the Beltway has heard of. It wields direct managerial power over the American regulatory state — it can issue direct orders to regulators housed within Cabinet departments (since their Secretaries serve at the pleasure of the President), and has considerable informal influence over independent agencies. OIRA claims to conduct “cost-benefit analysis” to decide if a given regulation is worth its cost, but this necessarily requires many subjective calls. Past OIRA Administrators have sided with corporate America and quantified the economic costs of regulation while ignoring the societal benefits of, say, more stringent regulations on toxins in drinking water. OIRA doesn’t need to be a corporate lobbyist’s ace in the hole for fending off tough regulation. A progressive OIRA could make sure that agencies are properly considering the harms of insufficient regulation and provide support for agencies to meet the analytical requirements that Congress mandates, instead of subjecting rules to an elementary Econ 101 analysis.  OIRA is housed inside of the Office of Management and Budget, for which Biden has nominated Neera Tanden. However, OIRA often operates with considerable autonomy while the Director works on fiscal policy, which is why the OIRA nominee is so critical.

Attorney General

  • Master agency: Department of Justice

Progressives and populists often bemoan that no bankers were prosecuted for their crimes in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. An attorney general more committed to seeing fraudsters, monopolists, and polluters face the consequences for their actions, no matter their political connections or personal wealth, would go a long way toward rebuilding public trust in government. When past Democratic attorneys general have been criticized for their light-touch approach to white-collar crime, they frequently have responded that the DOJ has a responsibility to only bring cases it is certain it can win. This is untrue, and a justification for careerist attitudes among individual DOJ attorneys prevailing over the public interest and the rule of law. Creating an effective deterrent to yet more white-collar lawbreaking requires prosecuting cases which may seem riskier, but are all the more necessary for the public good. 

US Trade Representative

  • Master Agency: Executive Office of the President

The US Trade Representative gets to — almost unilaterally — represent the U.S. in negotiating and enforcing international trade agreements (e.g., NAFTA, TPP, USMCA, etc). While it takes significant time for the USTR to negotiate a deal, much less to achieve Congressional approval, international treaties can effectively override domestic law and provide corporate America with a rigged alternative to the judicial system for handling challenges to their power (“investor-state dispute resolution” systems). Plus, the President has a unique, Congressionally-granted privilege called the Trade Promotion Authority, or “fast track.” This lets the President prohibit Congress from filibustering or amending a trade deal once it’s been put forward for the legislature to consider. If the President invokes fast track, trade deals are an all-or-nothing vote for Congress — they either agree to every last comma, or none of it at all.

Comptroller of the Currency

  • Master Agency: Department of the Treasury

The Comptroller of the Currency is the main regulator for banks which operate across state lines, which includes most of the largest banks in the country. This seemingly technocratic job carries enormous power across the entire financial system, and thus, the national economy. Especially after the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, the Comptroller has enormous regulatory powers to determine how much risk these big banks can take. Companies with a national bank charter in hand are not subject to state law or oversight, but rather to what has amounted to laxer regulations and gentler oversight from the OCC’s supervisory staff. Comptrollers over the last 40+ years have consistently broadened the definition of a “national bank” and mostly been an obstacle to more vigorous regulation, but a more independent Comptroller might use their abilities to rein in the sector and its riskiest practices. The Comptroller also sits on two important boards: the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) which designates and regulates “Too Big To Fail” institutions; and the Federal Depository Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which has oversight over bank mergers, community investment standards, and deposit insurance. 

Undersecretary of the Treasury for Domestic Finance

  • Master Agency: Department of the Treasury

This Treasury official is in charge of both the Department’s financial regulation priorities, and of financing the federal debt. That gives this one individual deep power regarding whether Wall Street and the financial industry face aggressive auditors and regulators, and whether Treasury will use all available measures to make sure that Republican intransigence on government funding and the debt ceiling do not harm the most vulnerable. Barack Obama and Donald Trump both skirted around Senate confirmation for this job: In 2015, after Elizabeth Warren sunk banker Antonio Weiss’ candidacy for the position, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew appointed Weiss as a “counselor” instead, and gave him similar job responsibilities. Trump, meanwhile, never sent anyone to be confirmed for the job at all. He defaulted to naming BlackRock’s Craig Phillips as a counselor, forgoing even the attempt at a Senate approved, official Undersecretary. Thus, one of the most important jobs in financial and fiscal policy has technically gone unfilled since 2015. 

Securities and Exchange Commissioners

  • Master agency: Securities and Exchange Commission

We live in a heavily financialized economy, which means the agency which oversees securities trading and financial disclosures has immense power. Unfortunately, the SEC has been lax in enforcing the requirements that do exist, and often waived meaningful punishments for large, well-connected firms. Aside from enforcing disclosure laws and preventing securities fraud, the SEC also has oversight of the PCAOB, an independent nonprofit corporation which is a sort of “watching the watchmen” regulator of the accounting industry set up in the aftermath of the Enron and WorldCom accounting frauds. The SEC’s broad regulatory powers also allow it to set new rules of the road on Wall Street: for instance, the SEC could conduct rulemaking and regulations that disrupt dangerous high-velocity trading or put reins on unchecked private equity looting. It also enforces certain corporate governance rules, including through defining the contours of the shareholder petitioning process. Chair Jay Clayton has announced that he will step down at the end of the year, leaving open both a seat on the Commission and the role of Chair. 

Federal Trade Commissioners

  • Master Agency: Federal Trade Commission

The Federal Trade Commission has broad powers to enforce consumer protection and antitrust laws, including the power to break up monopolies, prevent pharmaceutical mergers and certain anti-consumer drug pricing practices, and more. It is also America’s de facto internet privacy regulator, though its powers are limited in this area. Particularly as a new anti-monopolist movement flourishes across the country, appointing committed and brave commissioners who are dedicated to enforcing antitrust law will be a tangible and public way for Biden to stand up on behalf of workers, consumers, and small business owners. There is also a flourishing and well-documented revolving door between the FTC and many of the industries it regulates; whether or not Biden closes this door by appointing independent leaders to the FTC will send a strong message about whose side he sits on. There are currently two sitting Democrats at the FTC. A third seat will become available shortly, and one of those Democrats will be designated as Chair.

IRS Commissioner

  • Master Agency: Department of the Treasury

Practically every Democratic economist, from the left to the center, has noted that if a Democratic administration just collected the taxes already on the books, and redirected auditing resources from harassing desperate working-class people to cracking down on the opulent, it would both generate enormous government revenue and (more importantly) contribute to a far more equal society. Unfortunately, previous Democratic commissioners have not stood up to hostile Republican oversight and instead let the wealthy continue to avoid paying their fair share. Current IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig’s term is due to end in November 2022, but the President may fire the IRS Commissioner at any time — the IRS is not an independent agency. Given how Rettig has participated in, aided and abetted the Trump-era graft which Biden ran against, Biden should fire Rettig on day one.

Associate Attorney General

  • Master Agency: Department of Justice

The Associate Attorney General is third-in-command of the DOJ. All of the divisions which affect economic issues (antitrust, tax, bankruptcy trustees, etc.) and domestic social issues (civil rights, the C.O.P.S. program, etc.), as well as the environment and natural resources division, all report up directly to this one person. Depending on the way they manage and oversee these divisions, the DOJ could bring major cases against entrenched bad actors, or be a lapdog to corporate interests. It’s not the Attorney General, but it is a crucial job with broad power over the DOJ’s most important functions.

Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust

  • Master Agency: Department of Justice

The Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust coordinates all of the DOJ’s trust-busting and merger scrutiny work, in collaboration with the Federal Trade Commission. This AAG will also be in charge of shepherding the DOJ’s case to break up Google, already the most important antitrust case in a generation, as well as potential additional cases against Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and other non-technology monopolists. Whether Biden appoints a timid or a bold assistant attorney general for antitrust will make all the difference as to whether the nation indeed enters a new age of trust-busting, or allows corporate power to further consolidate and expand into Americans’ daily lives. 

Administrator of the Small Business Administration

  • Master Agency: Small Business Association

The SBA has become notorious during the COVID-19 crisis for mismanaging the PPP program, but its lack of capacity and status as a harbor for corporate interests long precedes the pandemic. This is a shame, since the SBA has some truly important, barely utilized powers. Section 8(a) gives it broad power to provide aid to small business-owners of color, whether in federal contracting, management assistance, or almost anything else. The HUBZone program also lets the SBA channel federal contracting resources into low-income communities. Both of these programs have been plagued by graft for decades. A driven and courageous leader could do an enormous amount of good with a well-managed, creatively-run SBA.

Director of the Office of Personnel Management

  • Master agency: Executive Office of the President

This is the head of the federal government’s H.R. department, meaning they have significant, under-utilized powers to hire and fire civil servants rapidly. Even before Trump, the federal government faced a crisis of too few employees, but Trump has led to unprecedented brain drain and talent drain. Biden will need to rapidly rebuild the government’s workforce in order to simply attend to the country’s needs. We also predict that unqualified Trumpist appointees plan to “burrow” into civil service posts at unprecedented numbers. Rooting them out and firing them will be OPM’s job.

2020 Election/TransitionExecutive Branch

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