Democrats need to get serious about combatting and evading slime
Here at Revolving Door Project, we spend a significant portion of our time working to explain how and why executive branch positions matter. Our team members have collectively published tens of thousands of words detailing the tools executive agencies have to help regular people and insisting that this administration make full use of them.
And yet, one of the clearest illustrations of our case to date came in the form of a New Yorker profile on the American Accountability Foundation published over the weekend. AAF is the right-wing “slime machine” that “aims to thwart the entire Biden slate” of nominees. Although most likely hadn’t heard of the group prior to this weekend, anyone who follows politics will be familiar with its work which has included driving some of the ugliest attacks against nominees such as Saule Omarova, Lisa Cook, and Sarah Bloom Raskin. For AAF, attacking nominees is a way to “‘take a big handful of sand and throw it in the gears of the Biden Administration,’ making it ‘as difficult as possible’ for the President and his allies on Capitol Hill “to implement their agenda.” And it hasn’t just targeted the highest profile roles because, as founder and director Tom Jones told Fox News last spring, “that second tier are really the folks who are going to do the day-to-day work implementing the agenda.”
This is a point that we’ve sought to emphasize throughout our work: while Democrats and progressives have all too often ignored the potential of executive branch action, corporations and those working on their behalf devote significant resources to shaping executive policy and appointments in their favor. It would appear, however, that the Biden administration failed to take that lesson to heart. By all accounts, the White House was ill-prepared to combat the slime that AAF has unleashed. Its defense of nominees like Omarova, for example, was famously pitiful. Its biggest mistake, however, arguably came much earlier. The President should have followed our repeated advice and moved with urgency to name all critical nominees right out of the gate, when they could still benefit from his post-inauguration momentum. With each passing month, the White House’s position has only grown weaker, making each nominee’s path to confirmation steeper.
But, unfortunately, there’s no turning back the clock now, so the administration will have to do its best with the reality as it is now. That means mounting a more formidable defense for nominees who are currently being subjected to horrendous right wing attacks (see: Gigi Sohn, nominee to the Federal Communications Commission). It also means recommitting to filling all remaining non-Senate-confirmed vacancies with the best possible candidates.
Senate Democratic leadership could also help relieve the pressure on existing nominees. The glacial pace of Senate confirmation proceedings has provided AAF ample time to generate and propagate bogus narratives. As we’ve written before, Senate Majority Leader Schumer could reduce the time AAF has to, to paraphrase, throw sand in the administration’s gears by moving to reduce the amount of floor time the Senate must allocate for each nominee.
In a series of back and forth reporting volleys that left heads spinning, White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy has confirmed that she is not, in fact, stepping down from her role as Joe Biden’s climate advisor…for now. News of McCarthy’s departure and her attempts to downplay an eleventh hour exit marked the beginning of the end for many of the advisors who weathered a tumultuous freshman year in Biden’s White House. A major shake up is on the way, with Democrats in competitive House districts retiring in waves and Biden officials wary of a GOP-controlled congress lining up an exodus of their own.
With future Biden cabinet officials likely facing a confirmation blockade by the imminent Republican Senate majority, non-Senate confirmed appointments like McCarthy’s will take on even greater importance, serving as the few roles Biden has full control over seating in his administration.
As November approaches, the Beltway press has picked up on the conservative consensus rearing its head in the Biden White House that elevating moderate policy positions and personnel are critical to wooing swing voters in the upcoming elections. But positioning centrists like Michael Barr, Gina Raimondo, and predicted McCarthy successor Ali Zaidi to assume ever more control in the post-midterm administration will do little to help the Biden administration succeed. In fact, such appointments are likely only to move the administration further from enacting popular policies that have a shot at extricating Biden from dismal approval ratings, especially given his break from campaign promises on fossil fuel leasing and student debt cancellation. As Elizabeth Warren wrote in the New York Times, there is still a narrowing path for Democrats To Avoid Disaster in November, but only if Biden uses his executive authority to lead the charge.
Some agencies are working hard to ensure their impact is felt quickly. Just last week, for example, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) lawyer filed a brief asking the Board to reverse a number of anti-labor precedents. If the board obliges, workers will face many fewer obstacles on the path to union formation and recognition. Or, as Harold Meyerson wrote for The American Prospect, “Should the Board vote to uphold these arguments, the legal playing field for employer-employee relations, which has tilted steeply toward management for the past 50 years, would be considerably evened out.”
Other agencies, however, have been far less zealous advocates for the public interest. The White House should focus its energy on deploying these untapped tools over the coming months. Over the weekend, the New York Times Editorial Board laid out some of the steps that the new Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office can take to combat widespread abuse in the patent system and, in the process, bring down inflated drug prices. As many environmental advocates have pointed out, the administration also has numerous options to genuinely begin providing relief from rising fuel prices in the short and long-term. Instead, it has opted to unnecessarily provide concessions to the fossil fuel industry by reopening oil and gas lease sales on public lands, a change that is likely to have zero impact on supply.
The administration should undoubtedly target problems like these that are inflicting the most pain on working families, but it also need not limit itself to them. Taking on persistent nuisances, like robocalls or airline cancellations, could also pay political dividends.
Think tanks, policy councils, formal advisors, informal advisors, congressional committees, and entire government research offices are some of the plausible resources Joe Biden has at his disposal for measured and effective policy advice on subjects ranging from climate change to tax policy. It is striking then that despite the glut of anointed policy experts and life-time government officials, Biden has turned at regular intervals to big businesses and its respective influence networks to set policy that can only work if it regulates the very corporations now producing it.
As Time wrote last week, “Across the Biden Administration, and around the world, government officials have increasingly focused their attention on the private sector—treating companies not just as entities to regulate but also as core partners.” This high order public private partnership has seen Brian Deese, once the dedicated greenwasher at the multinational investment leviathan BlackRock, assume the helm of the National Economic Council, pharmaceutical firms like Pfizer and Moderna reap billions in tax-payer subsidies only to advise against critical pandemic-ending patent sharing with developing nations, and even a Secretary of Commerce more intent on taking advice from big tech monopolies than trust busting them.
As our team at RDP detailed in the latest Industry Agenda Report, corporate “solutions” like carbon offsets have emerged concurrently with the energy industry polluting faster and stronger than ever before, while at the same time offering a convenient cover for politicians taking fossil fuel cash, and executives adapting to a greenwashed media landscape. In the past month, Biden has signaled a massive push to increase rare earth metal extraction while also changing the rules that regulate mining (they haven’t been updated since the 1800’s), giving electric car manufacturers and all those involved in their production prime seats at the planning table. The dash to convert to EV’s is better than nothing on the climate front, but car manufacturers and mining companies shouldn’t dictate the pace and policy of the forward charge.
At RDP, we are continuing to track the Biden administrations successful efforts to crackdown on corporate crimes, whether through toughened regulatory agencies like the SEC and FTC, or with sweeping executive actions like those released last summer to spur competition and reel in corporations failing to address the supply chain breakdowns swelling their profits while leaving consumers in the lurch. You can read more about hits and misses in our corporate crackdown series here.
Thanks to Dan Boguslaw for his contributions to this edition.
Want more? Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last week: