Newsletter 74: From disclosures to nominations, Biden must move faster
Almost two months after he took office, Biden’s Cabinet is nearing completion. Nearly all of the six remaining spots seem set to be filled in relatively short order. Now, with the senior-most leadership in place, more permanent hiring for other political roles is likely to accelerate. And with that in mind progressives and good government groups are engaging in another push to ensure that public interest-minded officials populate all levels of political leadership. On Thursday, 46 groups sent a letter to Chief of Staff Ron Klain asking that new hires at the Justice Department not hail from BigLaw and that those with connections to firms who have already been hired recuse from policy and personnel decisions that could impact former clients.
Revolving Door Project and others have been closely monitoring nominees’ personal financial disclosures to get a clearer view into their past clients and the extent and severity of their conflicts of interest. Some have noted the lengthy delays in the release of certain high-profile appointees’ disclosures, like national security adviser Jake Sullivan. As the American Prospect notes, nominees are required to file financial disclosures within 30 days of taking office, but nearly two months after Biden was inaugurated and Sullivan assumed his role, his disclosures are still not publicly available. Only after repeated requests did the Prospect learn that they would be available to request on March 19, alongside disclosures for other senior officials.
Why the delays? The White House has offered little insight. What’s clear, however, is that this lapse in transparency is both substantively alarming and politically damaging. Sullivan and others have been performing their official duties for just shy of two months, at a critical political juncture, during which time the public has been left with almost zero information about the factors that could be influencing their judgment. In the absence of ethics policies that slam shut the revolving door, public scrutiny is an even more essential safeguard.
The politics of withholding financial information are also no good. By delaying the release, the administration has prompted speculation about the contents of these disclosures and introduced the possibility that there may be something unusual about them. (This is likely not helped by the fact that protracted delays in the release of annual financial disclosure reports for Trump appointees turned out to stem from ethics officials’ determination that initial, and in one case, final, submissions were not accurate).
As we detailed in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland last week, rebuilding trust in the government following Trump’s disastrous administration requires that officials set a higher ethical bar. Ideally, that means keeping out officials with severe conflicts of interest. Barring that, however, leaders across the administration should make commitments to uphold new levels of transparency. We specifically requested, for example, that the Justice Department promptly release ethics agreements for new hires from BigLaw firms.
Recent attention on those financial disclosures that are publicly available has underscored another shortcoming of the Biden administration’s ethics regime: few restrictions on revolving out of government. Pour over appointees’ disclosures and you will see exactly how quickly and effectively many turned previous experience in government into enormous salaries. While many characterize this as a harmless perk of government service, it is anything but. In a recent article for the LA Progressive, our Elias Alsbergas breaks down why these rotations out of the revolving door should concern you.
New reporting has added to our longstanding concerns about the possible politicization of career hiring under Trump. Two whistleblowers in the Department of Justice have alleged that a recent hire for a senior career position was selected for his loyalty to Trump over more qualified applicants. That pick resulted from a hiring and interview process that Jeffrey Clark, a political appointee who was heavily involved in Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results, led. Of course, these specific allegations warrant an investigation.
But that, alone, is not enough. Without further oversight, we cannot know with any confidence if this was an isolated incident. The very real possibility that it was not should be reason for alarm. Trump loyalists hired into senior career roles could be in a position to frustrate the Biden administration’s efforts. Over the longer-term, politicized hiring could also undermine confidence in civil service independence. Democrats in Congress should not let these potential problems fester, but undertake a proactive audit of hiring for senior roles to identify and contain any damage.
Identifying politicization will be easier in some corners of government than others. Trump’s takeover of immigration courts, for example, has occurred in plain view. Immigration judges hired under Trump (over half of the total) are less likely to have relevant qualifications and much more likely to order deportations. It is difficult to believe that this trend would have emerged from a hiring process that considered candidates solely on the basis of merit, not ideological affiliation. Still, additional investigation is needed to confirm the extent of the problem and craft commensurate solutions. Biden has already indicated that he will aim to expand the number of immigration judges so that the system has the capacity to deliver the due process it claims to offer and, presumably, to dilute Trump appointees’ influence. Immigration judges and outside advocates, meanwhile, are calling on the administration to tackle the problem of judicial independence by recognizing the immigration judges’ union, which the Trump administration decertified. (Immigration judges have indicated a desire to bargain for greater judicial independence to better insulate the immigration court system from politicization.) Further digging may suggest additional steps.
There’s no doubt that managing even limited civil service politicization is a complex task. Sweeping out political holdovers from the Trump administration, however, is not. Biden has made good progress in this regard but several consequential figures remain. That includes FBI Director Chris Wray, who should be under new scrutiny this week following revelations that the FBI may not have ever conducted a Senate-requested additional background check on then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh following allegations of sexual assault.
Biden has officially made his nominations to the USPS Board of Governors! With DeJoy reportedly set to release plans for even more changes to the Postal Service within days, the Senate must act quickly to confirm these picks and prevent disaster.
Biden, meanwhile, still needs to pick up the pace on new nominations. Despite enormous attention on the ongoing deterioration of the Post Service and mounting public anger at DeJoy, it took Biden weeks to announce names and additional weeks after that to send them to the Senate. If that’s what happens for high-profile picks, imagine how long we’ll have to wait for nominations to boards that are much more obscure.
Take, for example, the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board which oversees federal employees’ pension fund, the Thrift Savings Plan. A group of federal employees are currently advocating for the Board to move its $800 billion in assets under management out of fossil fuels, which are a loser for the planet and federal retirees’ wallets. Biden can easily ensure that it happens by nominating five new members to the Board, replacing four who are serving expired terms and filling one empty seat. As our Dorothy Slater wrote for the blog, “Appointing five new members to the FRTIB is low-hanging fruit that would have a huge impact on people, whose retirement funds would be invested in safer industries, and the planet, which would benefit from fossil fuel divestment.” Biden should harvest this opportunity immediately, not precious months or years from now.
Want more? Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last week: