In the space of just a few weeks, the coronavirus outbreak has called into question almost every aspect of the political consensus of the last few decades. As it turns out, selling government for parts (aka “privatizing” or “reinventing” government), rolling back regulations, starving governing bodies of resources, and holding those who attempt to serve the public good in contempt, has left us exceedingly vulnerable.
Revolving Door Project has been trying to drive home this point since its beginning. Our mission has always been to “scrutinize executive branch appointees to ensure they use their office to serve the broad public interest, rather than to entrench corporate power or seek personal advancement.” Trump has long embodied the antithesis of our vision, and as we have long argued, the ways in which Trump’s corrupt and malevolent mismanagement of the executive branch endangers ordinary Americans ought to be the principal focus on Congress’ oversight, including impeachment.
The coronavirus is providing a massive (although deeply unwelcome) boost to our thesis. No country can yet be said to have this novel outbreak fully under control, but some have been far more successful than others. In countries where government capacity was strong and, in particular, where public health experts were allowed to lead the way, responses were proactive and effective. The United States must prioritize learning from these examples in the outbreak’s aftermath in order to build a governing system that is responsive and capable of advancing the public interest.
Trump’s administration is the most blunt and perverse manifestation of a long trend towards government incapacity. From his first days in office, the President has prioritized cutting budgets, chasing away civil servants, and empowering anti-government ideologues and incompetents. He has succeeded in cutting capacity almost everywhere, something that is becoming painfully clear as we stare down a pandemic for which we are not even remotely prepared. Even with many more weeks to have prepared, we continue to struggle with even the most basic portions of the response, lagging far behind countries like South Korea in our testing capacity. Members of the Revolving Door Project’s team have highlighted the corrupt and incompetent members of Trump’s coronavirus team and the general ineptitude of his response in the hopes of drawing renewed attention to the importance of expert, public-minded personnel.
As disastrous as Trump and his administration’s response has been, however, it’s important not lose sight of the ways in which it is not unique. Although they may not have taken matters to Trump’s extreme, recent administrations of both parties have been happy to install revolving door figures who work against their agencies’ interests and to starve public institutions of resources. And, as the Project’s Max Moran highlights in Talking Points Memo, many of this administration’s most egregious abuses have not been Trumpian aberrations but “standard issue Republicanism in 2020.” That includes the Mike Pence-led coronavirus task force.
A Pence-led response is dangerous, not in spite of, but precisely because he is a typical Republican. His coronavirus task force — which includes several Pence loyalists — is not particularly Trumpian. Its members are long-time political operatives, some of whom even have medical degrees. For the most part, their problem is not incompetence. It’s that they apply their competence and considerable resources in exactly the way a “normal” Republican administration would: protection for the powerful, callousness for the afflicted, and a special disdain for the “other.”
If we fail to acknowledge the ways in which these sorts of positions are normalized, we are unlikely to make the changes that are necessary in the wake of the crisis.
The Revolving Door Project has also taken a hard look at congressional Democrats’ response to this administration’s historic ineptitude. We find that, even in the face of a disaster of this scale, they remain too timid in challenging the president. Trump’s ineffective response was unfortunately predictable. Lawmakers should have been acting proactively to gather information and push the administration to respond sooner and better. Instead, fear of appearing too “political” in a crisis seems to have lulled them into inaction in the critical early days.
Even now that lawmakers are pouring all of their time into coronavirus response, they are neglecting oversight and accountability. Neither of Congress’ funding bills have been contingent on greater transparency from the administration and rapid improvements in governance. Only a handful of lawmakers are really pressing administration officials for commitments to do better. In moments like these, we need all branches of government acting at full capacity to mitigate the worst consequences. For Congress, that must include oversight.
The Revolving Door Project will continue to monitor the coronavirus response in the coming weeks and months with particular attention to the implications for rebuilding government capacity in the aftermath.
The Project’s coronavirus-related work:
Andrea Beaty, Eleanor Eagan, and Max Moran | The American Prospect | 2/27/2020
Eleanor Eagan | Talking Points Memo | 3/6/2020
Max Moran | The Revolving Door Project | 3/11/2020
Jeff Hauser and Eleanor Eagan | The Daily Beast | 3/12/2020
Max Moran | Talking Points Memo | 3/13/2020
Eileen Appelbaum, Dean Baker, Shawn Fremstad, and Jeff Hauser | CEPR | 3/16/2020
Eileen Appelbaum, Dean Baker, Jeff Hauser, and Mark Weisbrot | CEPR | 3/19/2020
Jeff Hauser and David Segal | 3/20/2020
Eleanor Eagan | 3/24/2020
Andrea Beaty | The American Prospect | 4/2/2020
Miranda Litwak | 4/3/2020
The Project’s coronavirus-related interviews, quotes, and advocacy:
Michelangelo Signorile Show | 3/6/2020
Tucker Higgins | CNBC | 3/13/2020
GOTMFV Show | 3/16/2020
Michael Grunwald | Politico | 3/17/20
Stephen Gandel | CBS News | 3/18/2020
Marc Caputo | Politico | 3/21/2020
Gregory Wilpert | The Real News Network | 3/24/2020
Colin Kalmbacher | Law & Crime | 3/24/2020
Daniel Marans | Huffpost | 3/24/2020
David Dayen | The American Prospect | 3/25/2020
Jennifer Haberkorn and Anna M. Phillips | Los Angeles Times | 3/25/2020
Helaine Olen | The Washington Post | 3/27/2020
The Rick Smith Show | 3/30/2020