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Newsletter | March 31, 2021

They’re Building Back Better; We Still Urge Faster!

2020 Election/TransitionGovernment CapacityIndependent Agencies

Jockeying to shape the upcoming infrastructure package is well underway. Our attention, however, is on an important deadline this Sunday. April 4 is the last day for lawmakers to introduce Congressional Review Act resolutions to strike eligible Trump rules from the books. If they don’t meet this deadline, the Biden administration will have to undertake a lengthy administrative process to reverse those regulations. By forcing Biden to dedicate resources to these rollbacks and delaying the start of new rulemakings, failure to act now could set this administration back on everything from civil rights and financial regulation to housing and environmental regulation. 

So far, lawmakers have introduced five such resolutions, a fraction of the 28 total that the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards identified as requiring repeal. Despite their procrastination, there’s still time to target the remainder (CRA resolutions consist of a handful of prescribed lines — this is not a heavy lift). If congressional Democrats are serious about tackling Trump’s legacy and ensuring the Biden administration’s success, they’ll take it. 


We’ve been talking a lot lately about how revolving door hires make for bad optics. It’s important not to forget, however, that these figures also tend to make bad, unpopular policy. We may be seeing that play out at the Education Department as we speak. 

On the campaign trail, Joe Biden was largely resistant to calls for broad-based student debt cancellation, so it’s not a huge surprise that his administration hasn’t moved more quickly to wipe out all federal student debt via executive authority. Biden did insist, however, that he wanted to help those who had suffered most severely at the hands of predatory higher education institutions and our broken student debt servicing system. So far, his education department is neglecting many opportunities to deliver on those promises too.  

Cancelling all federal debt would require an expansive, if legally grounded, interpretation of existing statute. Offering relief to hundreds of thousands of borrowers who were defrauded, or are languishing in the ill-fated Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, merely demands that education officials discard former Secretary Betsy DeVos’ bad faith interpretation and administration of the law.  Similarly, facilitating greater accountability for predatory loan servicers would be as simple as rescinding guidance that blocks state level authorities from conducting oversight and carrying out enforcement. As Seth Frotman of the Student Borrower Protection Center told the American Prospect, “For tens of millions of people, student loans are one of the primary ways they interact with the government.” That means that the Education Department’s failure to act here will be felt and resented broadly. 

So why doesn’t the education department just pick this low-hanging, largely uncontroversial fruit? After finding that many policy officials within the department are amenable to their proposed reforms but still seeing little action, many advocates have reportedly grown suspicious that the delays are coming from the top. Specifically, some are concerned that Chief of Staff Sheila Nix (who, unlike Secretary Miguel Cardona, has been in her position since Inauguration Day) is to blame. Nix is a longtime lobbyist who has represented payday lenders, pharmaceutical, crypto, and insurance companies, among many others. But no matter what or who is behind these delays, it’s clear that the Education Department can and should be moving more quickly to help borrowers. 

Our analysis of White House personal financial disclosures raises another politically disastrous specter: will abundant ties to pharmaceutical and vaccine manufacturers undercut this administration’s willingness to remove vaccine patents? Open sourcing the vaccines is one of the most obvious and impactful opportunities for Joe Biden to follow through on his promise to “restore American leadership.” Ensuring widespread vaccination across the globe is both the obvious moral path and critical to minimizing the appearance and spread of new strains. And vaccine patents are not just an international issue; vaccine manufacturers have signaled their eagerness to raise vaccine prices once the worst of the crisis is over, which could make boosters a costly prospect for many (and perhaps decrease uptake). The case for open-sourcing vaccines is so obvious one has to wonder why the administration isn’t moving to do so more quickly.  


Last week, Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas hit reset on the Homeland Security Advisory Council by firing 32 of its members. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is reportedly considering a similar move for its Science Advisory Board (SAB) which the Trump administration stacked with loyalists and industry-insiders. It’s encouraging to see members of the administration take these sweeping steps that implicitly recognize the extent of the damage the last administration caused. 

On the other hand, it is profoundly troubling that Biden has yet to remove several powerful Trump holdovers like Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Charles Rettig and Social Security Administration Commissioner Andrew Saul. Their continued tenure in office has had, and will surely continue to have, a direct, detrimental impact on millions. Rettig, for instance, has signaled that he may not have the Rescue Act’s new Child Tax Credit system up and running by July, despite the fact that that package included a sizable allocation for the IRS to make it happen. And up until last week, Saul was needlessly holding up stimulus checks for some 30 million people on Social Security and Supplemental Security Income. With each passing day that these figures remain in office, Biden is demonstrating to the American people that he cares more about vague norms than about their wellbeing. 

Independent Agencies

In his first months in office, Joe Biden has nominated 68 executive branch officials. That works out to a rate of approximately one official per day. With over 1000 more Senate-confirmed spots to fill, the administration will have to pick up the pace if it wants to have something approximating a full team in less than three years. It’s also important that they be strategic about the order of these nominations — and by that we mean, that they make filling independent agency seats a priority. 

This is not to imply that these seats are more important than others. It’s just that the Vacancies Act doesn’t apply to multi-member boards, meaning that vacancies wreak havoc. Take, for example, the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). The MSPB has lacked a quorum for over four years — and any members for over two. As a result of the Board’s inability to deliver official decisions, over 3000 civil servants who have appeals before it regarding personnel actions have been left in limbo. And they will not get relief until at least two board members have been confirmed. This week, over two dozen federal employee and good government groups called on Biden to make these nominations a priority. He should heed that call and present nominations for the abundance of vacant and soon-to-be vacant seats on other independent agency boards as well. Check out the Agency Spotlight to see all of those positions.  

Happily, we can report one such new nomination this week — Lina Khan to the Federal Trade Commission. We look forward to seeing more soon. 

Want more? Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last week:

Toward a Conflict-of-Interest-Free West Wing


Dems Are Running Out Of Time To Quickly Strip Damaging Trump Rules From The Books. Here’s What They Can Do This Week

Pharma In The White House: Financial Disclosures Reveal Officials’ Stake In Vaccine Manufacturers 

White House Personal Financial Disclosures 

The Education Department’s Slow-Walk on Student Debt

Progressives Demand Biden Break From Obama’s ‘Failed Leadership’ on Antitrust

BigLaw ≠ Government Service: Disqualification Advocates Don’t Serve The Public Interest

Republicans know their war on voting is racist — so they’re barely bothering to defend it

First 100: President Manchin’s Agenda

Racial wealth gap becomes an issue for Biden bank regulator pick

68 down, 1,000-plus to go 

The Special Tool Dems Aren’t Using to Nuke Trump Regulations

2020 Election/TransitionGovernment CapacityIndependent Agencies
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