For the reality-based, Trump’s indifference to the tragedy that COVID-19 is spreading across the country might be maddening but not surprising. Trump downplaying the severity of the crisis, tweeting nonsense, and pushing for a $500 billion corporate bailout are entirely on brand.
This is to be expected of an administration full of former lobbyists and industry executives. But special interests are coming for Democrats, too, and the industries affected by COVID-19 are already swarming to influence a Biden administration’s personnel decisions.
As experts have pointed out, the economic slowdown felt in the past few weeks is likely only the beginning, as more states announce shelter-in-place orders and the federal government fumbles its response to the pandemic. Industries facing financial losses—particularly the travel and transportation industries, whose lobbyists have been blitzing Congress for a piece of the bailout—are not likely to stop seeking government handouts to help them cope with a crisis for which they were willfully unprepared.
If Joe Biden, the likely Democratic nominee, is successful in 2020, it’s imperative that those corporate interests don’t get an inside track on bailout decisions. As we saw in the Great Recession, the Executive Branch has huge leeway to distribute funds and make sure corporations aren’t skimming off taxpayer dollars. The Biden Administration could be overseeing the allocation and regulation of multiple substantial stimulus bills, supervising the large scale production and distribution of ventilators and PPE as part of the Defense Production Act, and making decisions on broad travel restrictions. However, if Democrats repeat the mistakes of the 2008 bailout, it could jeopardize the party’s professed commitment to defend working class interests over those of big business.
While the Biden campaign has made several commendable anti-corruption campaign promises, Biden’s relationship with hospitality and travel industry executives raises concerns about who his administration will fight for. According to FEC data, Biden has accepted over $75,000 in donations averaging over $2,000 per donor from executives at the nation’s largest hotels and casinos. Three top executives of MGM, one of the world’s largest casinos, have donated the maximum legal amount, $2,800, to the campaign, including acting CEO Bill Hornbuckle, CFO Corey Sanders, and general counsel John McManus.
Biden’s relationship with MGM’s former CEO, Jim Murren, who stepped down last month, also raises red flags. Murren is a registered Republican and has donated over $85,000 to Republican candidates, according to FEC data. Yet Biden considers Murren a personal friend and has sought Murren’s input in shaping his policy platform. In 2018, Biden appointed Murren to the Biden Institute Policy Advisory Board, a group of 30 influential players in Washington to help shape Biden’s domestic policy. Additionally, Murren’s wife is on the Biden campaign’s list of bundlers—individuals who have raised at least $25,000 for the campaign—and the couple has hosted multiple fundraisers for Biden.
These relationships could have direct consequences for a Biden Administration’s allocation of bailout money. Murren has already sought to protect himself from financial fallout caused by the coronavirus outbreak. The day after announcing he would be stepping down as CEO of MGM and accepting a $32 million exit deal from the company, MGM stocks tumbled 5.5% (along with much of the market). While Murren escaped MGM’s financial losses largely unscathed and with a hefty severance package, his former employees were being laid off.
In addition to Murren and the rest of the MGM crew, Choice Hotels chairman Stewart Bainum Jr. is a bundler for Biden and has hosted a fundraiser for the campaign. Billionaire Blackstone COO, Jonathan Gray, who sits on the board of Hilton Hotels, has attended campaign fundraisers and maxed out to the campaign, as has Jason Hyland, president of MGM Resorts Japan and deputy ambassador to Japan under Obama (Gray has also given $50 thousand to the Biden-affiliated Super PAC, Unite the Country).
The campaign also seems to be cozying up to casino lobbyists. Biden appointed registered Boyd Gaming lobbyist Jeff Peck to the Biden Foundation’s board of directors, and while Biden’s campaign has said they would not accept contributions from lobbyists, Peck’s wife, Lisa Vidgor-Peck, has donated over $1,000 to the campaign. Clearly the campaign isn’t taking its “no lobbying” rule very seriously, as they have also accepted a $1,000 donation from registered Mohegan Sun lobbyist Shelly O’Neil that does not appear to be refunded. Additionally, the pro-Biden super PAC American Possibilities accepted a $5,000 donation from Todd Webster, a registered lobbyist for the American Gaming Association, according to FEC data.
The airline industry—which is poised to get $60 billion from the bailout fund—is trying to make inroads with the Biden camp, too. Notable executive United Airlines general counsel Robert Rivkin donated $2,800 and hosted a fundraiser for the campaign. Rivkin, no stranger to the revolving door, served as general counsel to the Department of Transportation under Obama before taking an executive job at Delta Airlines—and then switching back to public office as deputy mayor of Chicago under Rahm Emmanuel.
Caroline Kennedy, former ambassador to Japan under Obama, has also endorsed Biden. Kennedy sits on the board of Boeing, which may qualify to receive a substantial portion of the bailout fund. Biden’s campaign has accepted donations from several other airline executives from Alaska Airlines, Delta, Spirit Airlines, Boeing, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines.
Of course, a candidate who receives corporate donations does not—by necessity—have to govern in a way that is beholden to corporate interests. Indeed, a Biden presidency is a chance to prove the opposite: that the former vice president, whose campaign was fueled by big-money interests and large-dollar donations, can still govern by putting the public interest front and center.
But the overwhelming financial support Biden has received from bailout industries, particularly as our country dives deep into a recession and those industries will likely continue seeking government money, means Biden must be careful about his personnel choices and to whom he grants special access.
That is why it is imperative that progressives hold a Biden transition team accountable to the candidate’s own good government promises to reduce the influence of money in politics, rein in executive branch conflicts of interests, and impose strict disclosure requirements on appointees. If progressives keep up the pressure on a potential Biden administration to follow through on its commitments, they might reap an executive branch with the integrity and courage it currently lacks.
* Miranda Litwak is a political researcher currently working for the Revolving Door Project.