The Joe Biden campaign is short on cash, so short that it has moved from disavowing an outside super PAC earlier this year to throwing the door open to one last week. That begs the question: If Biden is compromising on this stance for a buck, what other things might he be willing to trade for fundraising help? And with whom?
The answers to these questions are among the most consequential indicators of what Joe Biden would actually do as president. A candidate’s top fundraisers often get to choose who occupies the positions of power in the executive branch—or get those jobs themselves. And how those fundraisers’ people wield (or fail to wield) power often determines a president’s legacy more than even the legislation actually passed during his/her tenure.
Yet, Biden, breaking with years of precedent—including, notably that of the man whose legacy is the foundation of Biden’s case for being president, Barack Obama—has kept information about his key fundraisers, otherwise known as “bundlers” (or, if you like, “future appointees”), secret. In the wake of his decision to welcome an outside super PAC with open arms, it is all the more important that he release that information immediately.
Welcoming a super PAC’s support won’t solve all of Biden’s financial problems; Biden will still need to raise enough money for his campaign apparatus, something he’s been struggling to do as quickly as his campaign pays for staff and charter jets. With his grassroots fundraising efforts largely having foundered and many of his supporters having already “maxed out,” Biden will likely need to rely ever more heavily on his backers to “bundle” for him.
“Bundlers” mine their social and professional networks for donations, often bringing in hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars for their candidates. It is not difficult to appreciate that handing $500,000 over to a candidate will get you significantly more purchase than an individual contribution of $2,800. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that these fundraisers often get to advise their preferred candidate on who gets key jobs if the candidate wins—or maybe get a job themselves. Yet, candidates are under no legal obligation to disclose the identities of these important supporters unless they are registered lobbyists (and with so many candidates having taken the “no lobbyist money” pledge, this is moot).
Nonetheless, in recent years, numerous presidential candidates have elected to voluntarily disclose their bundlers in the name of transparency. In the 2008 primary race, the Democratic contest’s three leading candidates—Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards—all disclosed some bundler information. Clinton began as early as May of 2007. Even several of the candidates in the Republican contest (John McCain, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, and yes, even Rudy Giuliani) disclosed the identities of their bundlers.
Barack Obama, of the oft-invoked “Obama-Biden administration,” demonstrated a particular commitment to bundler transparency. Unlike his primary competitors, Obama not only disclosed his bundlers’ identities but also provided some idea of how much they were raising by splitting them up into tiers from $50,000 to $100,000, $100,000 to $200,000, $200,000 to $500,000, and $500,000 or more. Furthermore, as a senator, Obama had introduced legislation to make bundler disclosure mandatory. Biden, usually so eager to associate himself with the former president, has failed to follow Obama’s lead in this regard.
Unfortunately, Biden is not the only one refusing to release this information. In fact, among presidential candidates who are relying on “classical bundlers” (i.e., excluding Sanders and Warren), only Senator Kamala Harris has committed to disclosing their identities in a timely manner. Harris is providing the names of those who have bundled over $25,000 for her campaign on a quarterly basis. Mayor Pete Buttigieg initially released a list of 23 bundlers in April, in the early days of his longshot campaign. Since that time, Buttigieg’s fundraising has taken off, and he has raked in millions of dollars via (according to Politico) at least 71 more bundlers. Yet Buttigieg has provided no further clarity about these new backers’ identities.
Other candidates have failed to release any bundler information at all. Remarkably, this near-universal rejection of past precedent and the principle of transparency has garnered little media attention—although a broad coalition of good government groups has raised the alarm since April.
None of this gives Biden a pass. Indeed, the fact that he was twice one half of a presidential ticket that held itself to a higher standard might make it worse. And his anti-transparency stance is definitely more concerning in light of his apparent fundraising desperation.
We know that he is not above making eyebrow-raising promises in the interest of currying favor with donors. Earlier this year, he famously told a room full of high-dollar donors that “no one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change.”
Apparently, that didn’t generate the sort of enthusiasm he needed, which begs the question: What more might he be promising in exchange for more hustle from his bundlers? The possibilities are almost endless, and many likely won’t even garner any attention, let alone engender political blowback. By quietly promising bundlers a say in who occupies roles in, for example, the Departments of the Treasury and of Health and Human Services, or on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Biden can assure donors that their business models and personal fortunes won’t come under threat.
To be sure, disclosure doesn’t ensure that bundlers are excluded from a presidential administration—scan the ranks of Obama’s executive branch, and you will find the names of some who fundraised for him. That’s why we’re also asking all candidates, including Joe Biden, to make public commitments regarding the types of people they would appoint to their administration. But in the absence of such promises, it is the least that Biden (and others) can do to be at least as transparent as Rudy Giuliani and give the public access to his list of bundlers (the “short list,” if you will).
Jeff Hauser is the director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), which aims to increase scrutiny on executive branch appointments. Eleanor Eagan is a research assistant at the Revolving Door Project.
This article also appeared on National Memo and Truthdig.