As President-elect Joe Biden fills out his Cabinet, progressives have pushed hard on most major positions, save one: Commerce Secretary. Recent reporting on the role frames the Commerce Secretary as a glorified middle-man between C-Suites and the White House.
In fact, the work of the Commerce Department impacts all Americans. Yet for decades, Commerce Secretaries have been chosen not for their policy agenda or experience, but as a reward for their massive campaign contributions and personal loyalty to the President. This practice of selling the Commerce Secretary position to the highest bidder has made it difficult to understand just how valuable a populist Commerce Secretary could be.
The benefits of what a progressive Commerce Secretary could mean to American families is what makes Axios’ reporting that Rhode Island Governor and corporate insider Gina Raimondo is a frontrunner for the position so troubling. Raimondo, a former venture capitalist, is the wrong pick – and the American public agrees. According to November polling, nearly 70% of respondents oppose President-elect Biden appointing Raimondo to any cabinet position.
Biden’s choice of Commerce Secretary will impact several major policy areas: fighting against climate change, pushing back on Republican gerrymandering, and preventing Big Tech from having unchecked government power. Biden must select a Commerce Secretary dedicated to fighting for progressive values and serving as an advocate for the people over big corporations.
Why Progressives Should Care About The Commerce Secretary:
- The Commerce Department houses the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). USPTO has an opportunity to use the patent system to limit Big Pharma’s patent monopolies and decrease prescription drug costs. Despite Republicans like Thom Tillis stripping away the USPTO’s power to withhold patents on lifesaving drugs, the Department retains enough power that the Biden-Harris Administration can and should act to increase the accessibility of generic drugs.
- The Commerce Secretary would also be charged with running the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which plays an important role in combating climate change. NOAA’s research and reporting on climate change, including the National Climate Assessment and the annual Arctic Report Card, are essential tools in tracking and publicizing the impact of climate change. NOAA is also responsible for the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which produces the country’s definitive report on climate change, the National Climate Assessment. With a strong Commerce Secretary, the Biden-Harris Administration could use the agency to fulfill their promise of centralizing the fight against climate change.
- The Census Bureau, which is also housed in the Commerce Department, has the potential to radically transform the American electorate. Census results are used for redistricting, meaning if Biden’s Commerce Secretary is unwilling or unable to fight political interference in the 2020 Census, it could hand Republicans a big win in their attempt to undercount and disenfranchise communities of color. Biden’s Commerce Secretary can take several steps to fix the broken 2020 Census process, including directing the Bureau to review the data and increasing overall resources for the Bureau. The 2020 Census is a looming fight that the Biden Administration will need to take on, and a strong and committed Commerce Secretary will be necessary to protect the count.
- The Commerce Department also oversees the International Trade Administration, giving the next Commerce Secretary a significant role in shaping our trade policy. Under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, the ITA can conduct investigations on the impact of imports on national security, and recommend the use of tariffs or quotas based on the result of these investigations. The International Trade Administration also has the power to blacklist foreign companies from trade with the United States. Having a Commerce Secretary who will evaluate imports based on their impact on working families will be an essential step towards building a progressive trade policy.
Raimondo’s disqualifying history of prioritizing Wall Street, lobbyists, and the health insurance industry above the public interest:
- Raimondo has a long history of prioritizing the needs of Wall Street above those of working Rhode Islanders – and helping the wealthy donors who boost her campaigns. “[Raimondo’s] so-called ‘pension reform’ slashed school teachers and other state workers pension benefits by 3%, but increased fees paid to Gina and her Wall Street pals by 2.5% and 4% respectively.” – Leading forensic auditor and former SEC attorney, Edward Siedle wrote in Forbes
- At the behest of lobbyists, she issued executive orders to shield nursing homes, hospitals, and other healthcare providers from liability. Documents show that Raimondo quickly responded to lobbyists’ demands for an executive order granting them legal immunity during the pandemic, the culmination of a decade-old effort by the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). “What immunity has done is allow nursing homes to act unreasonably without accountability,” said Anthony Leone, a Warwick-based personal injury lawyer who specializes in nursing homes.” – The Providence Journal
- She approved steep health insurance rate hikes in the midst of the pandemic so health insurance companies could profit. “Some of the rate increases are nearly 10%, all at a time when health insurance companies have been piling up revenues with consumers using fewer services due to the pandemic” – Go Local Providence News
- In the name of a balanced budget, Raimondo tried to strip Rhode Island’s lowest-income areas of 50 percent of a key aid fund mid-pandemic. “Rhode Island’s cities and towns are disputing the legality of a 50% cut by the Raimondo administration in a $12.4-million aid program for ‘distressed’ communities, including ‘some with the highest COVID-19 case rates in the state.’ The administration put city and town leaders on notice that it was likely to go ahead with the cut that Gov. Gina Raimondo proposed to lawmakers in January.” —Providence Journal
- Just this year, she sought to cut $58.7 million from Medicaid, while giving $15.7 million to insurance companies. “When we’re pushing brutal Medicaid cuts, we just can’t afford to give extra money to insurance companies – especially not when it comes with an initiative to encourage them to cut spending on actual care.” – Rhode Island State Senator Samuel Bell in Uprise RI
Header image: “RI Governor Gina Raimondo Bristol parade (cropped)” by Kenneth C. Zirkel is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0