As President-elect Joe Biden fills out his Cabinet, progressives have pushed hard on most major positions, save one: Commerce Secretary. Reporting on this role frames the seat as the liaison to the business community, who can “rebuild relationships” with massive corporations like BlackRock, Goldman Sachs, and Mastercard. (Were relationships ever frayed to begin with?) This framing makes the Commerce Secretary seem like a glorified middle-man between C-Suites and the White House, overlooking the actual functions of their Department, including the Patent and Trademark Office, the Census Bureau, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and crucial components of US trade policy.
The work of the Commerce Department impacts all Americans. Yet for decades we’ve had Commerce Secretaries 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 History Of Selling The Commerce Department To The Highest Bidder
There is a long, bipartisan history of giving the Commerce Secretary position to campaign donors. Every Administration since George H.W. Bush has chosen politically expedient, corporate-backed Commerce Secretaries, hindering our understanding of what a populist Commerce Department could achieve.
In 1989, George H.W. Bush chose Robert Mosbacher, his former campaign finance chairman. Mosbacher was a multimillionaire whose fortune came, in part, from drilling oil in Texas and Louisiana. Mosbacher was a vocal supporter of quid-pro-quos for campaign donors, criticizing Administrations that didn’t appoint campaign contributors for ambassadorships.
(Unsurprisingly, the Mosbachers continued to buy their way into the Republican power ranks, culminating in 2018, when President Trump appointed Robert’s daughter, Republican fundraiser Georgette Mosbacher, as the U.S. Ambassador to Poland.)
President Bill Clinton followed the same playbook, nominating former lobbyist and DNC Chairman Ron Brown as Commerce Secretary. Brown’s close ties to the DNC while serving in the Cabinet led to allegations that he and his deputies were using the position to solicit campaign contributions from business leaders — Democratic donors happened to join Brown on international trade missions awfully frequently. After attending one of these trade missions, the CEO of Occidental Petroleum Corporation Ray Irani donated $152,549 to the DNC. After Brown’s death, Clinton nominated his former campaign chairman Mickey Kantor, who had ties to the tobacco industry, to succeed him.
In 2001, the younger President Bush selected Don Evans, his close friend and former campaign chairman, to be Commerce Secretary. Evans started his career as the CEO of Tom Brown, an oil firm based in Colorado. After leaving the Commerce Department in 2005, he returned to the fossil fuel industry, holding positions at Energy Future Holdings Company and most recently, Chairman of The Permian Strategic Partnership.
While Obama promised change in his election, his picks for Commerce Secretary were more of the same. In 2013, President Obama nominated billionaire Penny Pritzker, his former campaign co-chair and a Democratic “mega-donor,” as Commerce Secretary. The Pritzkers are an old-money family in Chicago, heirs to the Hyatt hotel chain fortune and significant players in Illinois politics. (Penny’s brother J.B. is the current governor of Illinois.) Early in her career, she was the chairwoman for Superior Bank, which focused on the practice of bundling subprime mortgages into securities (Superior went under in 2001). Pritzker’s family also faced scrutiny for their tax avoidance methods, including using tax loopholes and offshore trusts, and their leadership of the Hyatt chain while the chain was investigated for worker-safety violations.
The Trump Administration has continued the tradition of selling this Cabinet seat to the highest bidder through the nomination of billionaire Wilbur Ross, who donated $200,000 to Trump’s 2016 campaign. Ross’ disastrous time at the Commerce Department, between undermining the Census and forcing NOAA scientists to lie for the sake of towing the President’s line, will impact Americans for decades to come. Trump’s Deputy Commerce Secretary, Todd Ricketts, was the son of TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, who gave more than $1 million to the Trump campaign in 2016.
What A Progressive Commerce Secretary Could Do
Biden marketed his campaign against Trump as a battle between “Scranton and Park Avenue.” His choice for Commerce Secretary is the perfect opportunity to stick to this message. But beyond simply ending the corrupt practice of selling a cabinet spot, Biden must appoint a Commerce Secretary who will aggressively use the vast powers of the Department to fight the multiple crises our nation faces The Commerce Department houses several offices that could push forward progressive values under a Biden-Harris Administration, but corporate interests are already fighting to keep the status quo.
While progressives may not be focused on President-elect Biden’s Commerce Secretary pick, Big Tech companies and Big Pharma certainly are. Their interest in Commerce is mainly due to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). USPTO has an opportunity to use the patent system to end Big Pharma’s patent monopolies and decrease prescription drug costs. After years of Republicans like Thom Tillis stripping away the USPTO’s power to withhold patents on lifesaving drugs, the Biden-Harris Administration could use patent reform to increase the accessibility of generic drugs. Big Tech also has a vested interest in who the next Commerce Secretary will be: Apple, Google, Cisco and Intel are currently suing the USPTO over a rule stating the office can refuse to adjudicate the validity of a patent while there is pending litigation about those patents.
Another agency that makes clear the need for a committed civil servant at Commerce’s helm is 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 responsible for the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which produces the country’s definitive report on climate change, the National Climate Assessment. The agency also studies experimental methods to combat climate change and serves as “an information clearinghouse to policymakers charged with planning for the consequences of climate change and mitigating its effects.”
Under four years of political meddling and climate change denial from Wilbur Ross, Trump’s corrupt and corporate Commerce Secretary, NOAA is now facing a credibility crisis. Under Trump, NOAA leaders violated their scientific integrity policy to protect the President from “Sharpiegate” — lying about the path of Hurricane Dorian in an attempt to help Trump save face after he lied about whether Alabama would be impacted by the storm. Additionally, two political appointees who publicly questioned climate change science are involved with the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Trump’s appointments of these climate change deniers occurred after the Administration fired the program’s executive director, career climate scientist Michael Kuperberg.
With a strong Commerce Secretary, the Biden-Harris Administration could reverse NOAA’s credibility slide and use the agency to fulfill their promise of centralizing the fight against climate change. A report by issue experts and former Obama officials at Climate 21 laying out how NOAA could be strengthened and respected, criticized the history of appointing Commerce Secretaries with “little or no knowledge of the NOAA portfolio” and called for a Secretary who could be “a champion for NOAA and its climate data and services.”
The Census Bureau, which is also housed in the Commerce Department, has the potential to radically transform the American electorate. However, a corporate Commerce Secretary can wreak havoc on the important work they do, as we saw when Trump Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross attempted to sabotage the 2020 Census. Ross shortened the data collection period during the COVID-19 pandemic and attempted to add an illegal and harmful citizenship question. Career Bureau staff warned that the data could not be adequately processed and cleaned up by the Trump Administration’s deadline, but Ross has insisted on pushing forward.
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.
Worrisome Signs For Biden’s Commerce Secretary Pick
Biden’s pick for Commerce Secretary will have the ability to radically transform the Department and ensure it is serving the broad public interest, not giant corporations. However, there are troublesome signs that the Biden-Harris Commerce Department could go down the same path as their predecessors. As early as March 2020, Biden was considering Morgan Stanley Executive Tom Nides for Commerce Secretary, and many of the more recent names to pop up suggest that the Department may stick with its corporate reputation. Among these names are Republican Meg Whitman, Amazon board member Indra Nooyi, and former venture capitalist Gina Raimondo.
(It should be noted that these names are not all being selected for their business acumen — both Meg Whitman and Ariel Investment co-CEO Mellody Hobson, who has been floated for this job, were on the board of Quibi, the streaming service that crashed a little over six months after its launch.)
Another concerning sign that the Biden transition team could use the Commerce Department to reward allies is the selection of Sarah Donilon for the Commerce Department Agency Review Team. Donilon’s mother, Cathy Russell, is a long-time Biden associate who was tapped to lead the Office of Presidential Personnel, which conducts background checks and initial reviews for political nominations. Moreover, Sarah Donlion’s uncle, Mike Donilon, was a Biden senior advisor, and her father, Thomas Donilon, was an executive at the investment management firm BlackRock. All three donated to Biden’s campaign.
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.