With scant days remaining in this Congress, Senate Republicans are busily working to undermine the incoming Biden administration by rushing to confirm Trump’s nominees to terms that will last well beyond January 20, 2021. Yesterday, in a close 48 to 47 vote, they installed Christopher Waller to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors in a term that will not expire until 2030, robbing Biden of the seat. With Mike Pence and his potential tie-breaking vote out of town, Kamala Harris (in her capacity as a Senator) had the power to delay, if not stop it.
Bafflingly, Harris neglected to appear for the vote. Her failure to show up (especially in light of her decision not to step down from her Senate seat after the election) hopefully does not suggest a lack of commitment to the sort of high-energy, detail-oriented, try-everything governance the next administration will need to succeed in this unprecedented moment.
Although Waller has not attracted much attention compared to Trump’s more outlandish Fed nominee, Judy Shelton, his last minute installation is unprecedented and troubling. Waller received the fewest yes votes of any Fed nominee since at least 1980. He also has earned the dubious honor of being the first ever Fed Governor to be confirmed during the lame duck after a presidential election.
Most importantly, however, his under-the-wire confirmation leaves just one vacant seat for Joe Biden to fill on the Fed in the immediate future. This is a moment when the Fed is more critical and more powerful than ever before. It would seem that keeping that seat open should have warranted a spot on Senator and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris’ calendar.
To be clear, Harris’ attendance yesterday would not have guaranteed that Waller’s nomination went down. Upon realizing that he did not have the votes, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might have tanked and then rescheduled the vote, as he did with Shelton’s nomination last month. Critically, however, that would not have been painless. The number of legislative days is rapidly dwindling, and time to install Trump’s appointees running out. Rescheduling Waller’s vote would likely have meant pushing some other nominee off the calendar.
That possibility should have been enough to get Harris to the Capitol building yesterday. At stake was not just keeping a suboptimal official off of an immensely powerful board, but keeping open a position for an official who would use the Fed’s power creatively and energetically to advance the public interest.
In a matter of weeks, amid a historic crisis, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will take the helm of a ship that has suffered severe damage under Trump. Getting back on course will require a willingness to fight hard on every front and to capitalize on every administrative power that is available. Yesterday’s vote was an easy fight with a large potential impact. Let’s hope that, once in the Vice Presidency, Kamala Harris doesn’t continue to pass on such opportunities to govern.