Joe Biden has plenty of campaign promises to keep, beyond the obvious and enormous top priorities of corralling the coronavirus and stabilizing the economy. And that's made democracy reform groups, which have never counted him as an impassioned ally, newly skeptical their priorities will get addressed in his new administration.
Their anxiety has come to the surface this week. A coalition of 170 progressive good governance and voting rights organizations asked the president-elect to elevate a collection of fix-the-system proposals into his first 100 days' agenda. Separately, one of the most influential such groups, RepresentUs, lambasted the Biden transition for "an omission of epic proportions" by giving short shrift to the issues it cares about.
Their impatience, just days after Biden's victory became clear, underscores the precarious position the cause of fixing democracy's dysfunction has in the public policy agenda.
At the same time, however, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has signaled she may revive the sweeping election process, government ethics and money-in politics legislation known as HR 1, and have the House pass it again in January even before Biden's inauguration.
Doing so "right off the bat," she told reporters before her Democratic majority was trimmed by about a dozen seats on Election Day, would "reduce the role of big, dark, special-interest money that prevents us from having policies that the American people need."
That could only happen, though, if the Democrats win both runoffs in Georgia in January and take the narrowest possible control of the Senate. Otherwise, HR 1 and all the other legislation on the good governance wish list — including a restoration of the Voting Rights Act and a package to curb executive power abuses — would continue to get ignored to death by GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Biden has backed taxpayer funding of congressional and presidential campaigns — a Holy Grail for many reform groups — since he was a new Delaware senator in the 1970s. And early in his campaign for the Democratic nomination he unveiled a full slate of proposals for expanding voting rights, curbing money's sway over campaigns, bolstering government ethics and recalibrating the balance of power.
But, unlike seven of his rivals in the sprawling early field, in the summer of 2019 he declined to sign a pledge to put those issues on top of his legislative agenda if elected. And, after he wrapped up the nomination, it appeared to take a concerted lobbying effort to get a robust section on democracy reform added to the party platform — just in time for a convention when almost all mentions of the topic were about the need to assure easy voting in the pandemic-upended election.
It was that group that went public Tuesday with a manifesto calling on Biden to both push hard for HR 1, whether Congress stays divided or not, but also make 30 different moves by executive order to promote voting rights and assure his administration is more honest, transparent, responsive and respectful of checks and balances than in the past.
The most important moves on the coalition's list, it said, would be requiring federal social services agencies to help the people they serve register to vote; tightening the ethics pledge for political appointees; curbing the revolving door between the executive branch and lobbyist and corporate offices; refusing to have anything to do with fundraising by so-called super PACS; posting White House visitor logs; and making public all the work of the White House office of legal counsel.
For the organizations in the group, any of these changes would represent a dramatic shift from the past four years. President Trump, who won partly on a vow to "drain the swamp," has done nothing of the kind while upending virtually avery norm of democracy he could get his hands on.
Most recently, and potentially most consequentially, has been his decision to contest his defeat last week and in the meantime refuse to cooperate in the transition. But along the way he has challenged the precepts of open and ethical government by commingling his business interests with government work, choosing secrecy over transparency at nearly every turn and thwarting all congressional efforts to oversee or investigate his activities.
But there is no time to wait, said Josh Silver, who runs the influential reform group RepresentUs. And the signals from the Biden transition team that such issues have fallen to the second tier demonstrate "an omission of epic proportions."
It "follows a pattern of Democratic presidential candidates talking big about these issues on the campaign trail and promptly ignoring them when the chips are down. That's why our nation is in the perilous position we're in now," he said in an exceptionally harsh statement Monday. "It just requires leadership that prioritizes these reforms. Based on President-elect Biden's Day 1 agenda, it's not going to happen, and he is guaranteeing more dysfunction, more authoritarianism and more instability."
Biden will likely focus first on proposals that could attract bipartisan support — starting with providing economic relief during the resurgent pandemic and then moving on to improving the nation's crumbling infrastructure and using the climate change crisis as the basis for job creation.
The political dynamic on Capitol Hill means Biden may have to pull back from some policy proposals that are mainly goals of the left and have little or no traction among conservatives. Democracy reform, in the main, falls in that bucket
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The sun has set on one of the earliest and most influential Washington good-government groups: the Sunlight Foundation, which pushed transparency in all levels of government and politics as an essential cure for democracy's problems.
Sunlight's "role is no longer essential to its original central mission," Board Chairman Michael Klein said in announcing the group's shuttering last week. "Virtually all of the activities and staff of Sunlight have been transferred to other engaged institutions, or closed."
Founded 15 years ago, the nonprofit sought to leverage once-innovative technologies to push government transparency and encourage rigorous oversight. It was named to reflect the famed aphorism coined a century ago by Justice Louis Brandeis: "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants."
The organization helped create more than four dozen public records databases and other tools to shed light on political, policymaking and lobbying activity. Some of the more prominent projects are now under different management — including up-to-date and sortable reports of foreign spending to lobby Washington (now at the Center for Responsive Politics) and detailed records of how Congress spends money on itself (now at ProPublica).
The group's demise had been on the horizon for years, though. While it was once a digital trailblazer, the internet's fast and robust growth led many other organizations to follow Sunlight's model. With more players on the scene, such tools as the OpenCongress legislative tracking database became obsolete.
The series of federal court decisions in the past decade relaxing campaign finance disclosure requirements and allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts in congressional and presidential elections also hindered its ability to advocate for more regulation of money in politics.
Four years ago, the group came close to a shutdown or merger after an unsuccessful search for a new executive director. But after a few months the board had found a new top staffer and assigned him to make deep cuts but keep the operation going.
Still, Sunlight struggled financially. Although donations, mainly from democracy reform philanthropies, surged to $2.2 million two years ago, after plummeting below $500,000 for a couple of years, that was still less than half what they had been as recently as 2015.
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In a matter of weeks, President Trump has thrown into question the future of a decades-old bedrock of open government: Independent watchdogs working inside federal agencies to find wrongdoers and root out waste.
But his recent spate of inspector general firings, combined with public threats and not-so-subtle efforts to undercut the authority of many others in those jobs, are only the most serious actions of a president who came to office as a skeptic but is now seeking re-election as a full-throated opponent of such independent oversight.
Trump's accelerating antagonism is more than another sign of how emphatically he's abandoned his "drain the swamp" 2016 campaign mantra. It's also drawn unusual campaign season antagonism from several influential Republicans in Congress, who last week launched legislation that would make it tougher for Trump to dismiss inspectors general and restrict who he could name as a government watchdog.
Since Trump arrived at the White House, the leadership of 28 of the 73 inspectors general offices in the government (two out of every five) has changed at least once. And at least one such replacement has happened at 17 of the 32 agencies or departments (more than half) where the president has the authority to directly appoint the inspector general.
Eleven agencies — including the CIA, the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services — are now operating with acting, not permanent IGs. These positions have been vacant for a combined total of more than 26 years.
The Department of Defense, which has a budget of more than $700 billion this year (about $2 billion per day), has not had a permanent inspector general since the seventh year of the Obama administration.
The problem with having a bunch of acting inspectors general instead of permanent ones was addressed in a recent report from the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan group that investigates misconduct and conflicts of interest by federal officials — acting as an outsider watchdog over the work of federal watchdogs. People named to these jobs only on an interim basis, the group concluded, are "put in the position where the thoroughness or aggressiveness of their work can weaken their chance of being appointed to the permanent slot."
What has thrust the usually behind-the-scenes world of inspectors general into the forefront was a remarkable rapid-fire series of actions in the past three months:
April 3: Trump told Congress he intended to fire Michael Atkinson as inspector general for the intelligence community. Atkinson got on the president's bad side for doing his job — passing up the chain of command the whistleblower complaint, which ended up spurring Trump's impeachment, about the president soliciting Ukraine's help in digging up dirt on Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who worked for a Ukrainian company when his father was vice president.
April 6: Trump lambasted Christi Grimm, acting inspector general in the Department of Health and Human Services, after her staff issued a report about a severe shortage of testing kits for the coronavirus, delays in getting test results and shortages of masks and other equipment at hospitals. On May 1, he moved to replace Grimm by announcing her successor.
April 7: Trump removed Glenn Fine, acting IG at the Pentagon, who had also been chosen by his fellow IGs just days earlier to oversee the work of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, an independent oversight panel created by Congress to ensure the $2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package enacted in March was not misspent.
May 15: Trump announces his intent to fire Steve Linick, inspector general for the State Department. Linick was investigating allegations of misbehavior by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, among other things.
May 16: Trump fired the acting Transportation Department inspector general, Mitch Behm. He had been selected for the special economics stimulus oversight panel and also was investigating Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, the wife of Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell.
June 11: Leaders of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee sent a letter to House and Senate leaders warning that administration officials were arguing that more than $1 trillion of the money was exempt from oversight.
It was less than two years ago, on the 40th anniversary of the original inspectors general law, that IGs were being celebrated and the benefits of their oversight were being quantified and praised.
Michael Horowitz, inspector general for the Department of Justice and the chairman of the IGs council, reported that in 2016, then the most recent year with complete data available, his colleagues saved taxpayers more than $45 billion, engineered more than 4,800 successful criminal prosecutions and drove more than 4,300 disciplinary actions.
Overall, he boasted, every dollar spent on the work of IGs saved $17. And that return on investment seems to be continuing, with more than $20 billion in potential savings identified by the watchdogs so far this year.
Despite this record of success, the Trump administration has also attempted to undercut the IGs by slashing many of their budgets — in a seemingly ad hoc way, and largely without success.
For the coming year, for example, he's proposed cutting the IG budgets at six of the 16 biggest agencies, including a 7 percent reduction (to $178 million) for the Department of Homeland Security watchdog. But he's proposed increasing spending on IGs at all the rest, including a 13 percent boost (to $90 million) at HHS.
Delays and GOP pushback
Congress shares some responsibility for the current weaknesses in the overnight system, however, by moving slowly to fill vacancies and fill the loopholes in the law Trump has exploited to hobble the inspector general system.
The president has picked people for half the 16 inspector general vacancies where the president makes the nomination — but those eight have been waiting an average of 14 weeks for confirmation by a GOP-majority Senate focused much more intently on filling open judgeships.
Only three IG nominees have been vetted by committee and need only a vote on the Senate floor.
Critics point out that five of them have no experience as inspectors general or in another government oversight role.
Faced with mounting pressure from good government advocates, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa introduced legislation last week to strengthen protections for the inspectors general.
The longest-serving current Senate Republican has been known since the 1980s as a champion of vigorous government oversight, and he drafted the bill while holding up a pair of Trump nominees for senior national security jobs for two weeks — until the White House offered formal justifications for the Atkinson and Linick firings.
Grassley noted the IG law requires the president to provide Congress with advance notice of such dismissals along with a reasoning.
In introducing the legislation, Grassley tried to put a bipartisan spin on his cause by noting President Barack Obama violated the law by firing an inspector general without explanation.
He also found four other Republicans along with five Democrats to sign on to the bill from the start — a highly unusual show of bipartisanship in today's Senate, especially in an election year. The GOP cosponsors are Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah, Rob Portman of Ohio and James Lankford of Oklahoma.
Grassley said the measure would beef up the notification mandate by making presidents include a "substantive rationale, including detailed and case-specific reasons," for every IG firing
His bill attempts to address concerns that Trump has named unqualified people as temporary inspectors general by requiring acting IGs come from the senior ranks of the watchdog community. To ward off any chickens guarding hen houses, the bill would bar senior agency officials from even acting temporarily as inspectors general. Other language is designed to safeguard ongoing investigations during IG transitions.
"Congress designed inspectors general to shine a bright light on waste, fraud and abuse through the federal bureaucracy," he said on the Senate floor when introducing the bill. "So IGs are the original swamp drainers."
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The coronavirus pandemic has gutted the American economy. Small businesses have shuttered their doors, large corporations have filed for bankruptcy, unemployment rates have soared to the highest levels since the Great Depression — and entire industries may need help from the government to avoid collapse.
But as millions of Americans struggle to pay their rent on time, one industry is booming. Lobbyists on Capitol Hill are in sky high demand. Corporations and special-interest groups are turning to lobbyists to help them maximize aid from the government as the economic fallout from the pandemic continues.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, spending on federal lobbying totaled $903 million in the first quarter of this year, matching the figure from the first three months of 2010 — the most expensive single season of lobbying on record. The $2 trillion economic recovery package enacted in March, bill, known as the CARES Act, is the second most lobbied bill of all time.
With the help of lobbyists, businesses are trying to secure the biggest piece possible of the relief pie. The problem, however, is that lawmakers should be listening to the voices of their constituents, not corporations with close ties to the government. In times of crisis, the lobbying boom is funneling taxpayer money away from those who need it most.
As lawmakers rush to address the pandemic, many industries are slapping "coronavirus" onto their existing agendas as a way to seek to take advantage of the current circumstances. Adidas is lobbying for a provision to allow people to use pretax money to purchase gym membership and fitness equipment — even as gyms around the country have been ordered closed. Drone manufacturers are asking the Trump administration to grant waivers to bypass regulations. And corporate giants like CVS and Apple, whose profits have gone up during the pandemic, nonetheless lobbied to get provisions in the CARES Act.
As a result, the law is full of provisions that benefit wealthy corporations. Money allocated to corporations by the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve under the measure doesn't have to be used to support workers. Corporations may use these taxpayer-funded loans to buy back stocks, maintain profits for their shareholders or pump money into their reserves. A congressional oversight commission set up as part of the law has yet to name its chairman. Even if it does begin to function, the panel has been given limited power to access information about private companies. That means there's no guarantee the loans will actually benefit everyday Americans and their families.
The real winners of the lobbying bonanza? Lobbying firms. Take, for example, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. The firm raked in a whopping $11 million from clients just in January, February and March — and added 33 new clients to its portfolio. The firm was paid $960,000 from three entities under Apollo Global Management, one of world's largest private equity firms, on "issues related to Covid-19 relief." It's difficult to fathom why a giant private equity firm would need coronavirus relief. The co-founder of Apollo, Joshua Harris, has advised the Trump administration on infrastructure policy and has been considered for a White House position. Disclosures show that many other lobbying firms with close ties to the administration also saw big gains in their profits.
Meanwhile, small businesses are struggling. In a survey of 86,000 small- and medium-sized businesses, Facebook reported that a third of businesses closed during the pandemic do not expect to reopen. These businesses and their employees are barely hanging on by a thread. Among hotel, cafe and restaurant employees, 94 percent reported they have no access to paid time off and 93 percent reported they have no sick leave. Food banks across America are buckling under high demand. Every minute a member of Congress spends with a corporate lobbyist is time spent away from listening to the concerns of ordinary constituents.
As Congress gears up to negotiate additional relief bills, who should have the power to influence how our tax dollars are allocated? At Lobbyists 4 Good, we believe power should rest in the hands of ordinary Americans. We allow individuals to start crowdfunded campaigns to hire advocates for their cause. One of our current campaigns is pressing Congress to prioritize public health in the next coronavirus response legislation — not on bailing out corporations. These lobbying efforts rely on everyday people for funding through small donations — not large corporations or wealthy donors.
Businesses big and small have been shuttered by the pandemic, and they should have their voices heard by lawmakers. But the government's purpose, especially in times of crisis, must be to serve the interests of the American people, not corporations.
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