How Well Do Leading 2020 Candidates Understand the Executive Branch?

June 26, 2019

It is one of the many peculiarities of American politics that legislative laundry lists dominate presidential campaigns even though presidents have little power to get these promises enacted. That is not to say that these aspirational assertions do not matter. As a statement of values, they can mobilize support. 

But while legislation is subject to the considerable influence of, well, the legislature,how a candidate intends to do the job for which they are running (i.e. managing the executive branch) is something for which they can be held directly accountable. And yet candidates tend to be much less forthcoming with their vision for actually running the federal government. That silence reduces presidential accountability to the public for how they wield the powers of the executive. 

How the government interprets and enforces the law is tremendously consequential and depends heavily on the network of political appointees (of varying degrees of independence) whom the president deploys to all corners of the executive branch. 

Too often, decisive roles have gone to corporate insiders who use their power to preserve the status quo and put the brakes on visionary reforms. 

For this reason, Revolving Door Project (RDP) is pushing candidates to speak more about how they will manage the actual task that lies ahead if they are to win the election. This would not only encourage a more honest conversation about what a president can do, but also ensure that candidates feel a responsibility to make personnel choices that serve the public interest. 

Over the coming year, we will be following candidates closely, noting when they make commitments to use their power, including to appoint personnel, to advance the public good and pushing for more information when they do not. As an initial step in this direction, we have examined leading candidates and are highlighting both what we know now, and what we ought to know before anyone votes. 


Joe Biden

Executive branch-focused commitment:

Of over 100,000 people who have applied for student loan forgiveness through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, only a few hundred have been approved. Thanks to poor administration by abusive student loan servicing companies, unclear standards, and a deeply unsympathetic set of revolving door administrators at the Department of Education, thousands of public servants are still struggling to pay back loans they had been promised would be dispatched after a decade of service. Solving this problem, unlike many others, does not require passing a new law, but a commitment to enforcing the existing one. Thus, it is encouraging to see that Joe Biden recognizes this fact and, as president, has promised to implement the program properly so that it actually serves those the country has promised to help. 

Need to know more:

Biden’s campaign has taken every opportunity to emphasize his role in the Obama administration’s most popular accomplishments. However, the centrality of Obama’s legacy to Biden’s pitch raises questions about his ability to recognize that administration’s failures, including as it regards political appointments. Many of the Obama administration’s financial regulators, for instance, came directly from Wall Street and hesitated to rein in the industry. On the campaign trail, Joe Biden has been cozying up to many of these same figures, including BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, who has made no secret in the past of aspirations to be Secretary of the Treasury. To allay these legitimate concerns, Biden will need to assure the public that he will not fill regulatory roles with people from the regulated industry.


Bernie Sanders

Executive branch-focused commitment:

Although a President Sanders will not have the ability to single-handedly break up the big banks or impose a cap on interest rates, he would be able to use his executive branch power to challenge the financial industry in at least one important way: implementing postal banking. The USPS Office of Inspector General has indicated that USPS could implement most aspects of postal banking under its existing regulatory authority. Thus, by appointing sympathetic figures to the USPS Board of Governors, Sanders could achieve consequential reform without Congress needing to weigh in. 

Need to know more:

Bernie Sanders has big plans to raise revenues through multiple avenues, including a higher marginal tax rate, an estate tax, a financial transactions tax, and more. Even if Congress overhauls the tax code in this manner, however, the under-resourced and understaffed Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will be ill-equipped to effectively enforce these new laws. Sanders could help to overcome this obstacle by, among other things, appointing officials at the IRS and the Treasury Department who will shift enforcement priorities away from low-income Americans towards our wealthiest citizens. We would like to hear more about how Sanders would use his presidential powers to revive tax enforcement. 


Elizabeth Warren

Executive branch-focused commitment:

Warren made waves earlier this year with her promise to break up technology companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon. In order to do so, Warren will need to reinvigorate the countries’ antitrust authorities, the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division. Warren explicitly recognizes this imperative and has promised to “appoint regulators committed to reversing illegal and anti-competitive tech mergers.”

Need to know more:

Elizabeth Warren has proposed a bill that would close the revolving door between the Pentagon and the defense industry. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that Congress will pass this bill. Will Warren commit to honoring the principles in her plan as she chooses senior Department of Defense officials, even if Congress does not pass her plan? 


Kamala Harris

Executive branch-focused commitment:

Harris has promised to crack down on for-profit colleges. As president she would have broad powers to do so without action from Congress. The Obama administration, for example, put in place several rules that would have tightened regulation of the for-profit college industry (sadly, Secretary of Education Betsy Devos has rolled back these safeguards). A President Harris could reinstate these rules and ratchet up enforcement. 

Need to know more:

In her economic justice platform, Harris points to her record prosecuting financial crimes as the Attorney General of California. We know, however, that that record was at times uneven; for instance, she declined to prosecute OneWest Bank or its CEO, current Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, for mortgage fraud. To assure voters that her administration would pursue cases against the wealthy and well-connected, Harris should speak more about who she will choose to lead key positions within her Department of Justice and to fill financial regulatory roles.   


Pete Buttigieg

Executive branch-focused commitment:

Fixing this country’s immigration laws will require congressional action, but presidents have significant power in deciding how the existing, imperfect laws are enforced. Pete Buttigieg has promised to “reinstate enforcement priorities and prevent arbitrary targeting of immigrant communities by enforcement officials.” Past administrations, for example, have prioritized enforcement for people who have committed serious crimes or pose a public threat. The Trump administration, in contrast, has chosen to enforce immigration law indiscriminately to sow fear.   

Need to know more:

Buttigieg has said that his administration would “strengthen antitrust standards.” However, given his close relationship with Facebook and his opposition to breaking up big technology companies, we would like more details about his plans. Specifically, Buttigieg should offer more details about who he will appoint to positions at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice’s Antitrust division. 


Cory Booker

Executive branch-focused commitment:

Climate policy is rightfully at the forefront of this cycle’s policy debates. While the president alone will not be able to avert climate disaster, there are important steps that the executive can take. Cory Booker identifies some of these actions, including strengthening the Environmental Protection Agency, reversing the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental regulations, and better enforcing laws like the Safe Drinking Water Act. 

Need to know more:

Booker has also released an affordable housing plan, bringing together a variety of proposals he has put forward while in the Senate. However, while he has recognized that reinvigorating the EPA will be essential to climate policy, his housing plan does not acknowledge critical resource and staffing constraints at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Without remedying this reality, successfully implementing and administering many of these programs will be difficult, if not a near impossibility. 


Amy Klobuchar

Executive branch-focused commitment:

Amy Klobuchar recently released a list of over 100 actions that she would take in her first 100 days as president. While some of these involve introducing legislation, there are many that do not rely on Congress. She has, for example, promised to “use existing Food and Drug Administration authority to grant a waiver that allows people to import safe prescription drugs for personal use from countries like Canada to decrease drug costs for seniors and all Americans.” In so doing, she would be immediately helping millions of people who are struggling to afford the medications they need. 

Need to know more:

Klobuchar has promised to nominate well-qualified judges for all vacancies on her first day in office. While filling these vacancies is undoubtedly important, Klobuchar should promise a similar effort for vacancies on independent agency boards. Klobuchar should come into office with a slate of well-qualified candidates for nominations for any vacant positions on boards for the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and Federal Deposit Insurance Commission (FDIC), and others. 

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