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If this election was the beginning of the end of “the Trump Show,” the writers didn’t pick a very satisfying conclusion. True, despite a deadly pandemic and organized Republican voter suppression, more people turned out than ever before to vote for Joe Biden. But, unless Democrats are successful in Georgia, the Senate will likely still be controlled by Mitch McConnell – a man whose life’s work has been to stifle government action – come 2021. McConnell’s continued power seems to temper any hopes of the bold action we need in this moment.
At least, that’s the narrative being pushed by the one group delighted by this outcome: big corporations and Wall Street, who were hoping for a divided government from day one of the 2020 campaign. Bankers celebrated the electoral outcome, telling Vanity Fair: “Wall Street will love it. Are you kidding me? A growth agenda without overburdensome regulation or tax reform? C’mon. Are you kidding me? [T]hey live for fucking gridlock.”
For corporate America, divided government is a blessing. A dysfunctional legislature will struggle to pass laws raising corporate taxes or cracking down on corporate malfeasance. But just as importantly, by pushing the narrative that no progressives could ever get anything through a Republican-controlled Senate, corporate executives can position themselves as bipartisan “consensus” picks for powerful cabinet posts and regulatory jobs. In fact, they’re already jockeying for them. Before election results were clear, former Lehman Brothers executive and failed Republican presidential candidate John Kasich immediately chastised the left, claiming progressives nearly cost Biden the election. Kasich, who himself hasn’t won an election in six years and utterly failed to deliver Ohio to Biden, has been angling for a cabinet post for weeks.
In reality, corporate executives and lobbyists are only “consensus” cabinet picks among their fellow CEOs and corporate lawyers: by a staggering 2 to 1 margin, voters of all stripes – including Republicans – say that Biden should not hire big business executives to run his government. If democracy means anything in this country – and the 2020 election’s jaw-dropping turnout means the people still believe in democracy – Biden cannot pick a corporate cabinet. It’s perhaps the one issue on which Americans are united.
And so long as Biden resists the pressure to sell his executive branch out to the highest bidder, there’s still plenty he can do to improve average people’s lives without trying to appease McConnell.
Biden’s Plan B for filling out a cabinet involves the Vacancies Act, which lets the president temporarily make a senior staffer at a given agency the secretary, or bring a different Senate-confirmed individual (like the many Democratic commissioners at independent agencies like the Federal Trade Commission) into the cabinet job temporarily. He can also make appointments while the Senate is in recess, as presidents of both parties do all the time. Biden could even force the Senate into recess by playing a bit of constitutional hardball – the kind of hardball McConnell plays constantly.
Likewise, corporate America might want you to think that a Republican Senate means that any hope of tackling big business’s abuses – and thus improving working conditions, cleaning air and drinking water, and granting Americans a life of economic dignity – is now gone. These fatalists ask how exactly Biden is supposed to get these policies past McConnell, failing to mention that Biden doesn’t need to.
Biden’s treasury department can implement financial regulations to impede investments in the fossil fuel industry and reallocate funds to tackle Covid-19 and provide support to the most harmed Americans. Biden’s justice department can prosecute Big Oil companies or seek breakups of corporate monopolies. Biden’s labor department can enforce OSHA rules and crack down on wage theft like never before, making sure people’s hard-earned wages actually make it into their pockets. His IRS can focus on ensuring the rich pay their fair share, instead of auditing poor Americans making mistakes on their taxes. He can even, with one directive to his acting education secretary, cancel 95% of student loan debt. There are at least 277 actions broadly popular within both wings of the Democratic party which Biden could take on day one of his administration. And he needn’t even walk near a McConnell-controlled Senate to do them.
Yet all of these actions depend on Biden appointing committed soldiers for the public good – not corporate allies. A treasury secretary Gina Raimondo would prioritize slashing aid to struggling cities in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, as she has in her home state. If ex-Googlers like Roger Ferguson or Eric Schmidt pepper the executive branch, it will undercut the authority of the most important antitrust suit in a generation. Appointing Seth Harris to labor secretary will give the intellectual architect of California’s Prop 22 an insider’s angle to spread pain for gig-economy workers.
Stopping these people must be a priority for the Democratic base. Activists can and should make clear to Biden that their repayment for hard work should be a highly-motivated and public interest-minded executive branch.
Executive actions represent the best hope for aggressively tackling our many interlinked crises – not to mention the best hope for Biden’s party to stand any chance in the 2022 and 2024 elections. The Democrats must have something to show for the trust the American people has placed in them. Failure in the coming years could mean a second Trump term, or worse: a new far-right nationalist who is better organized and more serious than Trump.
Biden and the Democrats can only defeat such a threat by showing the American people that, yes, their government is still capable of improving their lives in tangible, substantive ways. Executive authority provides Biden with no shortage of ways to do that – but only if he resists the false “bipartisanship” that corporate lobbyists are furiously pushing across Washington. Such individuals cannot populate a Biden cabinet.