These appointees run agencies that influence everything from health-care costs to school safety to workplace protections. In that way, Cabinet members’ influence on Americans’ daily lives might be as great, or even greater, than the vice president’s. For too long, presidents of both administrations have filled key Cabinet and agency positions with men and women who boast K Street, Pennsylvania Avenue and Wall Street connections and loyalties. Over the past four years, we’ve seen that tendency taken to the extreme, with devastating results.
Top Trump administration officials have overseen an unprecedented era of federal deregulation and destabilization. The Environmental Protection Agency, first under Scott Pruitt and then Andrew Wheeler, has rolled back regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from cars and power plants. As secretary of the Education Department, Betsy DeVos has gutted key provisions allocating much-needed funding to high-poverty schools. Under the direction of five different commissioners (some in acting roles), the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory enforcement activity has declined drastically, threatening public health and safety. And in the midst of this pandemic, the Department of Health and Human Services, led by Alex Azar, ordered hospitals to stop sharing daily coronavirus data with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A new administration has the opportunity not just to undo the damage done by the current Cabinet but also to reconceive the qualifications for these positions entirely. Yet there’s no guarantee that Biden, who has strong ties to Wall Street and corporate lobbies, would do so without a push. Progressives will have to press him to select Cabinet members and agency officials who reflect and represent the people they’re sworn to serve, and carry out the bolder agenda the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force has outlined.
Some have already started. Progressive think tank Data for Progress recently released its suggested nominees for each Cabinet and agency position, stating, “Rebuilding the federal government after four years of ransacking will be a monumental task, but it’s one that needs to be done if Biden wants to make his campaign’s progressive vision into reality.”
It’s a challenge that at least one of Biden’s potential running mates has embraced. On the campaign trail, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said she would select a former public school teacher as education secretary. As Warren argued, leadership at the department would be enhanced by “a person with real teaching experience. A person who understands how low pay, tattered textbooks and crumbling classrooms hurt students and educators.”
But experience is just one necessity; demonstrated commitment is another. To that end, the Data for Progress report outlines what each position requires from a progressive perspective. The labor secretary should be “committed to protecting the rights of working people.” The attorney general must “come into office with a serious commitment to criminal justice reform and a will to prosecute cases of fraud in the financial sector.” The secretary of state must “prioritize multilateralism, non-interventionism, and a commitment to arms control and climate change alleviation.” I’d add that means reentering the Paris accord, rejoining the Iran nuclear deal and giving priority to true diplomacy.
Agency appointments will be just as consequential. Whether it’s the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or the Federal Trade Commission, government agencies oversee a broad spectrum, from trade to consumer protections — and those who lead those agencies will have a big impact on how quickly this country recovers.
Of course, it will take a victory in November before Biden will have the opportunity to select his Cabinet. But he need not wait to write the job descriptions, and progressives need not wait to mobilize and advocate. Starting now, Biden should set the bar high for each Cabinet appointment, making clear what kind of experience and what kind of commitments he will be looking for. This is a chance for Biden to be bold and break with tradition, to look outside the Beltway and show people he is on their side.
When President Trump accepted his party’s nomination in 2016, he famously said, “I alone can fix it.” Biden would do well to make it clear that no one can contain a pandemic and repair an economy alone. It will take a strong team — president, vice president, and Cabinet members and agency officials who will put the American people first — to get us through these crises and move this country forward.