The Washington Post recently identified 11 family members employed in various administration posts. The actual number of hires may be higher, but we don’t know because the government doesn’t publish a roster of political appointees. As in the Trump administration, this issue touches even the Presidential Personnel Office, whose director has two relatives in the Biden administration.
The Post found no evidence Biden’s aides played a role in securing jobs for their relatives. And it’s true that Biden hasn’t hired his own family members, unlike Donald Trump, who appointed his daughter and son-in-law to high-level positions in the White House. But we’re in trouble as a nation if “better than Trump is good enough” becomes the standard for ethical behavior. We need active measures to overcome the pernicious influence of family connections, cronyism and systemic racism. Otherwise, implicit bias will surely get America more appointees from privileged backgrounds, insulated from the needs of the broader public.
Nepotism in the Trump administration wasn’t limited to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. The Daily Beast found that the administration employed multiple members of at least 20 families. The trend included officials in Trump’s Presidential Personnel Office, whose very function is to set the tone for political appointments.
The Trump administration wasn’t the first to have these problems, but Biden’s pledge not to hire his family and his emphasis on diversity sparked hope that it would be the last. But whatever Biden meant when he promised a better way, it seems his administration now interprets that promise as narrowly applicable to his family.
The most egregious case reported involves Steve Ricchetti, one of Biden’s closest advisers. Ricchetti accompanied Biden on his first golf outing as president, and the two hit the links again on Father’s Day. Ricchetti is the father of three other administration appointees, and a fourth child has worked for a member of Congress for two years. Steve’s brother, Jeff Ricchetti, began lobbying the White House shortly after Steve started working there, conducting his activities through a lobbying firm that Steve co-founded. (Steve stopped working as a registered lobbyist in 2009 and left the firm to work for Biden in 2012.)
Steve Ricchetti’s son J.J. scored a political position in the Treasury Department’s legislative affairs office. Biographies of other political appointees at his level in the Treasury Department boast a range of accomplishments, from advising members of Congress to working as political organizers. But according to J.J.’s official bio, his accomplishment consists primarily of graduating from college — last year.
These are no ordinary entry-level jobs. A political appointment in a Cabinet agency, especially one in an office that engages with Congress, is a coveted prize that adds sparkle to a résumé. Thousands of campaign workers and graduates hunger for jobs that can lead where these do. Rather than broadening diversity, J.J.’s hiring gave the political class one more well-to-do White son of privilege — in addition to all the other Ricchetti kids holding political jobs in this town, that is.
The question isn’t whether J.J. or any of the other relatives of Biden appointees are qualified for their jobs. The question is whether they bumped other qualified candidates because of their family connections. Only the White House knows whom J.J. might have displaced. The Treasury Department will lack the ideas and experiences that someone with a different background (and probably better qualifications) would have brought to the job. In years to come, the nation may miss out on that individual’s contributions as yet another Ricchetti heir follows a predestined trajectory through the halls of power.
On Monday, a reporter asked White House press secretary Jen Psaki what safeguards the administration had implemented to prevent the children of top officials from getting preferential treatment in hiring. Psaki responded generally that the administration has high ethical standards. She added something vague about diversity, which only highlighted the concern that these hirings may fall short of Biden’s promises. That’s not the response America deserved.
Psaki may be forgiven if she sounded defensive; her own sister landed a job in the administration. But she should come back with a more complete answer. It’s entirely possible that some of these appointees are the best people for their jobs. But the White House needs to make the case instead of expecting us to take it on faith.
The administration should also adopt a policy of heightened scrutiny whenever it considers a political appointment for a relative of a Biden appointee. That doesn’t mean unfairly banning people from jobs based on their lineage. The White House needs to convince us that the best people got the job through a fair process.
My career in government ethics tells me that an administration’s standards don’t get higher over time; they degrade. The challenges of governing push against standards, and each bad precedent justifies another. That’s why it’s so important to start from a place of high expectations. And the need for an administration to be above reproach has never been greater.
If the Biden White House’s hiring practices send a message that “better than Trump is good enough,” that may guide other aspects of its governance. Though Biden has told world leaders that America is back, the truth is that the United States lacks credibility to preach democracy and anticorruption to the world. Trump exposed and exploited systemic weaknesses — but he didn’t create them.
Fixing these flaws is a tall order. Tolerating the appearance of nepotism is no way to show we are capable of confronting even our smallest problems.