January 06, 2020
To: CNN, The Des Moines Register, and the moderators of the January 14th Democratic debate
We, the undersigned organizations, urgently request that you ask each Democratic presidential candidate about how they would wield powers specific to the executive branch at the next debate on January 14th. In particular, we request that you ask about what qualifications each candidate will prioritize in making key nominations and appointments to the various departments and independent agencies that will fall under the next president’s purview.
In prior debates, the presidential candidates have enjoyed the opportunity to propose their ideal legislative fixes for several issues. However, while presidents often help guide their party’s legislative efforts, it is their ultimate duty to veto or sign the laws that Congress passes, and then to execute the laws of the land.
Chief among the president’s tools for executing the law is the power to appoint personnel. Indeed, most of the executive branch activity with tangible impacts on voters’ lives, such as rulemaking and enforcement activity, takes place not from the Oval Office directly, but from within the departments and agencies whose leadership the president installs.
If candidates were asked to articulate how they intend to use the powers of the presidency, especially the power to appoint personnel, voters could gain new insight into the ways each potential president thinks about the executive branch they hope to lead. After all, implementing both existing (e.g., the Clean Air Act) and new legislation successfully requires a talented, driven team.
Moreover, as The American Prospect recently highlighted, the executive branch already has the legal power to accomplish a great many of the stated goals of several candidates. Through executive action directed by wisely-chosen political appointees, the next president could fight climate change, lower drug prices, and combat monopolies, to name but a few examples.
By now, candidates have gone on the record to say whether they want to tackle these and other problems legislatively. Most have not spoken about whether they plan on using the powers of the executive branch to accomplish these goals.
The nature and efficacy of executive branch actions depend on the integrity and competence of the appointees tasked with carrying them out. Unfortunately, this power has too often been treated as an afterthought on the campaign trail only to take center stage once the votes have been cast and there is no going back.
The Trump administration has made it clearer than ever that presidential appointments are often the site of legal, but nonetheless damaging, political corruption. However, the Trump administration did not invent the practice of major campaign donors receiving presidential appointments to cushy or influential jobs for which their credentials range from shaky to nonexistent. The so-called “revolving door” between powerful industries and the executive-branch regulators who oversee them is an all too common source of corruption, and has been exploited by presidents of both parties in the recent past.
Particularly in light of Trump’s highly public misuse of the nomination power, however, voters would gain valuable insight into the ways each candidate is approaching their potential presidency by hearing questions about the qualities each candidate will value the highest when staffing their administration. Moreover, if candidates are pressed to make commitments about certain minimum qualifications, this would oblige candidates to stick to their words. If some candidates refuse to pledge that their top appointees will meet certain qualifications, this too would be valuable information for voters to consider before voting in the primaries.
For these reasons, we urge you to ask the candidates concrete, specific questions about executive actions they would take and personnel they would hire at the next Democratic debate. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Action Center on Race and the Economy
Americans for Financial Reform
Center for Popular Democracy
National Fair Housing Alliance
National LGBTQ Task Force
Open Markets Institute
People For The American Way
Progressive Change Campaign Committee
Progressive Change Institute
Revolving Door Project
Strong Economy For All Coalition