Why a Cabinet Nom for a Member of Congress Would Create Headaches for Democrats

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November 11, 2020

If Joe Biden wants to tap a member of Congress for his cabinet, he will face some hurdles. In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D., Calif.) narrow margin is likely to prove a stumbling block, while in the Senate Democrats would face the complicated dynamics of replacing a sitting senator.

Thanks to their unexpectedly strong showings in congressional races across the country, Republicans have narrowed Pelosi’s margin by at least 10 seats and are expected to win at least one of the Senate runoffs in Georgia, thereby maintaining control of the upper chamber.

That means a number of House members gunning for a post in the Biden administration may be overlooked, from Obama- and Clinton-world veterans, such as Reps. Tom Malinowski (D., N.J.), Josh Gottheimer (D., N.J.), and Elissa Slotkin (D., Mich.), to Senators Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I., Vermont).

Tapping a House member would trigger a special election guaranteed to be competitive if Biden selects a moderate from a swing district—a risk Pelosi is unlikely to greenlight. Choosing a senator would trigger a series of events that in some cases would force Democrats to change the laws in states like Massachusetts and Vermont to ensure the seat remains in Democratic hands.

Moderate Democrats are more likely to come from swing districts—like Reps. Abigail Spanberger (Va.) or Conor Lamb (Pa.), who both won close-fought races this cycle—while left-wingers like Rep. Karen Bass (Calif.) are unlikely to be confirmed by a Republican-controlled Senate. That tension is likely to be a major factor in Biden's nominations, forcing him to look outside the halls of Congress.

The departure of any lawmaker is likely to trigger millions in Republican spending on a special election. That could be dangerous to Biden’s agenda: In 2010, Republican Scott Brown won a surprise victory over Democrat Martha Coakley to clinch the seat left open after the death of Ted Kennedy. That denied Democrats a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, frustrating their plans to pass a public option of the sort Biden favors as part of Obamacare.

If Biden picks a representative for his cabinet, then, they are more likely to be from a solidly blue district—and therefore more progressive. The top name regularly mentioned is Bass, considered a contender for secretary of Housing and Urban Development after she lost her chance to be Biden's VP, due in part to her sympathies for out-and-out socialism. Another possibility at Labor is Rep. Andy Levin (D., Mich.), a former labor organizer and green energy investor.

The same dynamic is at play in the Senate, where progressives would like to see Warren or Sanders tapped for top slots—Warren is reportedly campaigning hard for Treasury secretary. Either might enjoy senatorial courtesy in their appointment, although McConnell has signaled his hostility to progressive picks generally, causing the Biden campaign to weigh a ban on progressive senators in his cabinet.

Both Sanders and Warren come from states with Republican governors, who would in theory get to appoint replacements, swinging the balance of the Senate. State legislatures in both states, where Democrats hold veto-proof majorities, could change the laws to compel Govs. Phil Scott and Charlie Baker to appoint Democrats, but both seats would also go through special elections—a major risk in an evenly divided Senate.

This dynamic likely raises the profile of otherwise long-shot Senate picks from deep-blue states. Biden protégé Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.), who has an outside chance at secretary of state, may benefit from the fact that his replacement would be picked by a Democratic governor and then elected by a deep-blue electorate. The same goes for Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), an early Biden endorser who is reportedly in the running for Agriculture secretary, and whose home state broke for Biden and has not sent a Republican to the Senate since 2002.

Look for such picks—which benefit from senatorial courtesy, are perceived as more "moderate," and are unlikely to endanger Democrats' position in the House or Senate—to lead Biden's nominations. But it is also possible that, given congressional dynamics, Biden may be the first president in 75 years to not nominate a member of Congress to his cabinet: an unprecedented choice occasioned by an unprecedentedly narrow victory.

Published under: Joe Biden