Labor unions and liberal groups are pressing President Obama to select left-wing nominees for key regulatory and judicial posts in the aftermath of the Senate nuclear option.
Groups have been meeting with White House officials throughout the year to influence the president’s selection of nominees and plan to ramp up their efforts in the weeks ahead.
“Before we weren’t trying to push people with a labor backgrounds because we knew they would never have been confirmable,” said a senior labor official. “That bar has been removed. You’ll see considerable interest in seeing more progressive people appointed to positions.”
Groups are keeping their wish lists of potential nominees secret for fear that Republicans could still muster enough opposition to stall their confirmations if it became known they are the top priorities of the left.
“We do have a couple we’re trying to push right now,” said the labor official, who declined to reveal specifically which vacant positions are under discussion. “There are some assistant secretary positions.”
Earlier this month, Senate Democrats changed the Senate’s rules to lower the threshold for advancing executive and judicial branch nominees from 60 votes to a simple majority. The change does not apply to Supreme Court nominees. There are 55 senators who are in the Democratic caucus.
Liberal consumer advocacy groups have their sights set on two positions with regulatory oversight of Wall Street, one on the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and another on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.
“There has been a real need — because that’s the way you get people through the process — to find consensus and to find people who are perhaps more industry friendly or who can get us to that higher threshold,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.
“Now that barrier is taken away so I think Obama has freedom to appoint folks who serve the public, who think about our financial sector with a longer view,” she said.
Chairman Gary Gensler and Commissioner Bart Chilton, regulators who have had an adversarial relationship with Wall Street, are stepping down from their posts on the CFTC.
Obama’s choice to replace Gensler with Timothy Massad, a Treasury Department official, has concerned some consumer advocates because his views are largely unknown.
Liberal groups want Chilton’s replacement to be a known champion of consumers’ rights.
The CFTC has been at the forefront of implementing the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act and has established dozens of rules enhancing transparency in the swaps and derivatives market.
JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and other major banks are planning to challenge some the agency’s advisory opinions in court.
“The CFTC with Gary Gensler and Bart Chilton leaving is quite vulnerable right now,” said Barbara Roper of the Consumer Federation of America. “We’ve been fortunate to have extraordinarily good leadership of the CFTC during the initial implementation of Dodd-Frank, but that could all go for naught.”
Roper said their replacements must have the expertise to “go toe to toe with Wall Street” and have absolute commitment to reform. She added there are concerns whether Massad will prove to be as forceful an advocate as Gensler.
“People have a lot of questions about whether he will have both the requisite degree of technical expertise and the strong commitment to reform,” she said. “People don’t like questions when the issues are this important.”
Groups are also eyeing Sarah Bloom Raskin’s seat on the Federal Reserve Board. Obama has nominated her to serve as deputy Treasury secretary.
“We can say what we don’t want, which is someone coming directly from the securities industry who will clearly have industry leanings,” said Gilbert of Public Citizen.
An advocate at one liberal group said Raskin served as the Fed’s primary contact to many consumer groups.
“It’s important to make sure that two-way dialogue continues,” said the advocate, who requested anonymity to frankly discuss Obama’s potential nominees.
The Fed has supervisory and enforcement roles that liberal advocates say are crucial to reining in the banking industries excesses, such as exorbitant rates on deposit advance loans — an alternative to payday loans.
Other liberal groups are focused more on the president’s future court appointments. They say he should expand the pool of candidates now that Republican votes are no longer necessary for their confirmation.
“There seems little question the president has bent over backwards to pick very moderate and in some cases conservative judges,” said Bob Borosage, co-director of Campaign for America’s Future.
Liberals say Republican influence has “distorted” the federal courts’ approach to economic issues.
An analysis published by The Minnesota Law Review in April found the Supreme Court has trended increasingly pro-business in recent years.
“They have systematically found for corporate plaintiffs and tried to dismantle basic parts of our regulatory system or weaken them,” Borosage said. “Hopefully [the president] will be quite conscious of choosing judges with a history of civil rights and consumer rights.”
While Supreme Court nominees are not affected by the Senate rules change, the high court is stocked with justices who previously served on federal appellate courts.
Liberals also complain the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over many regulatory issues, has had a conservative tilt in recent years.
The Senate is expected to soon confirm Obama’s three nominees to the D.C. Circuit, which will change the ideological balance.