January 2021 Issues Preview

If you believe the old Washington saw that personnel is policy, then Joe Biden's administration is supposed to be low on drama, high on Washington experience and will emphasize diversity more than any previous presidency.

But Biden has picked a few fights for his cabinet — notably Xavier Becerra for Health and Human Services and Neera Tanden to run the Office of Management and Budget. The Georgia Senate runoffs on Tuesday will determine not just control of the Senate — but also the fate of these nominees.

Beyond the cabinet nominations, there are dozens of committee chairmen, staffers on Capitol Hill and key people within the West Wing who fall into the category of power players in the new year, and our POLITICO policy teams have created a one stop shop for all the names you need to know in this month's CEO Report.


— All eyes on health care jobs. Nothing is more important to the incoming administration than controlling the pandemic. Watch the nomination battles for policy and messaging in the coming weeks.

— Who will chair top Senate panels is still hanging in the balance as Georgia gears up for its Jan. 5 runoff elections for two Senate seats. Whichever party wins control of the chamber would then decide how difficult confirmation processes will be.

— Don't sleep on the environmental agenda. Biden has lined up one of the most aggressive groups of environmental advocates at the cabinet level of any president in history.

Happy New Year and welcome to the January edition of the CEO Report, POLITICO Pro’s high-level outlook on the policy issues driving the month … and beyond.


Incoming Cabinet official: Tom Vilsack will return to run USDA after having already held the job for eight years during the Obama administration. No one doubts whether the former Iowa governor is qualified for another spin running the sprawling department, which oversees farm policy as well as nutrition assistance for millions of low-income households. But Vilsack has faced criticism about whether he’s the right pick for a department that’s under pressure to aggressively fight consolidation and right the department’s long history of discrimination and civil rights abuse. Vilsack is expected to be confirmed easily in the Senate where he’ll find a fair amount of bipartisan cooperation on food and farm policy, even on thornier issues like climate change.

Chair/ranking in the House: Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) will be chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, the first African-American and Georgian to hold the post. Rep. G.T. Thompson (R-Pa.) will be ranking member of the committee.

Chair/ranking in the Senate: The Senate Agriculture Committee is expected to be led by Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) and ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), or vice versa if the Senate flips. — Helena Bottemiller Evich


Incoming Cabinet: Biden’s health secretary will have one of the most consequential jobs in the new administration as he copes with a raging pandemic and must defend Obamacare.

HHS Secretary-designate Becerra doesn’t have an extensive health policy resume but mounted dozens of legal challenges to the Trump administration’s most divisive policies on Obamacare, reproductive health and safety-net programs while he was California attorney general. As a House lawmaker, Becerra also sat on the Ways and Means health subcommittee and aided the Affordable Care Act’s passage in 2010.

Becerra, 62, emerged as a contender for the HHS spot late in the process, after several other candidates the Biden transition courted passed on the job, including New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo. If confirmed, Becerra has vowed to focus on health disparities that have left disadvantaged communities especially vulnerable during the pandemic. He’ll be surrounded by a team of experts who’ll drive the new administration’s pandemic response and messaging on mask-wearing and other public health practices — including Surgeon General-designate and Biden confidante Vivek Murthy, NIH infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci and Jeff Zients, who will coordinate the pandemic response out of the White House.

Becerra's past vocal support of “Medicare for All” also makes him stand out with an administration that’s decidedly centrist. Sources within Biden’s team are confident Becerra will support Biden's pledge to create a public insurance option that will compete with private plans.

Chair/ranking committee in House: New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone returns for another Congress at the helm of the Energy and Commerce Committee, where he’s expected to shepherd a biomedical research bill known as Cures 2.0. It aims to build on the 21st Century Cures Act enacted six years ago by making breakthrough treatments more accessible. The ranking Republican is Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, who replaces the retired Greg Walden of Oregon and may bring a more conservative edge than her predecessor. The other House committee with jurisdiction over health policy is Ways and Means, where Chairman Richard Neal of Massachusetts and ranking Republican Kevin Brady of Texas both return. Neal, not very known for heavy involvement in health policy, became a key participant in the debate over “surprise” billing during the just-concluded Congress, helping steer a final compromise more in the direction of doctors and hospitals.

Chair/ranking committee in Senate: North Carolina Republican Richard Burr gave up his Intelligence Committee chairmanship while under investigation for stock trades amid the pandemic and now is in line for the Senate health committee, where he’d succeed retired chairman Lamar Alexander. The FBI investigation into Burr’s stock trades is not expected to affect his ability to take the gavel at the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. But if he passes, the post would go to Kentucky’s Rand Paul , a libertarian-leaning physician-lawmaker, who has clashed with infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci over the government’s coronavirus response and who once compared the notion of a “right” to health care to slavery. The positioning comes as Republicans try to hold a narrow majority with run-offs in Georgia awaiting. If Democrats can upset GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, Patty Murray of Washington would be in line to head the health panel.

Others to know: Biden has taken surprisingly long to fill out his health team. As of deadline, he has yet to reveal his picks to head the FDA and the Medicare and Medicaid programs. His half dozen initial appointments include Zients, an economic policy expert who’ll coordinate the pandemic response, Murthy, who spent three years as the Obama administration’s surgeon general and will reprise his role, Marcella Nunez-Smith, a public health expert with no political experience as head of the White House’s Covid-19 Equity Task Force, and Rochelle Walensky, a physician with no prior political experience to be the new director of the Centers for Disease Control. — Adriel Bettelheim


Officials shaping tariff and China policies: Biden’s trade team will have to find ways to roll back some of Trump's more disruptive trade actions, without creating an opening for Trump and his allies to attack Biden for being too weak. The team members will also be on the front lines of crafting China policy.

Incoming Cabinet officials: Biden’s USTR nominee Katherine Tai has toiled in the background of U.S. trade policy for over a decade, first at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and then as chief international trade counsel for Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee.

Chair/ranking in the House: Tai is expected to work closely with her soon-to-be former boss, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal. Neal played a key role in negotiating changes that paved the way for congressional approval of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. The House panel's ranking Republican, Rep. Kevin Brady, is a former chair of the committee and has a keen interest in trade.

Likely chair/ranking in the Senate: Over on the Senate side, either Sen. Mike Crapo or Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) will lead the Senate Finance Committee, depending on the outcome of the two runoff races in Georgia.

Both Crapo and Neal could support early renewal of "trade promotion authority" to better equip the White House to negotiate new trade deals. But Wyden and Neal are likely to take their cues from Biden on that issue, rather than rush into a debate on legislation that most Democrats have opposed in the past.

Other key staffers to know: Former Obama administration economic guru Jason S. Miller has been leading Biden’s landing team for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and is expected to play a continued role either at the trade office or in the White House. Biden has not yet named a Commerce secretary, but the person will also be expected to be involved with trade policy. — Doug Palmer


Incoming Cabinet official: Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin is Biden's pick to lead the Pentagon. Austin, who developed a close relationship with Biden while leading U.S. troops in the Middle East, beat out Pentagon insider Michele Flournoy, who was long seen as the favorite for the job.

While the defense secretary job is typically among the least controversial presidential picks, Austin's confirmation could get rocky. Austin, who retired from the Army in 2016, requires a waiver from Congress to take the job. Lawmakers approved a waiver for Jim Mattis to serve as Trump's defense chief four years ago, and the prospect of yet another recently retired general leading the Pentagon has lawmakers in both parties on edge.

Lawmakers are also likely to question Austin, whose experience leans heavily towards the Middle East, on how he'd refocus the military on competition with China and Russia.

Top staff: Congressional concerns might be smoothed over by Biden's selection of several experienced civilians for some of the Pentagon's most senior posts. The president-elect has tapped Kathleen Hicks, a former Pentagon official and think tank expert who is leading his transition team at the Defense Department, to be deputy secretary. Hicks would be the first woman to hold the post if she's confirmed.

Colin Kahl, who was Biden's national security adviser when he was vice president, will be undersecretary of defense for policy. And Kelly Magsamen, a former principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs who is now at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, will be Pentagon chief of staff.

Top House and Senate Leaders: The Senate Armed Services Committee will retain its leadership in Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.). But who will chair the panel hinges on which party wins the majority after Georgia's two Senate runoff elections. The conservative Inhofe has led the committee since late 2018. Reed has been the panel's top Democrat since 2015.

Who chairs the panel could determine how easily Biden's Pentagon nominees get through and significantly influence how Biden’s priorities are handled in the crafting of annual defense policy legislation.

In the House, Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) will keep his gavel for the next two years. He'll be joined atop the committee by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), who won out in the race to replace retiring Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas as the panel's ranking Republican. — Connor O’Brien


Incoming Cabinet officials: Connecticut Education Commissioner Michael Cardona was tapped to lead the Education Department. The state education chief pressed schools to reopen for in-person learning during the pandemic. A former public school teacher, Cardona is a stark contrast from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and has been well-received so far.

Senate committee turnover: Burr, who could take the HELP chairmanship, was part of a bipartisan group of senators that pushed for the FUTURE Act for HBCU funding. He was also a critic of allowing student athletes to get paid and threatened to tax college athlete scholarships as income.

Chair/ranking in the House: House Education and Labor committee leadership will remain the same in the 117th Congress. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) will serve as chairman and Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) will be the ranking member. — Bianca Quilantan


Incoming officials: Biden has nominated former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen as his Treasury secretary and Adewale “Wally” Adeyemo to be her deputy overseeing the department’s operations. Brian Deese, a veteran of the Obama White House, has been tapped to lead the National Economic Council. Once confirmed, Yellen would be the first woman to lead Treasury. Adeyemo, who also served in the Obama administration, would be the first Black American to serve as deputy secretary. Yellen, Adeyemo and Deese’s key task would be to steer the economic recovery as the U.S. combats a resurgent Covid-19 pandemic.

Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) is Biden’s nominee to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, an agency that will also grapple with the effects of the pandemic.

Biden has not selected a nominee to head the consumer bureau yet, but he is expected to pick someone who would restore the agency to the aggressive posture it took during the Obama administration. While current CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger has completed just two years of her five-year tenure, a 2020 Supreme Court ruling gave the president more power to fire the head of the agency.

Biden will name Democrats to lead the government's securities and commodities regulators in a sharply different direction than under President Donald Trump.

Top staff: David Kamin, who worked as a senior budget official under Obama, will be Deese's deputy NEC director, and Bharat Ramamurti, a former aide to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), will be deputy NEC director for financial reform and consumer protection.

Fudge’s deputies at HUD have not been named yet, but they will be critical in restoring two key Obama-era fair housing rules dismantled by Trump appointees, a top priority for the incoming administration.

Chair/ranking in the House: Rep. Maxine Waters will remain head of the House Financial Services Committee, while Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina will serve another term as the panel's top Republican. Waters, a California Democrat, is expected to place a priority on affordable housing and consumer protection in the new session of Congress, and she's likely to hold considerable influence over the direction of Biden’s bank regulators.

Fudge will work with Waters and McHenry to hash out the details of any further rental relief package to help millions of struggling tenants who have lost income as a result of the pandemic.

Waters and McHenry will also have oversight of the next CFPB director. Waters has repeatedly called on the agency to renew its focus on fair lending laws as the Trump administration pulled back enforcement.

Likely chairs/ranking in the Senate: If Republicans control the Senate after the Georgia runoff elections, Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania would chair the Banking Committee. Toomey, who is retiring from Congress in 2022, is more outspoken about his free-market ideology than outgoing Banking Chair Mike Crapo (R-Idaho). Toomey, a former Club for Growth president, has sought to rein in government programs such as the Export-Import Bank and most recently fought to claw back the pandemic-related emergency powers of the Federal Reserve. In an interview with POLITICO, Toomey said his priorities would include overhauling housing finance, boosting activity in capital markets and scrutinizing fintech.

If Democrats win the two Georgia runoffs, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio would chair the Banking Committee. An unabashed liberal with a populist streak, Brown would bring a watchdog approach to overseeing the finance industry. Like Waters, he would have sway over Biden’s regulatory nominees and would press them to crack down on the largest financial institutions. Brown has also said that promoting affordable housing would be a top goal if he leads the committee, and repeatedly prodded the CFPB to take a less business-friendly stance under Trump appointees.

Other key staffers to know: Incoming White House Legislative Affairs Director Louisa Terrell will work with Congress on a new aid package — including rent subsidies — that the new administration is expected to push lawmakers to pass. And Walensky, Biden’s pick to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will be in charge of renewing and potentially expanding the federal ban on evictions, due to expire Jan. 31. The CDC imposed the ban in September to prevent the spread of Covid-19 by newly homeless tenants. Congress recently extended the moratorium.

Patrice Ficklin, the founding director of the bureau’s Office of Fair Lending and Equal Opportunity, will likely see her power restored in the Biden administration. Ficklin’s office was sidelined in a reorganization spearheaded by former acting director Mick Mulvaney.

Some consumer advocates who could move into regulatory roles include Lev Bagramian, policy adviser at the Better Markets watchdog group as well as Tyler Gellasch of Healthy Markets, a former counsel in the U.S. Senate.

Capital Markets, derivatives regulators: Both of Trump's top appointees, SEC Chair Jay Clayton, an independent who usually sided with Republicans, and Heath Tarbert, a Republican who heads the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, helped advance pro-business proposals during their time at the two independent agencies. The SEC moved to make it easier for companies to raise capital on public and private markets and set new conflict-of-interest restrictions on brokers, which progressives said were too weak. The CFTC concluded negotiations between the European Union and the U.K. related to cross-border swaps regulation. Clayton has already stepped down from the SEC, while Tarbert says he will resign as CFTC chair in early 2021.

One aspect of Biden’s financial regulatory approach that's expected to dramatically diverge from Trump involves environmental, social and governance — or ESG — issues. Biden has pledged to require public companies to disclose climate risks and greenhouse gas emissions in their operations and supply chains.

Likely nominees for SEC chair include former Democratic SEC Commissioner Robert Jackson, who criticized moves to promote private markets and limit the clout of shareholder advocates; Preet Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York who prosecuted high-profile Wall Street cases; and onetime Democratic SEC Commissioner Kara Stein, an ally of Warren. Another name said to be in the running to head the markets regulator is former CFTC Chair Gary Gensler, who is a key player on the Biden transition team.

Potential CFTC chair nominees include Georgetown University law professor Chris Brummer; and Democratic CFTC Commissioners Dan Berkovitz or Rostin Behnam. — Zachary Warmbrodt, Katy O'Donnell and Kellie Mejdrich


The new tech players in 2021: The tech world is watching closely the way new appointees will tackle the industry’s prized liability protections, enshrined in Section 230 of a decades-old law and under threat from both sides of the aisle. Republicans argue it allows social media companies to make politically biased decisions on content, while Democrats say it gives them too much leeway to allow hate speech and misinformation.

Top staff: Bruce Reed, who will be Biden's deputy chief of staff, has both called for revamping Section 230 and pushed for increased data privacy protections for Americans.

Chair/ranking in the House: McMorris Rodgers will become the top Republican on the House Energy and Committee, where she has said the No. 1 item on her tech agenda will be to take aim at Section 230.

Likely chairs/ranking in the Senate: If Republicans keep the Senate, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) plans to hand the Judiciary Committee gavel back to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). It’s unclear if Grassley would continue Graham’s aggressive efforts to narrow Section 230 protections. — Heidi Vogt


Incoming cabinet officials: Biden has selected his team for carrying out an ambitious climate change agenda. If confirmed, Rep. Deb Haaland will lead the Interior Department; North Carolina regulator Michael Regan will top the EPA and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm will head the Energy Department. Longtime environmental lawyer Brenda Mallory will lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which is expected to elevate environmental justice issues.

Within the White House, former Secretary of State John Kerry will coordinate international climate efforts and former EPA chief Gina McCarthy will lead the domestic climate push. Ali Zaidi, New York’s deputy secretary for energy and environment, will be McCarthy’s deputy.

Committee chairmenships: There’s significant chair shuffling of committee chairs in the energy and environment space on Capitol Hill. Sen. John Barrasso becomes the top Republican at the Energy Committee, pairing up with returning top Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito is expected to lead Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee, while Sen. Tom Carper returns as top Democrat.

In the House, Pallone and Grijalva return as chairs of the Energy and Commerce and Natural Resources committees, respectively, but their ranking members are new. McMorris Rodgers is the new ranking member at E&C, while Rep. Bruce Westerman becomes ranking member at Natural Resources. The leaders of the House Science Committee — Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson and Ranking Member Frank Lucas — are unchanged. — Anthony Andragna


Incoming Cabinet official: Biden’s most serious competitor for the prized “center lane” in the primary, Pete Buttigieg has now been welcomed into the fold as Transportation secretary . He’ll have a discretionary budget of $75 billion with the potential to make him friends all over the country, with the possibility that a major infrastructure package will balloon that number and give him the opportunity to show he can manage significant national initiatives — all good fodder for his 2024 résumé.

Buttigieg’s deputy and undersecretary for policy have not yet been named; nor have other transportation mode administrators. Those nominations usually come in the spring or summer of a president’s first year and often go to people with more technical expertise than the secretary.

Chair/ranking in the House: Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) will have another term to try to get his legacy-defining surface transportation reauthorization passed, with strict limits on highway building and major expansions planned for zero-emission transit, electric charging infrastructure and streets that are safe for biking and walking.

Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), himself a pilot, takes an active interest in aviation matters and has been a close partner to DeFazio on many issues, though the surface bill’s big spending on climate initiatives — and the Pelosi-driven bill-crafting process that shut out the other side — did cause a rift.

Likely chairs/ranking in the Senate: If Republicans keep the Senate, Moore Capito is expected to step into the chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over highway funding and policy. Carper is expected to remain as the top Democrat. The Senate Commerce Committee, which rules over aviation, rail, safety and automobiles — including a driverless car bill the committee’s been fighting to pass for the last few years — will keep its leaders from the 116th Congress: Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) Also key to passing a major transportation bill will be the Finance and Banking committees.

Other key staffers to know: House T&I Staff Director Kathy Dedrick, a 20-year veteran of transportation policymaking, will be the primary staffer through whom all transportation and infrastructure ideas and bills must pass, with Democrats controlling the House and White House. — Tanya Snyder


Incoming Cabinet officials: Biden has yet to announce his pick to lead the Labor Department, an agency that will be key to supporting businesses and workers through the pandemic economic recovery.

Biden is considering nominating Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to helm the department . But the president-elect is also being pressured to add more diversity to his Cabinet. In one corner, Asian American and Pacific Islander lawmakers and advocacy groups are urging him to nominate Julie Su, California’s labor secretary; in another, the Congressional Black Caucus PAC is pushing for Patrick Gaspard, a former ambassador to South Africa, who also served as president of George Soros's Open Society Foundations. Also in the mix are Seth Harris, a deputy Labor secretary in the Obama administration, and Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.).

On Capitol Hill: Scott will continue to lead the House Education and Labor Committee in the next Congress. But the HELP committee’s shakeup could affect any labor policy. — Rebecca Rainey

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