For a moment in time, the Left seriously batted around the notion that President Joe Biden would be the next FDR. He fell short in most respects, notwithstanding his pursuit of massive spending bills.
Yet the Biden administration might well resemble that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in its use of sheer government force to push a partisan agenda. Biden signed Executive Order 14019 in March 2021, calling for every federal agency to “promote voter registration and voter participation” and to expand access to “accurate election information.” Don’t worry. We’re assured that this is nonpartisan—despite the obvious questions it raises about whether the executive branch might try to tip the scales for electoral gain. However, the Biden administration hasn’t been responsive to multiple requests over the last year from more than 50 House Republicans, inquiring about the nature of this voter-participation push.
That could soon change.
A federal court in July ordered the Justice Department to release records related to the executive order in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the Foundation for Government Accountability. The FGA anticipated more than 5,000 pages of responsive records—but in September it got just 135 heavily redacted pages, which didn’t include the DOJ’s “strategic plan” for implementing the order. In October, the Department of Justice claimed “presidential communication privilege” in federal court to dodge the release of records about how the order is being implemented, arguing that the release of some of the records could cause “public confusion.”
Of particular interest to both members of Congress and the FGA is that the order calls for “soliciting and facilitating approved, nonpartisan third-party organizations and state officials to provide voter registration services on agency premises.” A White House fact sheet doesn’t specify which organizations the White House has in mind.
Federal agencies can stall on FOIA issues and outright ignore requests from members of Congress in the minority. They can’t, however, ignore a congressional subpoena. And with Republicans assuming the majority in the House, they could soon be looking at one. While the Biden executive order on elections might not be as tawdry as Hunter Biden’s recreational and financial pursuits or as captivating as the origins of Covid-19, the House Administration Committee’s escalating investigation into the secretive Biden order and other inquiries shouldn’t be overlooked.
“Our federal agencies should never be utilized for partisan, political purposes,” Representative Bryan Steil (R., Wis.), then the ranking member of the House Administration Subcommittee on Elections, told the Daily Signal in late December. “As Republicans take the majority in the House, we will focus on making it easy to vote and hard to cheat. We previously raised concerns with potentially unconstitutional and unlawful actions by the Biden administration, and will continue to fight federal overreach in our elections.”
Steil has been among more than 50 House GOP members requesting information from the Biden administration about the order over the last year.
In January 2022, 36 House Republicans asked the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees executive orders, to provide information about the implementation of Biden’s voting order.
In March, nine ranking members—most of whom are chairmen now—requested information from the OMB and from Susan Rice, chairwoman of the White House Domestic Policy Council, about the criteria for approving nonprofit organizations to assist the government in boosting voting and registration.
In June, the same nine House members followed up with a letter to a dozen federal agencies asking how the Biden order would be implemented.
Again, in October, a separate group of nine House Republicans wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland about the legal issues surrounding the executive order.
“Federal executive agencies, which have no business engaging in voter registration or mobilization efforts, as the EO directs, will surely exceed the scope of their authority under federal law,” reads the October letter. “Moreover, in carrying out this EO, employees of these agencies will likely violate other laws such as the Hatch Act, designed to keep federal agencies, led by political appointees, from engaging in political activities to benefit one political party over another.” The October letter goes on to note that any expenditure by the DOJ for this “could violate the Antideficiency Act, which prohibited executive agencies from spending funds Congress has not authorized or accepting volunteer services from ‘approved’ third-party organizations as EO 14019 directs.”
The Hatch Act brings us back, again, to FDR. The law is not just something White House press secretaries invoke to avoid answering questions.
FDR crony Harry Hopkins ran the Works Progress Administration—one of the most powerful New Deal programs. The WPA promised jobs and promotions in exchange for working on campaigns and supporting FDR’s handpicked Democratic candidates, and threatened to withhold benefits and loans from those who didn’t support the pro-New Deal candidates. FDR was in the anti-Tammany wing of the Democrats in New York, but his lieutenants were essentially applying Tammany Hall machine-style tactics at the national level. This erupted into a scandal when numerous newspapers reported on the WPA’s political meddling—and particularly its meddling in Senate races in Kentucky and Iowa. So Senator “Cowboy” Carl Hatch (D., N.M.) proposed what was initially called the “Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities.” The law not only prevents federal employees from using work time and resources for politicking, but also prohibits federal employees from asking someone seeking federal assistance if they are a Republican or Democrat.
While the Hatch Act is inconsistently enforced in the modern era, what we do know is that even some of the vague information disclosed about Biden’s voter-participation program seems to leave a gaping hole for potential abuse.
The Justice Department in May announced guidance for states to increase awareness of voting rights for convicted criminals, in compliance with Biden’s order. The Department of Homeland Security said it will focus on voter registration “at the end of naturalization ceremonies for the hundreds of thousands of citizens naturalized each year.” The Education Department announced in April that higher-education institutions can use money for Federal Work Study programs to pay for students to register voters.
So, what are (or what were in 2022) the approved nonprofit partners that assisted the federal agencies? And what are the criteria for government approval?
House Republicans in their January 2022 letter contended that Biden’s order “is nearly identical to a federal election takeover plan crafted by the radical left-leaning group known as Demos.”
While it’s unclear whether the group is a participant—the organization did not respond to a request for comment—Demos issued recommendations in a prior December 2020 brief titled “Executive Action to Advance Democracy” for then-incoming president Biden. The brief suggested the president “direct federal agencies to provide voter registration services” and “issue an executive order directing federal agencies serving under-registered populations to provide voter registration services.”
At the time, the Demos president was K. Sabeel Rahman, and its legal-strategies director was Chiraag Bains. In 2021, Rahman was hired as the OMB’s senior counsel, and Bains became deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council under Rice. The OMB and Domestic Policy Council are the two White House offices that primarily oversee executive actions.
Faced with a GOP-controlled House, the Biden administration may soon have to start answering the many unresolved questions about this executive order.
This piece originally appeared in The National Review