This White House leaks, that is an understatement. This White House gushes. Yet, monitoring reports on the internecine warfare of the West Wing, Pence remains in the shadows. His public appearances are of course covered and interesting. (The limited love the VP received at the Southern Baptist Convention was certainly interesting - they should have been the friendliest of crowds.)
But public appearances are basically carrying the President's water (or whatever POTUS wants done with his water...)
Pence has been pretty effective as a presidential surrogate, smoothing our POTUS' rough edges (as much as possible, at least) on Capitol Hill, domestically, and abroad. This has had its costs of course, it does for every VP, but particularly in this administration.
From what I've seen Pence's biggest contribution has actually been in personnel. Trump had a very limited rolodex of DC-types who feel administration jobs. That has hurt him (although in fairness, the very capable John Kelly can't run a Trump White House, so probably no one can.)
None of this is influence (which is what my dissertation was about). My core contention is that areas where VPs play are a role are areas where Presidents face vacuums in experience or are particular priorities. Following where a VP exercises influence can tell us something about how decisions are being made in the White House.
The problem was, that for all of the White House leaks, there was only very limited information on the doings of the VP! But that, quite suddenly, has changed...
Pence in the News: Finally!
First, there is a new book on vice presidents (how's my own book on the VPs coming... don't ask.)
Reporting on the book, Kate Andersen Brower's First in Line: Presidents, Vice Presidents, and the Pursuit of Power has this fascinating tidbit:
The author tried to persuade Pence’s staff to let her sit down with the former governor of Indiana. She’d already talked to the other six men who had held the title of VPOTUS. “I don’t want to leave you guys out,” Brower recalled telling Pence’s gatekeepers. But they wouldn’t budge. The narrative was too tricky, especially after reports that Pence was looking to position himself for a 2020 bid for the office down the hall.
“They are very tight-lipped, and they’re smart about it,” Brower said, adding that Pence’s staff has assumed a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” stance on profiles and one-on-one interviews. “If it seems like he’s doing a lot, then the president won’t like that,” she said.So, that's why there aren't many leaks about the VP. He is being very careful not to leak or have too large a public profile. And if you do that, no one has much reason to leak about you.
Then there is this terrific bit of reporting from The Washington Post, Pence turns VP's office into gateway for lobbyists to influence the Trump administration. So far twice as many organizations have registered to lobby of Office of the Vice President in Pence's first year as in any of the years in which Biden or Cheney served as VP (the number of lobbying clients trying to influence the President directly has remained essentially flat.) Here's a key quote:
“The vice president’s policy staff regularly takes meetings with representatives from the private sector — including registered lobbyists, whose activity is publicly disclosed and regulated — to discuss policy,” said Alyssa Farah, Pence’s press secretary. “Hearing the real-world impacts, positive or negative, to individuals or businesses is a key input to the deliberative process behind President Trump’s agenda and making the federal government more accountable to the American people.”
In some cases, Pence has served as a kind of second White House chief of staff on regulatory issues, given his extensive knowledge of how the government works and the president’s relative lack of interest in policy details, according to current and former Trump administration officials.
Pence was also responsible for staffing many of the federal agencies that lobbyists seek to influence. One other lobbyist who interacts with Pence described the vice president’s office as a key entryway to reach officials such as Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who worked for Pence when he was governor of Indiana. A spokesman for Verma said the agency gets requests for meetings “in many different ways.”
“His staff is very accessible,” said the lobbyist, who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing future access to the Trump administration. “If you can’t get high up in the West Wing, they are your best bet.”
The actions taken by Pence and his staff as a result of lobbying are not disclosed in federal filings, and more than a dozen companies that have hired people to contact his office declined to comment on the role of the vice president or what their lobbying spending accomplished.Then there's this report from today's Post (I check lots of sources for VP doings, but it just so happens that The Washington Post is breaking the news on this particular front.) The vice president has pressed USAID to direct funds to aid Iraqi Christian and Yazidis.
But Pence was unhappy with the progress in the field. He recently “directed” Green to go to Iraq before the end of this month and report back to him on plans to get assistance there quickly, according to a statement from the vice president’s office.
In a sharp-edged statement on Friday, Pence’s office said the vice president “will not tolerate bureaucratic delays.”
According to a U.S. official familiar with Pence’s concern that, as he saw it, USAID had failed to prioritize the issue, the vice president told Green that he would support any personnel changes the USAID administrator chose to make.What both of these stories have in common is the VP (and his staff) putting pressure on the bureaucracy to change policy. There is nothing wrong with this in principle.
Before the end of the day, the head of USAID’s Middle East bureau, a career Foreign Service officer, was replaced by a political appointee who had worked on development projects under Green at the International Republican Institute.
This is what politicians do. They cannot control the vast bureaucracies directly (the famous principle-agent problem on a massive scale). They can intervene at times and places or structure bureaucracies in a way to help ensure preferred outcomes. This is agnostic to the actual policies. I don't know if having USAID put more of its limited resources towards towards Yazidis and Christians is actually smart development policy. But this is the kind of thing politicians do.
Many of the things the OVP is up to are not that different from their predecessors. Other VPs have been a path to reaching the White House for groups that did not have relationships with the president. Mondale was the go-to person for traditional Democratic supporters like African-Americans, labor, and the Jewish community, because Carter did not have strong links with them. The hard right reached out to Quayle, in order to make sure their preferences reached the more moderate President Bush 43. Al Gore was the environmentalist voice in the White House.
Vice presidents have also pressed bureaucracies on a huge range of issues. Cheney famously found a workaround for the Endangered Species Act that allowed the government to open damns and provide water to drought-stricken farmers (which also led to a massive fish die-off.)
Gore was a go-to for Clinton on innumerable bureaucratic issues, from coordinating security for the 1996 Olympics to Reinventing Government. All vice presidents do this stuff, either on issues of personal concern or on behalf of the president. And in the process, of course they make new friends and take care of old ones.
Is this corruption? Maybe, certainly it can be. Lobbyists and organizations make donation to politicians who help them out. Sometimes it is all pretty mercenary, sometimes it is well-intended gratitude. If the OVP is now a den of corruption, well so is the rest of this town. (This leaves aside the administration's promise to drain the swamp, which clearly was not going to happen.)
So far this fits with the paradigm that Pence, as a Washington insider who knows how things work (and just as importantly who makes them work), takes care of things for the president.
But, something is off in seeing the doings of Pence's office as just more of the same. The USAID issue might be classic vice presidential influence. This does not seem like something the president would oppose. Pence takes care of his base, the evangelicals. This works in two ways, first his base cares about the fate of Christians in the Middle East. Also, USAID grants to help the Christians and Yazidis are apparently going through faith-based organizations - that is, at least in some cases, be groups that will generally be aligned with the VP's world view and institutional supporters. That's just good politics.
The lobbying however, while not new, is occurring on a much larger scale. The obvious conclusion is that in a poorly run White House, the OVP can get stuff done. Plus there are Pence people all over the administration. People in the bowels of the bureaucracy tend to sit up and respond to a call from the OVP, and even more so if the OVP got them their job. That's all standard. But doing so on such a large scale for paid lobbyists that work for businesses is new.
Anything the VP does, a critical question is: what does the president think?
Normally a president might be a little concerned that so many people were approaching OVP for favors. First, why aren't they coming to President? Second, the more people reaching out to the VP, the more likely that the VP gets into something that will embarrass the President.
That is in a normal administration. This administration does not seem to have a big problem with the influence peddling business. Second, the President does not grasp standard political inputs and outputs, thus is not monitoring the VP and does not really care. Finally, the President may trust the VP not to do anything that will be a problem. This final point is entirely plausible. Pence has been loyal to a fault and has maintained access.
Or not. According to a story from The New York Times about Pence's burgeoning political operation, which could be seen as filling a vacuum (because the president is not terribly interested the mechanics of the running a campaign.) Some White House staffers however, see it more as empire building, but grant that if no one else will do it, Pence might as well run the 2018 mid-term efforts.
Presidents may delegate a great deal to the VP, especially in the mid-term elections. There's a cold logic to this by they way, since mid-terms often go badly for the president, so if the VP is on point, who takes the blame?
Taken as whole, this much scope over political operations is pretty astounding. In my article in War on the Rocks I observed that given Trump's inexperience, Pence would be effectively a back-up chief of staff helping the president with everything. But the president's disengagement from the standard policy process and lack of interest in advice, has instead left Pence a great deal of room to do low-key stuff. He does not have much influence on big issues (I can't imagine Pence wants to get into trade wars for example). But on lesser issues it appears he has a free hand as long as - in this classic description of his great predecessor as VP Martin Van Buren, "he rows to his object with muffled oars."
Hidden Hand of the Hidden Hand
By most accounts, Pence's chief of staff Nick Ayers is a critical player in all of this. He is extraordinarily savvy and he is good at threading the needle - going just far enough. This is, precisely what Pence needs in this environment. One other thing about Ayers, he is extraordinary at turning political activity into money. Pence is certainly willing to help his friends (who have now all become lobbyists.) But it is probably Ayers who saw the opportunities to put out an open for business sign at the OVP.
In general VPs are loyal, painfully so, and avoid even the appearance of a conflict with the president. VPs who get too big for the job have poor political fates. (See John C. Calhoun, Nelson Rockefeller, and most recently Cheney.) Can Pence continue to thread the needle, build power without attracting attention from the president?
Given the unique nature of this administration, does it even matter? The president cannot fire the vice president and if the president becomes radioactive, being politically cast out will be a blessing, not a curse.