Biden's pick to lead OMB could face scrutiny for Wall Street ties, clashes with progressives

Key Points
  • Neera Tanden's Center for American Progress and its political arm have raised millions from those with ties to Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
  • The Center for American Progress Action Fund doubled its overall fundraising last year to $16 million, and over $8 million partially went toward its now-defunct news organization ThinkProgress.
  • She intends to stay on as CAP's president and chief executive through the confirmation process.
Office of Management and Budget nominee Neera Tanden speaks after US President-elect Joe Biden announced his economic team at The Queen Theatre in Wilmington, Delaware, on December 1, 2020.
Chandan Khanna | AFP | Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden's choice to lead the Office of Management and Budget has been a political insider for well over a decade, and the alliances she has developed as an influential leader within the Democratic Party could come under scrutiny during her confirmation process — from both sides of the aisle.

Tanden, the 50-year-old daughter of immigrants from India, would be the first woman of color to lead the OMB if she is confirmed.

Since 2011, Neera Tanden has been CEO of the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based liberal think tank, and its political arm, the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The nonprofit was originally founded by John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign chairman.

The examination of Tanden's record has already focused on her Twitter posts critical of President Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers as well as her clashes with Sen. Bernie Sanders and his progressive allies. Many of those progressives have pointed to her ties to corporate and establishment political leaders as one reason she should not be part of Biden's Cabinet.

Tanden was critical of Sanders in March for not dropping out of the Democratic race after Biden secured key victories during Super Tuesday and as the coronavirus made its way to the United States.

"You know who could have stopped the primary? Sanders! Biden is the plurality winner already, which was Sanders standard. He could have quit but instead he pushed people to vote," Tanden tweeted at the time in response to what appeared to be a Sanders supporter. "That endangered people a lot more than my tweeted question." However, she also repeatedly tweeted support for Sanders.

Before her tenure as CEO of CAP, she advised Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama during the 2008 election. She served as an advisor to Kathleen Sebelius, the Obama administration's secretary of Health and Human Services, and later played an advisory role for Clinton during her 2016 campaign against Trump.

If Democrats can't pick up key victories during the Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia, Tanden's confirmation is no slam dunk. Even if Democrats do take the majority, she could still face tough questions. Numerous Republican senators have already come out against her being selected to lead OMB.

Still, as a potential OMB chief, Tanden will be responsible for preparing and introducing to Congress the administration's budget. The agency, as former Ronald Reagan administration advisor Bill Kristol tweeted, is "where Cabinet secretaries' ill-considered projects go to die, where programs are evaluated, where trade-offs are made."

Over the years in Washington, Tanden and the nonprofit she runs have developed strong relationships with business and political leaders. She intends to stay on as CAP's president and chief executive through the confirmation process, according to a person briefed on the matter.

"She's smart as a whip and knows the architecture of government cold," Orin Kramer, a hedge fund founder and board member of CAP Action Fund, told CNBC in a recent interview.

Under Tanden, the center and its political arm have raised millions from those with ties to Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

In an email from February 2016, Tanden informed CAP's board that she was recommending Jonathan Lavine, a co-managing partner at investment juggernaut Bain Capital, to join the body.

"Jonathan is a longtime donor to CAP, but is interested in becoming a substantial investor. He has also supported Media Matters and other progressive organizations," Tanden wrote at the time. "Based on his distinguished career, philanthropy, and work on progressive causes, I believe he would be an excellent addition to the board," she said.

Lavine's foundation gave at least $1 million to the foundation last year. CAP publicizes its donors on their website.

A spokesperson for CAP and Tanden did not return requests for comment for this story.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, co-founded Bain. During Romney's failed 2012 election against Obama, Tanden appeared to take aim at the company.

CAP's 990 tax returns show that Lavine was on the board in 2018 but not in 2019.

Eric Mindich, a longtime hedge fund executive, is listed as a member of the board as of the most recent tax return, for 2019.

Others who gave big last year to the organization include Mindich and his wife; Stewart Bainum Jr., the chairman of Choice Hotels International, a foundation with ties to the late co-CEO's of Golden West Financial Corp.; and former Goldman Sachs executive Lawrence Linden. Others include major financial firms such as BlackRock, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Bank of America. Facebook gave $100,000 to $499,999 last year, the website says.

Another CAP board member from the finance community is Donald Sussman, a Democratic megadonor and hedge fund manager. His daughter, Emily Sussman was paid over $60,000 in 2018 as a "managing director of campaigns," the 990 return at that time says.

Even with CAP's allegiances in the business world, Tanden has at times pushed back on Hillary Clinton critics who take aim at the former secretary of State's previous speaking engagement at financial firms. CAP has previously advocated for a financial transaction tax, closing the carried interest loophole and changes to antitrust policies and enforcement, among other key proposals.

The Center for American Progress Action Fund, CAP's political arm, ramped up its efforts last year to push what it says on its return as a move to "shape the national policy debate and transform progressive concepts into policy."

CAP donated over $8 million in 2019 to the action fund, almost double from a year earlier. CAP Action doubled its overall fundraising last year to $16 million, and over $8 million partially went toward its now defunct news organization ThinkProgress.

CAP Action's infusion of cash into ThinkProgress came the same year the news outlet closed. The Daily Beast reported at the time that ThinkProgress was in the midst of a $3 million hole between revenues and expenses.

It also came during the Democratic presidential primaries and while CAP Action continued to target Trump.

CAP and the news outlet came under scrutiny earlier that year for publishing a video that took aim at Sanders. Tanden insisted at the time that the news group is editorially independent of CAP, and CAP Action and called the video "overly harsh."

Many of Sanders' top lieutenants from his 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns have publicly cast the blame for such attacks on Tanden. They have vocally opposed her selection as OMB chief since it was announced on Monday.

Support from some Warren allies

Tanden's support for lawmakers shrugging off deficits as they contemplate federal coronavirus aide has made some progressive Democrats rally behind her selection.

Adam Green, whose Progressive Change Campaign Committee supported Sen. Elizabeth Warren's presidential bid, told CNBC that Tanden's pushback on deficits determining how to enact coronavirus stimulus is a positive for progressives.

"Different people have different vantage points on Neera Tanden. I see her selection as a larger signal from Joe Biden that he is rejecting corporate Democrats who would sound like Paul Ryan as they wield the austerity scalpel to cut programs during a pandemic. Instead, he wants the government to help people," Green said in a recent interview.

Warren responded positively on Monday to a supportive tweet from Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

In an op-ed published in March on the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities website, Tanden and other co-authors argued that deficits shouldn't be taken into consideration when deciding coronavirus stimulus plans.

"Given the magnitude of the crisis, now is not the time for policymakers to worry about raising deficits and debt as they consider what steps to take," they wrote in March at the start of the pandemic. One co-author was Heather Boushey, who has been selected as one of Biden's Council for Economic Advisors members.

Tanden has mocked so called Republican deficit hawks in the past, particularly as Trump has ramped up government spending. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget said in February that federal spending has gone up by $800 billion.

Tanden once tweeted that she idolized Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who was Obama's head of OMB during his second term and supported the Affordable Care Act and other moderate Democratic priorities. Her previous praise of Burwell could be a sign that she will run the agency in a similar fashion.

Two policy experts debate the merit of more federal stimulus
Two policy experts debate the merit of more federal stimulus