Biden's Transition Team Is Stuffed With Amazon, Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb Personnel

Biden's agency review teams highlight the revolving door between big tech and Washington even as the president-elect opposes Uber's Proposition 22.
November 12, 2020, 2:00pm
On Tuesday, the incoming Biden team announced its personnel to assist in the transition from the Trump administration. Predictably, tech industry executives, insiders, and Obama administration alumni are overrepresented.   Agency review teams do just that
Drew Angerer / Staff

On Tuesday, the incoming Biden team announced its personnel to assist in the transition from the Trump administration. Predictably, tech industry executives, insiders, and Obama administration alumni are overrepresented. 

Agency review teams do just that: they review federal agencies, facilitate a smooth transition, and eventually recommend policy reforms or proposals for the incoming administration. These teams offer insight into the type of personnel Biden and his inner circle prefer, especially as many of these individuals might end up staying on with a position in the administration. 

The Biden-Harris team’s picks include executives at notoriously badly-behaving companies, such as Uber and Amazon. Crucially, some team members have worked to support gig companies’ assault on labor in recent years, undercutting Biden’s message that he opposed Proposition 22, a California ballot measure that sought to make permanent the misclassification of gig economy workers. 

As David Dayen writes in The American Prospect, the teams are a mixed bag.There are some bright spots: the Treasury and the Federal Reserve teams suggest that an aggressive approach to financial regulation is in the cards, for example. Members of the labor movement have also been brought on, including a top Sanders adviser. These picks are undercut by choices such as Bridget Dooling, a professor at George Washington who works out of the “non-partisan” Koch-funded Regulatory Studies Center who conjures academic research defending the deregulation of the fossil fuel industry.

Staffing a transition team with lobbyists and tech insiders (even ones with a lot of government experience) certainly cuts against the message that Biden is leading an effort to bolster labor and bring Silicon Valley to heel. This is especially critical since Uber has said that it would seek to expand Proposition 22 beyond California

Dayen, for example, warns that the tech industry is overrepresented in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which houses the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA)—an obscure agency that has the power to review and block any federal regulations enacted by the executive branch. As Dayen puts it, "If you control this one agency, you have the ability to influence the entire output of the executive branch." Given the likelihood of a GOP-controlled Senate, the executive branch will be Biden’s best hope of pursuing meaningful reforms and policies. 

Some of the most notable tech insiders on Biden’s team include: : 

Brandon Belford (OMB): Works as senior director and chief of staff at Lyft’s public policy department, which handles lobbying. Before that, he led lobbying at Apple’s Special Projects Group, and spent over six years moving through Obama's Department of Transportation, National Economic Council, and the Department of Energy before working as a lobbyist. During Belford’s tenure at Lyft, the ride-hail company became an enthusiastic junior partner in Uber’s coalition to undermine US labor law. The company spent tens of millions in dollars in California to pass an exemption to a state law that would’ve reclassified its drivers as employees, threatened to leave the state in protest, and after a dirty $205 million campaign, calling for "peace between tech companies and labor."

Divya Kumaraiah (OMB): Another Obama alum who worked as an organizer for his campaign, an assistant in his OMB and social entrepreneurship office, before moving on as an impact investing analyst and eventually ended up in her current gig at Airbnb helping manage its city and global operations. During her tenure at Airbnb, the company has marched along with its global expansion and entrenchment at great expense to cities. The private rental company accelerated gentrification and rent inflation, bypassed inconvenient regulations whenever possible, and helped increase urban inequality.

Matt Olsen (Intelligence): After the scandal caused by Uber's attempt to cover up hackers stealing the personal information of 25 million riders and drivers from the company, Matt Olsen was brought in as the company's new chief security officer. In an interview with the New York Times, Olsen made clear one of his goals was to unify the company's security team, at the time split between digital and physical threats to riders and drivers. A year later, it was revealed Uber had an internal investigative unit to "act in the company's interest first, ahead of passenger safety." Before then, Olsen served as the NSA's general counsel and the director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

Tom Sullivan (State): Tom Sullivan is a member of Amazon’s public policy (“lobbying”) team, focused particularly on Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. For years, Amazon’s lobbying efforts have managed to shield it from regulatory scrutiny. Recently, however, it has proven increasingly difficult to contain backlash to the sheer concentration of power it enjoys over workers and markets. Recently, the European Union formally accused the company of violating EU antitrust law.

Seth Harris (Labor): A labor-official-turned-lobbyist who led Obama's Labor Department transition team, eventually becoming acting secretary in 2013 and 2014. He left public service to work at the employer-side Biglaw firm Dentons, which has helped squash union and NLRB disputes, kill minimum-wage laws, and protect bosses from accountability or criminal enforcement. At Denton, Harris was counsel for the Public Policy and Regulation practice, which specializes in helping businesses "tackle every political and regulatory obstacle" they might face. While at the law firm, Harris co-authored a study in 2015 for the neoliberal Hamilton Project think tank formalizing the concept of the "independent worker,” a proposed federal category that was part employee, part contractor, with few of the former’s benefits and all of the later’s exploitative potential. With the “independent worker” category theorized, Harris gave gig companies the ammo necessary to ramp up an all-out assault on labor.

There is nothing surprising about the fact that so many public servants become lobbyists, or vice versa. A revolving door has long existed between Washington D.C. and the private sector. For many Obama administration alumni, Silicon Valley became their city on the hill as they flocked to the Bay Area and filled key positions at Uber, Apple, Airbnb, and other tech companies and venture capital firms. Now, the same “Obamanauts” who heeded an idealistic call for “hope” and “change,” ended up working for some of the most exploitative corporations in existence, and have come back home to help Biden craft his administration.

Correction: There are several Amazon employees named “Tom Sullivan.” The person referred to in this article is a member of the international public policy team. An earlier version of this article referred to a different Tom Sullivan with a different title.