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By Sara Merken
Securities and Exchange Commission nominee Hester Peirce is just the latest George Mason University affiliate to fill a key regulatory position in the Trump administration.
Trump has selected six top officials from the suburban Virginia’s law school renamed last year in honor of the conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia after his death and its Mercatus Center. Mercatus promotes itself on its website as the “world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.”
That’s the same number of faculty former President Barack Obama had nominated at roughly the same point in his tenure from Harvard Law School, including Solicitor General Elena Kagan, who he later tapped for the Supreme Court, and Cass Sunstein, who led the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).
Trump selected George Mason law professor Neomi Rao to head OIRA while Mercatus scholars are serving as an assistant to the president for health-care policy, the FCC’s chief economist and overseeing the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
Mercatus is the “logical go-to place for any conservative Republican administration that seeks validation for market-oriented approaches to policy,” Mark J. Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason, told Bloomberg BNA. Rozell said he is “surprised there aren’t more people coming out of Mercatus.”
Tens of millions of dollars of donations from Charles Koch, the billionaire Republican donor, has helped fuel George Mason’s reputation as a magnet for conservative and libertarian legal scholars and economists. The Charles Koch foundation provided two-thirds of the $30 million donation that resulted in the law school being renamed in honor of Antonin Scalia in July 2016.
Koch foundations have also donated $48 million to George Mason between 2011 and 2014, according to the Associated Press. Additionally, Charles Koch sits on the Mercatus board of directors, and has donated over $9 million to the center since 1997.
It is not unusual for multiple people in an administration to come from the same institution where faculty may share similar values, Terry Sullivan, executive director of the nonpartisan White House Transition Project, told Bloomberg BNA.
The Office of Presidential Personnel (OPP), which recruits people to fill positions that must be confirmed by the Senate, is always understaffed despite its crucial role to the administration, Sullivan said.
Although the OPP can filter through online applications for the positions with a computer software that can identify highly qualified candidates, people with close associations to executive and legislative branch employees still have a good chance of receiving a nomination.
“You could end up with these sort of patterns just because people know other people, and that makes the job a lot easier” for the understaffed personnel office, Sullivan said.
In addition to the six Harvard law professors, Obama also ultimately selected four faculty from the Harvard Kennedy School, one from the school of education and its former president, Lawrence Summers, who headed the national Economic Council between 2009 and 2010.
Trump, in contrast, has turned to just one Harvard faculty member: Carlos Diaz Rosillo, a government lecturer who is serving as a senior adviser to the president. He has, however, nominated several Harvard law school alumni, including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta.
Peirce, former director of the Mercatus Center’s Financial Markets Working Group selected by Trump in July, who had also been nominated by Obama for a Republican seat on the SEC. She joins three other economic research fellows from Mercatus in the administration.
The three Mercatus scholars now in the administration are Brian Blase, Daniel Simmons, and Jerry Ellig. President Trump appointed Simmons to oversee the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. National Economic Council director Gary Cohn named Brian Blase, a scholar from the Center’s Spending and Budget Initiative, as the special assistant to the president for health-care policy. Ellig, a former economics professor at Mason and scholar at Mercatus, was appointed by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to be the agency’s chief economist.
The administration’s emphasis on the private sector, markets, growing the economy, and reducing barriers for people to be economically productive is “all within the sweet spot of the law school and Mercatus,” David K. Rehr, senior associate dean and law professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School, told Bloomberg BNA.
Similarly, the recently renamed Antonin Scalia Law School’s conservative libertarian identity makes it “not altogether surprising that the Trump administration, or any Republican administration, would turn to some of its leading experts to take positions in the administration,” Rozell said.
Rao, associate professor at the law school, was appointed as the OIRA administrator, and will serve a key role in reviewing regulations from federal agencies.
Rachel Brand, also a law professor, was nominated to be the associate attorney general, the third-ranking official in the Justice Department.
Rao and Brand are “both wickedly smart people,” said Rehr. “We are very proud of these two particular individuals.”
“Hopefully we won’t end with the six or seven” nominees to the administration, and the school’s presence “will continue to grow in the executive branch,” Rehr said.
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