President Biden, January 20 2021: “Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this: bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause.”
With these words the new President dedicated himself to a goal that has eluded us these last four years.
With a major pandemic and the associated economic debacle, President Joe Biden has daunting challenges ahead. In the spirit of Franklin Roosevelt’s first hundred days, he has put forth an ambitious agenda to confront our many challenges.
Democrats control both houses of Congress—by the skin of their teeth. The majority in the House has shrunk, and he controls the Senate only thanks to winning two seats in the Georgia special election, yielding a 50-50 tie with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaker. Thus Biden can pass legislation, and confirm cabinet members and judges, only if he can hold his narrow majorities together. This will take sensitive leadership in both chambers, working with a White House that will need to be constantly attentive to its congressional troops.
The Senate in recent years has reduced the scope of the filibuster, but it is still a factor for regular legislation and appropriations. For a bill to pass you have to have 60 votes to shut off debate. Exceptions are presidential nominations and “reconciliation” bills that supposedly operate within existing policy and funding. They are not subject to filibuster and thus can pass by a bare majority. Treaties like the Paris Climate Accords would require 2/3 of the Senate for ratification. Biden’s precarious majority might not support abolishing the filibuster entirely, which would solve most of the problems. Nor will the narrow majority allow controversial moves like expanding the Supreme Court to restore its party balance.
In the spirit of Franklin Roosevelt’s first hundred days, President Biden has put forth an ambitious agenda to confront our many challenges.
That’s the congressional obstacle course. Biden also faces thousands of Trump executive orders and regulation changes. He started on Day 1 signing orders to repeal Trump’s orders and to move forward with executive actions such as rejoining the Paris Accords.
That will fit in with one of five high-priority areas he needs to deal with right away: climate change. The Trump administration was particularly active in setting policies that reduced regulations, opened public lands to mining and logging, and undercut renewable energy. Just undoing the damage is a huge task, along with aggressively promoting renewable energy. Substantial numbers of jobs should come from these environmental initiatives.
Two other major priorities interact: the pandemic and the economy. Biden has a $1.9 trillion plan to confront the virus Much of what the President proposes will depend on new funds appropriated by Congress; he will have to negotiate to get what he wants through the Senate.
Economic recovery depends on getting the virus under control so businesses of all kinds and sizes can again run on all cylinders, and people can get back to work. Biden proposes major additional deficit spending to “prime the pump,” but the GOP won’t give Biden a free pass, even though they had no problem expanding the deficit under Trump.
The fourth early priority, racial justice, is hugely complex, with challenges ranging from civil rights to policing, prisons and drug policy. While specific proposals have not yet come forward, Biden has sought throughout the transition to set a new, more positive tone to replace the racial polarization of the Trump administration. Dealing with centuries of injustice will never be easy. But he said in his inaugural address, “We can deliver racial justice.”
Biden has also moved aggressively on immigration policy, proposing a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, increased foreign aid to ravaged Central American economies, facilitating immigration for those fleeing violence, and increase prosecutions of those trafficking drugs and human smugglers.
To address the revenue shortfall, he will push for raising taxes on corporations and higher income (over $400,000) individuals, reversing the Trump tax cuts and thereby reducing our unprecedented and harmful levels of economic inequality.
Other urgent issues also await action, like adding a public option to Obamacare, undoing harmful policies in education, transportation, housing, and the list goes on.
First things first.