We know politics is returning to normal. How do we know this? Shootings, scandals, and actual policy fights in government. It’s not as if these are necessarily the ordeals are entirely desirable, but they do signal that life in the post-COVID era is not only happening, but eerily reminiscent of life before the pandemic.
The policy battles of Washington, D.C. are a welcomed sight. After four years of an administration with no actual domestic agenda (other than potentially subverting democracy), it’s encouraging to see real debate and legislation taking shape at the federal level.
President Joe Biden’s first policy win stemmed from the passage of The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, more colloquially known as the third stimulus bill. This piece of legislation authorized $1.9 trillion of spending for relief due to the COVID pandemic.
The key pieces of the legislation include direct payments of $1,400 to most Americans, extending unemployment benefits (including an additional $300 supplement per payment), expanded tax credits, grants to small businesses, funds to fight COVID-19, and increased educational program spending.
The bill passed both houses of Congress by narrow margins with few members crossing party lines. Republican opposition protested not the intent of the bill, but the amount spent on relief and recovery in a year in which the federal government has already spent an unprecedented amount of money.
Most Americans support the passage of the relief bill, and now the Biden team must build on this success, but they face a difficult path. The administration has two other bills forthcoming, but their agenda may be unavoidably sidetracked.
The next big thing for Team Biden
Repairing a weakened infrastructure has long been a mentioned priority for both major parties in the United States and the Biden administration looks to deliver. The skeletal system our nation needs to operate as a modern society has steadily deteriorated. America’s roads, bridges, electric grids, waterways, and internet delivery currently rank 13th in the world. This is inexcusable and leadership in both parties seems to actually agree on this point. Just remember the crisis in Flint, Michigan over the course of the last decade and you can see why infrastructure matters.
In West Virginia, we understand the dire need for solid infrastructure because it seems we always have terrible problems. Weather related issues cause damage to power lines, overburden storm drains, and deteriorate the existing structures. Of our 7,000+ bridges, 21% are structurally deficient, while 31% of the roads are rated in poor condition. West Virginia needs the investment.
The White House recently released a fact sheet about the uses of the $2 trillion planned investment (over a period of several years) in what is being labeled The American Jobs Plan. Aside from the typical infrastructure, the Biden team wants to add other projects, including a commitment to more electric automobiles and charging stations, broadband internet access in rural areas and low-income urban locations, make existing homes more energy efficient, and investing more of the nation’s finances into research and development of solving these problems for a more sustainable infrastructure system. It has a number of great ideas. The real sticking point is how we pay for these projects.
President Biden has proposed changing the corporate tax rates from a flat 21% to 28%. This is likely to draw the ire of many Republicans, who will claim this would stifle economic growth, particularly in small businesses. This change in corporate tax rate would also serve as a strong rebuke of President Donald Trump, whose signature policy achievement was an overall tax reduction.
The White House has been quick to point out that while corporate taxes would increase, they would still remain below their pre-2017 levels and would be lower than corporate rates in the 1980s, a decade dominated by Republican leadership, including the GOP standard bearer in tax policy, President Ronald Reagan.
Changes to corporate tax policy would also close various loopholes many companies utilize to avoid paying federal taxes, including allowing their headquarters being located in a tax haven.
One aspect of the proposed legislation which is a shining light is that the bill, in its current format, would not increase income taxes on any tax bracket.
A large scale investment into development of infrastructure will add jobs to the American economy in a time where they are sorely needed. An analysis of the economic impact from Moody’s estimates that The American Jobs Plan would yield millions of jobs and produce a ripple effect that would benefit businesses and communities well into the future.
The development of infrastructure would also provide blue-collar work (electricians, pipe fitters, construction workers, etc.) with a significant portion of the jobs associated with this legislation. The services and output of these workers means white-collar work benefits also. After all, offices need electricity, water, internet, and reliable transportation routes.
Can this bill pass?
Short answer — maybe. The President must find a way to focus the American public and Congress on the need for this bill rather than other issues. What other issues exist? Well, the return to ‘normalcy’ in America has meant the return to mass shootings (any act of gun violence with four or more victims).
In the last two weeks, several mass shootings have occurred in the United States. Four people died in Orange, California (including a nine year old boy) on March 31st. Just nine days earlier, a man killed 10 people at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado. On March 16th, a gunman shot and killed 8 at massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia. In fact, Americans witnessed 20 serious acts of gun violence in the last two weeks where multiple people were killed or wounded.
The recent acts of gun violence have many Americans asking for something to change. President Biden cannot ignore the requests from citizens and members of Congress for him to lead the charge at changing something. Biden has publicly commented that he would like to see a return to the 1994 ban on semiautomatic assault weapons, gun buyback programs, and universal background checks.
Right now, Biden has some political capital to work with. He could strong arm some individuals (particularly within the Senate) to go along with some of these policy recommendations, but that would mean Biden would miss out on making any other serious policy changes until at least after the 2022 Elections.
Additionally, the president must contend with the immigration crisis happening at the southern border. Migrants from Mexico, and Central America have been crossing the US border for a long time. This is nothing new. However, the current surge of undocumented or illegal immigrants (choose your own term, I don’t object to either) is the largest of the last two decades, according to the U.S. News & World Report.
Border agents reported more than 100,000 apprehensions or expulsions in the month of February. That is an absurd total, and the crisis becomes more critical when we consider the record number of unaccompanied children coming to the United States. A recent report estimated that in March alone, more than 18,500 unaccompanied children entered the nation, creating a massive humanitarian problem which the federal government is currently not equipped to handle.
The Biden administration did not create the problem, but it is now their issue to solve. Though critics point to Biden’s policies at the border as a reason for the surge, it’s more likely the pandemic’s effects on poorer nations in Central America are the culprit in sending record numbers of people to the United States. Biden hasn’t been in office long enough for his policies to have caused such an effect, but it’s clear that he must own it now.
Immigration policy seems more focused right now on stopping the influx and providing basic services for the people detained, especially the children. This issue cannot be ignored and, like the infrastructure problem, Americans want a solution to a longstanding problem. It reminds the Biden team that you can plan and script anything, but the reality never lets you govern like you would want.
President Biden’s infrastructure bill will hinge on how he handles gun violence and immigration issues. He needs friends on the other side of the aisle and I can’t see him sacrificing the infrastructure plans over these two issues.
The problem is that he doesn’t have many friends on the other side of the aisle. The American Rescue Plan passed through the House by a 219-212 margin while the Senate was evenly divided 50-50. Vice President Kamala Harris, per the Constitution, cast the tie-breaking vote. If Democrats struggled to pass a piece of legislation most Americans believed necessary, then it’s highly unlikely they will receive any assistance for infrastructure, gun policy, or anything else, for that matter.
Would implementing the ban on assault weapons, buyback programs, and background checks be helpful? I believe it could move the needle in preventing dangerous people from acquiring weapons. However, the amount of political capital it would take to change gun policy would not be worth the limited effect those measures would have. The same could be said about changes to immigration policy.
What’s next for President Biden and Democrats?
This administration will focus on the infrastructure bill and shepherding it through Congress. Other issues of immigration reform and gun policy will rely on President Biden utilizing executive orders and the help of cabinet departments and other agencies within the executive branch. This allows President Biden to make some changes within already existing law, but these issues must wait.
Moreover, another important piece of legislation looms large for the administration and Democrats in Congress. A large progressive contingent is determined to pass the For The People Act, which would radically change elections and voting in the United States. It’s an important policy piece that the House has already passed (220-210), but Democrats face a more difficult challenge in the Senate. I’ll tackle that piece of legislation next week.