As featured in Edition 38, available here.
BY JAMES BALDWIN (2nd year - PAIS - Watford, London)
Joe Biden idolises Franklin D. Roosevelt. He hung a portrait of the 32nd President in the Oval Office to say as much. But a portrait isn’t the only thing which suggests this; the opening eight months of Mr. Biden’s presidency have a similar tone to his idol’s
Although it is still in its early days, his presidency has inherited a crisis; authorised more executive orders so far than anyone since the turn of the millennium; and promised to ‘build back better’. All of these were synonymous features of the Roosevelt administrations. As of now, that promise of building back better appears to be riding a smooth course – Mr. Biden has not inherited many a difficulty in enacting his agenda since coming to power.
The Covid Recovery Bill, costing an estimated $1.9 trillion, was passed within two months of his presidency through means of budget reconciliation. Reconciliation helps override the Senate’s filibuster, a controversial requirement for certain legislation to have a 60-vote supermajority in order to pass. The measure took pandemic spending up to around $3 trillion and, among other things, included $1,400 direct payments to all individuals. Despite the partisan nature of this bill, it was hard for the Republicans to act in the face of reconciliation. Indeed, many would have found it difficult to argue firmly against, as many of the proposals had also been included in legislation passed under President Trump.
Surprisingly though, partisanship has not proved a major difficulty to the current presidency. The Senate beat the filibuster in a vote to advance a huge $550 billion infrastructure package, the start to a keynote of Mr. Biden’s presidential agenda. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, voted for the agreement along with 18 others from his party, helping it transcend party lines because of ‘common-sense solutions’ – and, as YouGov polling shows, its broad support across the country.
The spending here is on so-called ‘hard’ infrastructure – that is roads, bridges, railways and the like. It will generally improve the fairly run-down infrastructure in the US, whilst also helping create jobs. Yet the overall package that Mr. Biden seeks to pass is worth an awful lot more, totalling some $3.5 trillion in what would be a historic achievement should the Senate ever pass an agreement worth that amount.
However, that is unlikely, and this is where a tough fight begins. The $550 billion passed by the Senate still has a distance to travel following Nancy Pelosi’s comments that such a bill would only be put to a vote to the House of Representatives once the entire multi-trillion package has been agreed in the upper chamber. However, this will be a lengthy process – the rest of the bill contains many climate change provisions, something which Republican members are highly sceptical towards.
With the near impossibility of the rest of the bill successfully departing the Senate, the Democrats have once again looked to use budget reconciliation. What may seem a simple process, as the Covid Recovery Bill was, is not. The drafting of text is difficult and, in any scenario, there is a good chance that moderate Democrats in more conservative states may vote against the bill, keeping one eye on their states ahead of the 2022 midterms. Joe Manchin, a Senator for West Virginia, is one who may hold up such attempts.
Large roadblocks therefore lie straight ahead for Mr. Biden. Balancing bipartisanship with the wishes of the progressive wing of the Democrat party is a very hard task. The other, more radical, path for the Democrats would be adjustments to the filibuster. But Mr. Biden is a lover of the American institutions and certain Democrat senators, such as Mr. Manchin, would be likely to prevent any changes there.
The infrastructure bill isn’t the only item on the agenda which will face partisan difficulties in the coming months. HR 1, the For the People Act, aims to ensure the protection of voter rights in an attempt to improve democratic quality. The bill faces united Republican opposition, with the GOP trying to do the opposite and restrict voting – notably in states which were close-run affairs in last year’s presidential election. They cite, very conveniently, electoral fraud. As HR 1 is not a budgetary matter, reconciliation is not possible. So, the only possible path for HR 1 becoming law will be filibuster adjustments; which, as we’ve seen, is a way from happening.
Mr. Roosevelt had the full support of the House and the Senate throughout his thirteen years as President to help implement his New Deal. Mr. Biden does not have nearly those levels of support, nor that length of time. “Thank you for your patience” were the final words of his State of the Union address. Those words cannot be underestimated. Congress may be appearing to work its cogs slowly, but they will surely stall again.
IMAGE: Unsplash/ Elijah Mears