Politics & Society
The 535 | March 2021
Quarterly Newsletter on the U.S. Congress
Trump’s failure to accept the election results and his refusal to concede led to an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Since then, more than 400 Americans have been arrested on charges ranging from breaking and entering to conspiracy. A large, protective fence now encircles the Capitol, but lawmakers have been back at work.
100 Day Commitments
Transitioning into the White House, the Biden administration identified four priority tasks for its first 100 days in office: combating the pandemic, rebuilding the economy, fighting racial inequality, and embarking on bold plans to mitigate climate change. Biden is on track to deliver policies to achieve those goals. One of his commitments central to combating the pandemic was to get 100 million shots in arms the first 100 days in office. The Biden administration hit that mark only 58 days into its term. As of mid-March, 62 percent of Americans approved of Biden’s handling of the pandemic (a remarkably high number by U.S. standards), including 22 percent of Trump voters.
Another key job for the Biden team continues to be combating climate change. As a candidate, Biden did not endorse the Green New Deal, but in his first few months in office, he has demonstrated the deepest understanding about the threat of climate change of any president in U.S. history. He has since reentered the United States into the Paris climate accord and has put climate at the core of virtually all aspects of policy, whether related to infrastructure or civil rights.
The American Rescue Plan of 2021 (H.R. 1319), which became law on March 11, is an ambitious bailout package of $1.9 trillion. This stimulus provides $1,400 to couples making under $150,000 annually, extends supplemental unemployment benefits of $300 per week through September, and provides $130 billion for schools. Researchers estimate this plan will cut American childhood poverty in half via a new child tax credit, child care subsidies, expanded health care access, and the expansion of food benefits. It also provides $50 billion to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for vaccine distribution and another $49 billion to improve testing and tracing capabilities. Not a single Republican voted for the bill, although many have since taken to social media to herald its benefits. For comparison, the 2009 financial crisis bailout was $800 billion, and the CARES Act, passed in March 2020, had a price tag of $2.2 trillion. Both passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Not included in the bailout was a federal minimum wage hike to $15/hour. Increasing the minimum wage has long been an agenda item for the progressive wing of the Democrats, which regards the current minimum wage of $7.25/hour as “starvation wages.” Congress will probably vote later this year on the #fightforfifteen.
Voting Rights Legislation
Having passed the pandemic bailout, Democrats are moving on to a series of bills that would have sweeping effects on American democracy. Chief among them is H.R. 1, the For the People Act, whose provisions may seem like obvious elements of a healthy democracy in most of the world. H.R. 1 would automatically register Americans to vote when they apply for state services, and it would require that states allow citizens to register to vote online. It would also allow expanded early voting and universal voting by mail, which has been successful in Oregon, New Mexico, Hawaii, Utah, Washington, and Colorado. State-by-state management of elections means citizens across the country enjoy widely varying degrees of access to the ballot. Since the November election, Republican legislators in 43 states have introduced 253 bills that would directly restrict Americans’ voting rights. H.R. 1 is therefore the most sweeping measure that would overhaul and protect the future of U.S. democracy, but Republicans view it as dangerous. One Georgia GOP strategist called it “absolutely devastating to Republicans.” The urgency behind passing this election reform has led to heated debate over whether or not to abolish the filibuster.
The filibuster, a relic of the Jim Crow era of minority voter suppression, allows members of the Senate to debate a piece of legislation indefinitely unless 60 of their colleagues vote to end discussion and bring the measure to a vote. Since there are 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans (Vice President Kamala Harris breaks the tie for Democrats in 50-50 votes), voting on H.R. 1 or other sweeping legislation would require the consent of at least 10 Republicans. In today’s political climate – in which only 10 Republicans voted to impeach Trump after the January 6 insurrection – a progressive bill like H.R. 1 would have little chance of getting a vote in the upper chamber. However, in November 2020 when Senator Mitch McConnell served as Senate majority leader, he bypassed the filibuster to get Justice Amy Coney Barrett onto the Supreme Court. Democrats in the Senate, therefore, are debating whether to abolish the filibuster and, if not, how to alter Senate rules to make it more politically costly for Republicans to block legislation. By the end of March, both progressive and moderate Democrats, including former Obama staffers, were pushing to kill the filibuster in order to pass their legislative priorities with the simple majority they won in the November election.
What to Expect Going Forward
Aside from Democrats’ immediate goal of getting H.R. 1 passed, the party is embarking on other ambitious bills, including a $3 trillion infrastructure package that would boost the economy and fight climate change. Infrastructure has historically been an area of some compromise between the two parties, so a comprehensive infrastructure plan offers the Biden administration and Republicans in Congress a major opportunity to show the American people that bipartisanship still exists. Other bills on the docket include H.R. 2474, the pro-labor Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2019 (PRO Act), and S.4066, the Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency (PACT) Act. Introduced in March by Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and John Thune (R-South Dakota), the PACT Act is the first effort of 2021 to reform a liability shield for tech giants, known as Section 230 for its place in the U.S. Code. So while the prospects for bipartisanship do not seem bright in the coming months, the world may finally see Congress start to pass sweeping legislation that will affect tech policy, climate change mitigation, and democracy itself.
European allies breathed a sigh of relief when Biden won the November election, only to have him announce seemingly self-interested initiatives like Buy American. In initial calls with European leaders, though, Biden recommitted the United States to NATO and signaled his willingness to work with them to combat climate change, fight COVID-19, and renegotiate an Iran nuclear deal. In addition to Biden’s attempts to demonstrate that the United States is back at the negotiating table as a trusted friend and ally, his secretaries and deputies have signaled to the EU that their country is back in its fuller form. The U.S. Treasury announced it would be open to ongoing discussions within the OECD on digital taxation issues, providing a new optimism about the group’s ability to make meaningful progress on a highly political topic. In what is truly a “new day” in EU-U.S. relations, the transatlantic allies agreed in early March to temporarily suspend tit-for-tat tariffs in the ongoing Airbus-Boeing dispute.
Overall, stay tuned for closer collaboration with the EU, whether on trade, climate policy, or security. While the United States is naturally preoccupied with its own domestic problems at the moment, it nonetheless remains eager to reassume its role at negotiating tables, especially with its closest allies.
Recommended Reading and Watching
- Past the End of History — a short animation on the transatlantic security and diplomacy relationship
- Voter Suppression: How Making It Harder to Vote Undermines Democracy in the United States — an animation on the tactics of voter suppression in the U.S.
- The Transition — short policy briefs and recommendations for the Biden administration
- Sustainable Commerce and Trade as a Force for Good — B|Brief
- Transatlantic Digital Trade: Is the Data Flows Conundrum Fixable? — Policy paper