Roar writer Ishaan Rahman analyses the ability of US President Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats to affect change before the 2022 Midterms.
On January 20, Democrats assumed full control of the US government. With Joe Biden as President, the party now has majorities in both the House of Representatives and Senate.
However, the US Constitution lays out a complex set of checks and balances that prevent one party from easily assuming full power. Notably, an obscure rule in the Senate called the filibuster will prevent some legislation from being passed unless it can garner a supermajority (sixty out of 100 votes), which is unlikely given that Democrats only hold fifty seats.
To be clear, this situation is familiar to US Presidents. Since the 1980s, the only time a party has held a supermajority in the Senate was in 2008 after Democrats won a landslide victory. Because of this, a process known as budget reconciliation has been used to achieve major policy changes. So, what can Joe Biden get done with this process, and what is off the table?
Abolishing the Filibuster
It’s worth noting that, technically, the Democrats could abolish the filibuster with a simple majority vote and have un-checked power until at least 2022. Many progressives in the party see this as an attractive proposal which would give them the ability to pass more left-wing policies. However, both parties have historically been wary of taking the so-called “nuclear option”, as when the opposing party – in this case, the Republicans – do eventually take back the Senate, there will be no check on their power.
Many moderate Democrats and Republicans will likely oppose abolition of the filibuster too, as they would lose their influence and bipartisanship would be discouraged. For all these reasons, this option remains unlikely; though do not rule it out. Democrats may eventually get fed up with the GOP attempting to block their legislative agenda. In the case that it is abolished, all policy options are on the table.
Covid-19 Stimulus and Relief
A stimulus package for Americans facing financial struggled during the Covid-19 pandemic is a top priority for the Biden administration, having been a key campaign pledge. Previously, Senate Republicans had rejected the $1.9 trillion proposal in favour of a scaled version that was rejected by Democrats. On February 5, however, the Senate passed a resolution that will allow the stimulus package to be passed with a simple majority vote. This means that President Biden would not need support from a single Republican Senator provided that every Democrat votes in its favour. The plan would give $1,400 to those earning under a certain income. Passing the stimulus will likely be the first major win of the Biden Presidency.
Economy, Taxes, and Regulation
One of Biden’s campaign pledges was to reverse Trump’s tax cuts for high-income earners, effectively restoring the Obama-era rates. Trump’s tax plan passed in late 2017 and was seen as a major win for his administration. Democrats will likely use the reconciliation process to get their tax reforms passed and re-introduce Obama-era regulations that were repealed under the Trump Administration. Universal housing benefits, paid maternity leave, and free community college are also all able to pass with a simple majority.
One key policy is off the table, though: a $15/hr minimum wage. This was a cornerstone of Biden’s campaign and has large popular support. However, reconciliation’s complicated rules prevent long-term changes like these from being passed with a simple majority. Unless Democrats can get some Republican support (which is unlikely), this will not pass.
Climate change policy also separates the two major parties. While Biden is personally opposed to the more aggressive Green New Deal championed by some progressives, he can get other climate change action passed with budget reconciliation. This includes investments in clean energy, tax incentives for climate-friendly practices, and funding new research.
One potential block is moderate Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who hails from the coal-mining state of West Virginia. In the past, he has split with his party on climate change reform, fearing that it might harm his constituents.
Healthcare has been a winning issue for Democrats over the last four years, and they will need to deliver on their promises in order to have prospects for re-election. Accordingly, most of Biden’s proposed healthcare plan is achievable through reconciliation, though healthcare reform has always been tough to pass: in 2017, the GOP’s American Healthcare Act notoriously failed to pass in Congress after three Republicans voted against it with Democrats.
Easily achievable reforms include reducing the Medicare eligibility age, expanding Medicaid (an insurance program for the poor), and increasing subsidies established in the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as “Obamacare”. However, it is not clear whether Biden’s proposal to create a public option, similar to the UK’s National Health Service, will be able to pass. There is still debate over whether this can be achieved with reconciliation.
Democrats will be able to approve Supreme Court and lower court judges with a simple majority in the Senate thanks to reforms made by Republicans in 2017. With Justice Stephen Breyer looking next to retire, Democrats can easily replace him with a liberal appointee without GOP support.
The aftermath of the 2020 Elections laid bare the partisan divisions on voting rights. Republicans have pushed for more stringent voting laws, such as requiring voters to present a photo ID. Many of these policies have been implemented in Republican states.
Democrats, on the other hand, favour automatic voter registration. They will also want to ban partisan gerrymandering, which is often used to alter geographic borders in districts to benefit a certain political party. While some states have abolished this, it remains commonplace.
However, electoral reforms cannot pass with budget reconciliation. While some moderate Republicans might back a ban on gerrymandering, it is unlikely that support will reach the necessary 60-vote total.
Statehood for Puerto Rico and Washington D.C.
This is another progressive policy that has been lost to Washington’s obscure rules. Statehood cannot be passed with budget reconciliation, meaning that, barring the abolition of the filibuster, Democrats would have to convince ten Republicans to vote with them. This is unlikely; D.C. and Puerto Rico are seen as Democratic vote strongholds, and Republicans will likely oppose giving them seats in the House and Senate.
Overall, Democrats have the ability to a lot done over the next two years before the 2022 Midterms. Tax reform, increasing entitlements, healthcare, climate change action, and approving courts nominees are all on the table. However, more radical policies will likely be blocked by filibustering Republicans. Whether Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer chooses to abolish the filibuster to get the Democrats’ agenda passed remains to be seen.