Progressive activists and experts are calling on President-elect Joe Biden to expand his policy ambitions after two Democratic Senate victories in Georgia on Tuesday.
Given Democrats’ existing hold on the House and the White House, the party will now have unified control of the federal government for the first time since the first two years of the Obama administration, when Obama enacted his most significant pieces of legislation.
These liberals, who have sometimes been critical of Biden, are encouraging the president-elect to take advantage of what is likely to be a narrow window to enact legislation with little Republican obstruction.
“Unified control of the government is extremely rare in American politics and the next nine months could be the last time they have unified control for another 10 years,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats, a left-wing group that has hired a political director to advance its agenda on Capitol Hill. “Delivering results is much more important than bipartisan branding or anything like that.”
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, sounded a similar note. “The ceiling of possibility is higher for everything we want to do,” he said.
With that in mind, prominent progressives are calling on Biden to immediately deliver on his promise of $2,000 relief checks, as well as to pass a robust COVID-19 recovery package, enact sweeping democracy reforms, cancel student debt, and roll back the Trump tax cuts.
When it comes to the question of $2,000 payments and more comprehensive COVID-19 relief, such as expanded unemployment benefits and aid to state and local governments, progressives stand to serve as allies of Biden against both Republicans and the handful of conservative Democrats who are already indicating that they plan to break with Biden on the urgency of economic action.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative West Virginia Democrat, who is due to hold immense veto power as a critical swing vote in a 50-50 Senate, told The Washington Post on Friday that he disagrees with Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s insistence that the Senate prioritize $2,000 payments to low- and middle-income households. Instead, Manchin said, “Getting people vaccinated” should be the first order of business.
If Manchin’s hesitation prevails, Democrats can be credibly accused of failing to uphold a central election promise. On the eve of Ossoff’s and Warnock’s victories in Tuesday’s Senate runoffs, Biden vowed to prioritize the checks if Democrats won the Georgia contests and retook the Senate in the process.
“The left and Biden are probably united in the sense that bold economic relief, both on humanitarian grounds and political grounds, is going to be key for the success of the administration,” a senior aide to a progressive member of Congress, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter, told HuffPost.
A key reason for the activist left’s emphasis on economic recovery funding is its experience with the first two years of the Obama administration. Progressives blame deficit hawks in the Obama White House for blocking economist Christina Romer from presenting Obama with an option for a stimulus package that exceeded $1 trillion ― a figure closer to the size of the hole in the economy than the roughly $800 billion bill Obama ultimately settled on.
As a result, the unemployment rate was nearly 10% going into the 2010 midterm elections, contributing to the dismal environment that cost Democrats the House and limited Obama’s political capital for the remainder of his presidency, these progressives maintain.
Justice Democrats, the climate-focused Sunrise Movement and their allied think tank, Data for Progress, and media firm, New Deal Strategies, have also sought to counter claims that Democrats’ disappointing performance in November’s congressional races is due to left-wing activists’ adoption of unpopular slogans like “defund the police.” Instead, they argued in a joint memo that Democrats failed to adequately articulate the ways they planned to materially improve voters’ lives, noting, for example, that two losing Democratic Senate candidates failed to use the words “jobs” or “economy” in any digital ads.
Ahead of the Georgia Senate runoffs, Justice Democrats and Sunrise teamed up once again in December to argue that Biden and Democrats should turn the Jan. 5 Senate contests into a referendum on the inclusion of $1,200 checks in a COVID-19 relief bill. Around the same time, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) mounted a public push for a second round of $1,200 payments ― Americans received $1,200 checks from the CARES Act in March ― along with an additional $500 for every child. Their pressure campaign, backed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, helped ensure the addition of a $600 stimulus in the bill that Congress passed shortly before Christmas.
After President Donald Trump insisted at the last minute that a relief bill provide $2,000 checks, House Democrats immediately passed an amendment increasing the stimulus payment by $1,400 that then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blocked in the Senate. The issue would end up becoming a critical political cudgel for Warnock and Ossoff, the victorious Georgia Senate Democrats, to wield against their Republican opponents.
Running against a Republican Senate blocking popular relief payments was a “powerful message,” Shahid said. “The basic multiracial populist approach of their campaigns is a great roadmap for Democrats across the ideological spectrum.”
Beyond immediate COVID-19 relief, progressive divergences from Biden are likely to grow.
One reason is that Congress is limited to one budget reconciliation bill per fiscal year, restricting how much legislation it can pass with a simple majority and heightening competition for what takes precedence. Because Congress has not yet used a budget reconciliation bill in Fiscal Year 2021, which began in October, it can pass one such bill for FY2021 and another such bill for FY2022.
Green suggested that Biden use one of the reconciliation bills to pass the $2-trillion clean energy jobs plan, which the PCCC co-founder called the “centerpiece of Biden’s ‘Build Back Better’ agenda.”
“We should raise [the tax rates] because rich people should have less wealth and power.”
Marshall Steinbaum, a progressive economist at the University of Utah, favors using one of the reconciliation bills to repeal all of the Trump tax cuts. Trump’s 2017 tax cut bill lowered personal income tax rates, doubled the exemption for the estate tax on the assets of the super-rich and lowered the top corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%.
Corporations’ decision to spend much of their tax savings on massive payouts to shareholders undercuts the idea that the tax cuts spur economic investment, according to Steinbaum.
“The corporate tax rate is an effective tax on the people who own profitable corporations, which is to say, rich people,” he said. “We should raise [the tax rates] because rich people should have less wealth and power.”
Thus far though, congressional Democrats have shown the most interest in removing the federal income tax deduction for state and local taxes, which mainly affects upper-middle-class homeowners in blue states. Biden has already promised not to raise taxes on households earning less than $400,000, and wants to restore the corporate tax rate to 28%, not its pre-Trump level of 35%.
Biden is more likely to take Steinbaum up on a more modest suggestion: that he use the Congressional Review Act, a law enabling passage of some regulatory changes with a simple majority, to rapidly undo the Trump administration’s evisceration of Obama-era rules protecting workers and the environment.
When it comes to legislative priorities neither eligible for either budget reconciliation, nor the Congressional Review Act, Democrats are constrained by the threat of a Republican filibuster.
That makes the prospects for passing democracy reforms, another top progressive priority, seem bleak. “Democracy reform” refers to political process changes ranging from the adoption of public campaign financing and an end to partisan gerrymandering, which House Democrats have already approved, to more ambitious goals like bestowing statehood on the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
One process change that would create room for additional reforms would be the abolition of the filibuster, which only requires a simple Senate majority vote. Manchin already flatly declared his opposition to abolishing the filibuster after the November election.
But progressives want Biden, who has stopped short of outright opposition to the move, to press the matter with Manchin and other reluctant moderates.
Shahid of the Justice Democrats envisions the possibility of winning Manchin over with giveaways directed to West Virginia, where 16% of people live in poverty.
“You can imagine that there might be something like the ‘Cornhusker Kickback’ ― or the ‘Coal Miner’s Kickback’ in this instance, for Joe Manchin,” said Shahid. (The “Cornhusker Kickback” was the nickname for a short-lived backroom deal that then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) cut with then-Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) in 2009 to secure Nelson’s support for the Affordable Care Act.)
Green predicted that Senate Republicans’ excessive use of the filibuster against popular legislative priorities might eventually soften Manchin’s opposition to getting rid of the tool ― or at least, dramatically curtailing its use.
“Joe Manchin might not support filibuster reform on Day One, but if Republicans try to obstruct coronavirus relief on Week 3, he might support filibuster reform on Week 4,” Green said. “Make it less of a process issue and more of a substance issue. Give Republicans a rope to hang themselves with.”