Joe Biden Doesn’t Need the Senate to Boost the Economy and Tackle Climate Change

What Democrats can actually accomplish in the next few years, even in the face of steadfast Republican opposition.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden receives a briefing on the economy in a Zoom meeting with economic advisors at the Queen Theater on November 16, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware.
President-elect Joe Biden receives a briefing on the economy in a Zoom meeting with economic advisers at the Queen Theater on Nov. 16, 2020 in Wilmington, Del. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Looking at the lay of the political land, there are plenty of reasons for Democrats to feel down. 

Failing to take the Senate in January would badly hobble a Biden administration’s legislative agenda. A 6-3 Supreme Court is likely to be hostile to executive action and regulation. The pandemic is surging and the economy is slowing — and without the ability to legislate, the capacity of the government to respond to the economic slowdown would be in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has repeatedly shown a willingness to scorch the earth and every norm on it if it means a slight relative increase in his own power or the power of the right. 

Meanwhile Republicans across the country are salivating at the prospect of a gerrymandered 2022 midterm wipeout. Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has already promised that the GOP will retake the House. And that would mean two years of investigations into Joe Biden between then and the 2024 election.

On today’s episode of Deconstructed, we talk about what Democrats actually can do to help both themselves and the country in the next few years, even in the face of steadfast Republican opposition.

Republicans have shown a complete disregard for democracy in the wake of the November elections — or, at minimum, are fine with dispensing with it for partisan gain. Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani on Thursday cited “My Cousin Vinny” while insisting the election was stolen. Some Michigan Republicans, meanwhile, have been fighting certification of the election, and Donald Trump celebrated them by bringing them to the White House. 

The next time Republicans consolidate power, the onslaught on voting and elections will be fierce. It’s all happening amid a backdrop of ecological and climate collapse, fueling a rise of ethnonationalism and reactionary politics around the globe, which itself is further fueled by mass migrations precipitated by the crisis. The world is falling apart, and the right’s authoritarianism is an attractive response to a frightened and divided public.

The good news is that we’re not there yet, that Democrats have agency and power if they choose to use it, and that the country still believes in the cultural norms of democracy, which are far more important than laws on paper. The public has decided that Trump has lost the election, so he has to go. Democrats need to harness that belief and push forward. 

Even though the stakes of the contest couldn’t possibly be higher, paradoxically, small moves one way or another can be decisive. Both parties can expect at least, say, 47 percent of the vote each election cycle in this sharply divided country, meaning that control goes to the party that can win those few extra points, through a combination of mobilizing its base, organizing new voters, persuading people to switch, and fighting off efforts to steal it. And so small wins by Biden on behalf of the public — if they move just a few percent — can have huge ramifications. 

And it turns out there are a few things Biden can do unilaterally that would create good will and grow the economy and drive up wages. And that’s what people vote on. The most important thing Biden can do is make sure the Federal Reserve will dedicate itself to creating jobs and growing the economy. There are indications that Trump’s pick for the Fed, Jerome Powell, has a surprising appetite for aggressive intervention on behalf of regular people struggling in this economy. Late Thursday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin ended several Fed lending programs, including one aimed at Main Street, and Powell publicly protested, a rare move from a Fed chair. The Fed bucking an administration isn’t something to encourage, but the aggressive impulse to use all the tools at the Fed’s disposal certainly should be.

Democrats have agency and power if they choose to use it, and the country still believes in the cultural norms of democracy, which are far more important than laws on paper.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer meanwhile is urging Biden to forgive the first $50,000 of everyone’s student debt, which he can do by executive order. The average debt load is around $30,000, meaning that millions of people would see their debt wiped out. The average monthly payment is around $400, which means that people making that payment would now have an extra $400 every month to spend. That’s a serious economic stimulus, and it’s one that voters would reward Democrats for, both as the economy and wages rise as a result and in direct appreciation for such a bold action.

Biden can also direct the Department of Labor to block companies from screwing workers out of overtime, which they do by misclassifying them as managers. Companies like Dollar General are the worst offenders. The people in those stores stocking shelves and working the register are often called managers by the company, which allows the company to pay no overtime on top of their low salary. If that practice is ended, millions of people could see increases in their paychecks. 

Matthew Cunningham-Cook has a new story for The Intercept this week about how Georgia Sen. David Perdue got rich exploiting just that loophole, and how beating him in the January runoff could drive everybody’s wages up.

Schumer has also suggested descheduling marijuana, which means that as far as the federal government is concerned, it would no longer be illegal. That would trigger another economic jolt, as pot shops in states where it’s legal would finally have legal access to the banking system, accountants, creating good-paying jobs up and down the industry. At the federal level and in states controlled by Democrats, drug-related records could be expunged, voting rights restored. 

The Intercept’s Alleen Brown reports that climate activists are also urging Biden to use the power of the Treasury to tilt the playing field toward clean energy and against fossil fuels.

None of this might be enough under normal circumstances to fend off the typical wave that strikes an incoming administration during its first midterm. But Democrats might have a Covid-19 ace up their sleeve: If a vaccine does begin to be deployed to front-line workers in December and gradually to the rest of the population throughout 2021, the economy could begin fully opening up in 2022. The one piece of legislation Republicans have consistently shown themselves unable to resist passing is a tax cut, which gives Democrats a chance to win some extra stimulus — money for clean energy projects, for instance — and further juice the economy in exchange for dumping a few more piles of cash onto the stacks of the already very rich. And the Senate map in 2022 is actually pretty good for Democrats. 

In other words, Democrats could have a real tailwind in 2022, but they need to get their damn plane in the air if they’re going to catch it. There’s a lot of ways to do that. On the show, we talk to Demond Drummer and Bob Hackett of New Consensus, a climate-focused think tank that released a provocative new plan this week, laying out what it thinks a creative Federal Reserve could do to not just juice the economy, but to transform it too. 

We’re also joined by David Dayen of The American Prospect who launched a project called the Day One Agenda, focusing on what Biden can do immediately. Listen above or subscribe where you get your podcasts. 

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