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Three priorities the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress should tackle before their window of opportunity closes this fall
After last week’s massacre in Uvalde, Texas, attention in Washington has understandably turned once again to gun control. House Democrats aim to pass new legislation by early next month, while Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has “encouraged” his Texas colleague John Cornyn to work with Democrats on the issue. This new focus comes just after Congress passed $40 billion worth of military and economic aid for Ukraine, and there may be more assistance coming down the pike.
At the same time, however, the Biden administration and Congress also have opportunities to take action on three important policy priorities: the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, investment in innovation, and the remnants of the administration’s Build Back Better proposals. Congress has already made significant progress on these priorities, with two of them working their way through the legislative sausage-grinder and the third still under active consideration. The sooner Congress acts on these priorities, the better.
Let’s take a closer look at them.
COVID funding. At the beginning of March, the Biden administration requested $22.5 billion in funding to fight the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Without this additional money, the United States would run out of vaccines, therapeutic treatments, and testing supplies even as new COVID variants continue to appear. It would also be unable to fund research into antiviral treatments and new vaccines that would protect against multiple variants moving forward.
This rather straightforward request has been languished in Congress for almost three months now. The administration and Democrats in Congress attempted to tie this funding into new Ukraine aid, only to be rebuffed by Republicans. An early April compromise brokered by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) eliminated funding for global vaccination efforts and reduced the cost of the package to roughly $10 billion.
While far from ideal – the United States should do its fair share to vaccinate the world – this compromise is still better than no funding whatsoever. It would provide $9.25 billion for vaccines, therapeutics, and tests, as well as $750 million for research into vaccines for new variants. This package would be paid for in part via unspent funds from previous COVID relief packages like the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan.
Despite this compromise, however, Congress has yet to send this legislation to President Biden’s desk.
Innovation and Industrial Competition. Last summer, the Senate passed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act – a measure intended to invest in critical research and development areas like semiconductors and artificial intelligence in order to improve America’s ability to compete against the likes of China. Though the proposal had President Biden’s support, the House chose to focus on Build Back Better and didn’t pass its own version of the legislation – the America COMPETES Act – until February 2022. Negotiators from both houses of Congress only sat down to iron out their differences a few weeks ago.
While neither the House nor Senate legislation resemble the original Endless Frontiers Act proposal and contain more than their fair share of the usual congressional bloat, whatever emerges from the conference committee will certainly be an improvement on the status quo. Fortunately, it does look like Congress will send something constructive to President Biden’s desk in the near future.
Remnants of Build Back Better. Though President Biden’s grab-bag Build Back Better proposal collapsed last fall, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) – the critical fiftieth vote needed to pass spending proposals in the Senate – has signaled his willingness to support action on energy and tax policy. That would likely include an increase in the corporate tax rate, a corporate minimum tax (something the United States has committed to as part of a G20 agreement), and higher tax rates for wealthy individuals. On climate and energy, Manchin has indicated he’d support a climate border tariff and a methane emissions tax – as well as potential reform of the rules that govern large infrastructure projects. For his part, President Biden endorsed some of these ideas in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece.
Again, anything that results from this process would be less than ideal from a pure policy perspective. Even though it’s far from clear what might come from these political maneuvers, action of any sort remains far better than inaction on these fronts.
Why does any of this matter?
For starters, the way the political winds are almost certain to blow in November means that Democrats will be unable to set the legislative agenda for quite some time to come. Progressives viewed this likely reality as reason to remain uncompromising in the pursuit of their ambitious if often inchoate goals, complaining about compromises like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and blaming others for failures like Build Back Better. A Democratic wipeout this November may well redound to their political advantage, with progressives dominating a Democratic caucus in Congress shorn of its moderates.
But this closing window of opportunity can be read another, more realistic way: that the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress need to make whatever compromises necessary to get things done while they can. Any proposals that address important national priorities and make it through an evenly divided Congress are bound to be imperfect compromises, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen over the past year-plus. These compromises won’t save Democrats this November, but they will make progress against priorities like the COVID pandemic, industrial policy, and climate change.
They’ll also put the United States on a firmer footing in our ongoing competition with China. Investments in infrastructure, science and technology, and carbon-free energy won’t pay off immediately, but they need to be made now to ensure America retains its international standing as a leading scientific and technological power over time. Compromised as they may be, Beijing has made its opposition to these moves to make America more competitive with China clear enough.
Still, time is growing short. The Biden administration and Democrats in Congress need to display a greater sense of urgency on these three priorities to carry them across the political finish line before their window of opportunity slams shut.