Promises to pursue national healing and unity helped put Joe Biden in the White House. Americans embraced that vision. But the overall election results, with Republicans gaining seats in the House and possibly retaining control of the Senate, both exposed and increased the magnitude of the incoming president’s challenge.
In a nation so politically divided, making even modest progress on critical issues can be a slog. Mr. Biden will need to rally the public behind a Decency Agenda with broad-based appeal. That means first turning down the temperature of the culture wars, backing a policy agenda with broad public support and returning to constitutional norms that served the nation well for so long.
Common ground on policy is not terra incognita. The question is what to do with the common ground that’s already been scouted and surveyed. This effort can target the usual bipartisan suspects, like shoring up infrastructure and lowering the price of prescription drugs, but can also reach further afield, guided in part by the imperatives of the pandemic.
As the new administration’s top priority, addressing the coronavirus crisis will serve as the organizing principle — and legislative opening — for much of Mr. Biden’s agenda. Take infrastructure, the policy area most often cited as having bipartisan potential. Lawmakers and voters from both parties recognize the need to overhaul the nation’s crumbling roads and bridges, as well as to develop its digital infrastructure. But when it comes time to talk about how to pay for projects, things get stickier. Americans have for years expressed resistance to raising the gas tax. Other funding plans bring their own challenges. Despite its worthiness, the issue never generates quite enough urgency to get many lawmakers past their spending qualms.
These days, Mr. Biden is talking up infrastructure as part of his larger pandemic recovery proposal. At a Nov. 16 virtual summit with business and union leaders, he stressed the need to “modernize infrastructure, roads, bridges, ports,” as well as to invest in new affordable housing and high-speed broadband for “every American household.” The gross inequities of the nation’s digital divide have become more glaring as the pandemic has pushed school, work, medical appointments and other everyday activities online. “We should be spending $20 billion to put broadband across the board,” the president-elect recently told the Times columnist Thomas Friedman. “We have got to rebuild the middle class,” he said, “especially in rural America.”
Going forward, look for Mr. Biden to stress how many of his policies could help voters in Republican enclaves.
In making his infrastructure pitch, Mr. Biden emphasizes job creation at every opportunity. The unemployment rate has recovered considerably from this spring, when it cracked the low double digits, but it is a far cry from where it was pre-pandemic. Some of the lost jobs may not be coming back for a long while — if ever. Infrastructure projects, both low and high tech, could help take up some of the slack in the labor market.
Mr. Biden is taking a similar line with climate change, another policy area with bipartisan support among voters, if not necessarily lawmakers. A survey this spring by the Pew Research Center found that 65 percent of American adults think the federal government is not doing enough to reduce the effects of climate change. Large majorities, including majorities of Republicans, favor measures such as providing business tax credits for carbon-capture technology, tightening emissions standards on power plants, taxing businesses based on their carbon emissions and imposing higher fuel efficiency standards for vehicles.
Many Republican legislators haven’t caught up with their constituents’ evolving views and still present the issue as a death match between the environment and the economy. Reframing the discussion, Mr. Biden is relentless about talking up green jobs. Making buildings more energy efficient, modernizing the electric grid, installing charging stations for electric vehicles — these are measures that put people back to work.
More narrowly, promoting climate-resilient agriculture has cross-aisle appeal. This June, a bipartisan bill was introduced in the Senate that would set up a certification system, overseen by the Agriculture Department, that would make it easier for farmers, ranchers and other landowners to participate in carbon markets and receive credits for adopting climate-friendly technology. The proposal is favored by the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, a new coalition of environmental and agricultural advocates.
As with infrastructure, policy watchers think green proposals will have a better shot of passing if sold as part of a comprehensive recovery plan. It wouldn’t be the first time. The 2009 economic recovery act included $90 billion for clean energy.
One climate-friendly move that should be quick and painless: The Biden administration can join the international push to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, a class of ozone-depleting refrigerants, by sending the Kigali agreement to the Senate for ratification. More than 100 countries and the European Union have already ratified this amendment to the Montreal Protocol. Globally, HFCs are on their way out, and many U.S. manufacturers back the plan as a way to bring regulatory stability to the market and to avoid losing ground to foreign competitors. Despite this, President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency could not bring itself to embrace the deal, largely for broader ideological reasons. Mr. Biden’s administration will presumably have no such reservations, and the Senate should wave it on through.
Certainly, the pandemic has laid bare flaws in the nation’s health care system. Many of these will require major partisan battles to address. But some relatively targeted issues have bipartisan potential, including relief spending for community health centers. This year, many health systems have been pushed to the breaking point, including in rural areas — giving Republican lawmakers incentive to hop aboard.
Ending surprise medical bills is another bipartisan favorite. After two years of working on this issue, members in both chambers are trying to put through a bipartisan proposal with the must-pass government funding bill. The chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Representative Richard Neal, had been holding up the effort in favor of his own plan. Something similar happened last December. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been pushing the Massachusetts Democrat to compromise, and, Friday night, a potential deal came together. But if this latest effort falls apart, the new Biden administration may need to step in.
When it comes to aiding lower-income Americans, passing tax credits is often a better bipartisan bet than direct spending. Mr. Biden has proposed temporarily expanding the child tax credit and making it fully refundable. This means that if the credit exceeded the amount of taxes a family owed, the government would issue a check for the difference. Bipartisan variations on this proposal have been introduced in the Senate.
Other tax relief proposals favored by Mr. Biden include enhancing the tax credit for spending on child and dependent care, expanding the work opportunity tax credit to include military spouses, enhancing tax breaks for and accessibility to 401(k) retirement plans, and giving tax breaks to small businesses that offer workers retirement plans.
When it comes to foreign policy, Mr. Biden and congressional lawmakers are in agreement about the need to take a tough line on dealings with China. (The president-elect has said that he will not automatically remove the high tariffs imposed by Mr. Trump.) In the interest of improving American competitiveness, Mr. Biden may be able to win Republican support for some of his America-first proposals, including increasing federal investment in critical industries such as biotech, quantum computing and artificial intelligence.
Reining in big tech is a hot topic for both parties, with widespread agreement that the tech titans have too much power. Repealing or overhauling Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives social media companies liability protection for users’ posts, also has bipartisan support in Congress, albeit for different reasons. (Republicans remain fixated on the idea that Big Tech is biased against conservatives. Democrats worry more about the spread of disinformation.) There are related bills bumping around Capitol Hill. Looking for a late-term win, Mr. Trump pushed lawmakers to attach a repeal of Section 230 to the military spending authorization bill currently making its way through Congress. That didn’t happen — at least not in the House version that passed on Tuesday — but the issue is not going away.
Tech concerns across both parties have prompted larger antitrust discussion about whether the companies need to be subject to stricter antitrust action oversight, and possibly even broken up, as evidenced by this week’s suits against Facebook filed by the federal government and 48 attorneys general. Unsurprisingly, there are partisan differences about how this should be approached and how far it should go. But both sides seem to agree that the applicable regulatory agencies need more resources for the task at hand. Lawsuits claiming misbehavior by Google and Facebook promise to keep this topic on the front burner.
Even in the hot-button area of immigration, most Americans agree on the need to address the plight of so-called Dreamers, the undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. A Pew poll this summer showed that around three-quarters of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, favor granting them permanent legal status. If lawmakers could stop demagoguing long enough to pass a version of the Dream Act, iterations of which have been circulating for a while, the majority of Americans would be grateful.
Consider all of this a starting point — with other, even more promising avenues out there to explore. As always, the details matter. So does the degree to which lawmakers in both parties decide that it’s in their political interest to gum up the works. Mr. Biden and, perhaps more important, American voters will need to make clear their expectations for action and bring the necessary pressure to bear. There is common ground to be found in a host of policy areas. Political leaders should be pressed to cultivate it.
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