Divided Congress may drive Biden to the power of the pen
President Biden will likely be forced to ramp up administrative actions to advance his agenda next year, when a divided Congress will offer him far fewer chances for legislative wins.
Biden has already issued a slew of executive orders throughout his time in the White House, notably his student loan forgiveness plan, and outside groups want to see movement on more progressive issues, such as the climate, workers’ rights and marijuana reform.
Advocates say Biden needs to move forward in response to the better-than-expected midterm results for Democrats — and that now is the time to tackle items the president ran on in 2020 and make his case for 2024, with or without the help of the new GOP-controlled House.
“President Biden must ramp up and use the entirety of his executive power going into this new Congress to get things done for the young people who saved this midterm election for Democrats,” said Deirdre Shelly, campaigns director for the Sunrise Movement. “That means canceling even more student loan debt, declaring a climate emergency, using the Defense Production Act to expedite our transition to renewable energy, and a range of other far-reaching executive actions that would help the lives of people across the country.”
Paco Fabian, communications and campaigns director for Our Revolution, said that ahead of 2024, progressives need to know Biden is fighting for them.
“If you think that you’re going to be able to rest on your laurels from what you achieved so far, which from our perspective is certainly a step forward but not enough by any stretch, then we’re going to have a serious problem in 2024 trying to convince voters to be excited to vote for the reelection of Joe Biden,” Fabian said.
Democrats in this Congress passed a sweeping climate and tax bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, which was a huge focus for the president. The $740 billion law Biden signed in August is expected to bring U.S. planet-warming emissions down to lower than they were in 2005 through provisions to promote the deployment of clean energy.
But progressives have not quieted their calls for Biden to declare a national emergency on the climate.
“The administration got canceling student debt across the finish line, and now is the time to do things like declaring a climate emergency and using those powers to take bold environmental actions,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
A White House official argued that Biden has done more on climate already than any other president and to expect more.
“President Biden has done more than any prior president in U.S. history to tackle the climate crisis, and has no intention of stopping now. In addition, the President has taken historic action to increase competition in the economy, including establishing the first-ever White House Competition Council,” the official told The Hill.
Progressives, Green said, also want to see worker protections for federal employees and action on overtime rules.
The Congressional Progressive Staff Association earlier this month pushed for Congress to include overtime pay provisions in the government spending bill to give congressional staffers clear and secure overtime protections.
Additionally, liberals are pushing for changes that support consumers and build on Biden’s efforts to crack down on junk fees. In October, Biden said he would take on so-called junk fees to combat inflation by taking steps to eliminate billions in banking fees, hidden charges and added fees on cable bills, airline tickets and hotel bookings.
And, Fabian noted, progressives want to see more pro-union actions, such as curbing retaliation and getting paid sick days for rail workers. The president signed legislation earlier this month to avert a rail shutdown, but increasing paid leave accommodations for workers was left out of the deal. Biden said it should be addressed separately after lawmakers couldn’t agree on it.
Several of the Democrats who are heading to Congress next year made marijuana legislation a big part of their campaigns. Sen-elect John Fetterman (Pa.) has vowed to work to deschedule the drug and expunge records of those convicted of nonviolent marijuana offenses, and Rep-elect Maxwell Frost (Fla.) wants to legalize recreational marijuana nationwide.
Bills tackling marijuana reform would likely not get far in a GOP-controlled House. And while Biden could act by executive order to build on his moves from October to grant pardons to those convicted on simple federal marijuana possession charges, much of marijuana law is currently relegated to the state level.
Of course, Republicans are sure to oppose any major Biden executive actions.
The president’s student loan forgiveness plan, which was celebrated by progressives, has faced numerous legal challenges and pushback from Republicans. The president announced an executive order in August to give federal borrowers making less than $125,000 a year up to $10,000 debt relief. But the program is on hold while its legal challenges play out.
Democrats, however, are confident those court challenges won’t stop Biden from wanting to do more through the power of the pen.
“Of course, there’s a concern that the courts may throw it out,” said Ivan Zapien, a former Democratic National Committee official. “You look at all the levers that you have and pull the ones that you think are important for the future and deal with the consequences one way or another, as long as it’s not reckless. And I don’t think any of these initiatives or use of executive powers have been reckless.”
Fabian argued that progressives would rather see action that is challenged than none at all
“That’s always gonna be a concern, but I think the Democratic base and the progressive part of that base, in particular, will be much more upset if the president didn’t do anything because he’s worried about what the courts might do versus actually doing it and then having it play out in the courts,” he said.
The president could also use executive orders to rack up talking points to run on in 2024. Biden has indicated he intends to seek reelection and that an official announcement will come next month.
Shelly, from Sunrise, said that bold actions will help with young voters who were essential in 2022, coming out for Democrats with a larger turnout than typically seen among young people in a midterm election.
“This election cycle proved that delivering progressive policy, from canceling student loans to passing the largest climate bill in U.S. history, is a winning strategy, and one that the administration cannot abandon ahead of 2024,” she said.
“Young people were not excited to vote months ago, and after he passed a climate bill, a gun bill and canceled student loans, they improved significantly — and led to nearly record-breaking turnout. That’s no coincidence,” Shelly added.
Implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act next year will also be critical and help the president looking ahead to 2024. Biden takes trips around the country often to discuss provisions of the bill, including how it allows Medicare to negotiate prices for some drugs and shores up health insurance subsidies.
The administration will also be focused on implementation of the infrastructure law and the CHIPS and Science Law, bills passed with bipartisan support this Congress.
“Right now, you’re going into a very heavy period of where you’re looking for effective executive leadership to get this money out the door, the programs up and running,” Zapien said. “It’s a gigantic undertaking, which we haven’t seen probably since the New Deal.”
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