Could Democrats’ bold legislation bring a repeat of the 1934 midterms?
Democrats are on the verge of a huge legislative accomplishment, to significantly reduce energy and health care costs and tax inequality. This moment reminds us of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the historic 1934 midterm elections. There, the Democrats saw electoral gains instead of losses — generally a rare occurrence for the party in power.
We, the descendants of FDR and his New Deal cabinet, believe FDR and Democrats in Congress saw gains in 1934 in large part because they weren’t afraid to propose and pass ambitious pieces of legislation known collectively as the New Deal. In 1933 and 1934, FDR and the 73rd Congress enacted a slew of historic legislation that stabilized the economy by providing jobs for millions of unemployed, rescued the banking system, held major corporations and the wealthiest more accountable, and invested heavily in basic infrastructure and the sustainability of our natural resources.
Nearly a century later, Americans are once again yearning for action to help what FDR called the “forgotten man.” With this new legislative package, the Inflation Reduction Act, Congress is poised to deliver FDR-style results. We are saddened that the legislation did not attract a single Republican vote in the closely divided Senate, forcing Democrats to resort to the process of “reconciliation” to avoid death by filibuster.
This new bill caps off a remarkable record for the 117th Congress. Less than a month after taking unified control of the White House and Congress, Democrats similarly used the reconciliation process to enact the American Rescue Plan, which produced a far bigger and faster recovery than any governmental response to an economic crisis in more than eight decades. It tamed the pandemic, reduced unemployment and cut child poverty by some 40 percent.
A string of bipartisan achievements followed, starting with a historic investment in infrastructure — both traditional (roads, bridges, schools) and modern (like broadband internet, lead-free drinking water and electric vehicle charging). To that has been added the first major gun safety legislation in 30 years, and bills to compete with China in domestic chip production and to deliver health care to veterans exposed to toxic burn pits in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam. Schools are reopened, job creation is soaring and unemployment is historically low. It’s been a year and a half of bold accomplishments unrivaled since FDR’s first term.
The Inflation Reduction Act, passed by both houses of Congress and now on its way to the president’s desk, adds to this legacy. It aims to help struggling families by lowering drug prices, taming health care costs under the Affordable Care Act and reducing energy costs by investing in American-made renewable energy — in fact, the most sweeping program in the world to fight the climate crisis.
And it’s fiscally responsible. Allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices and placing a cap on drug price inflation will reduce federal spending by some $300 billion. More tax enforcement on the super-rich, and imposing an un-dodgeable minimum tax on corporations, will not only pay for the bill’s programs but will also reduce the deficit by about $300 billion.
FDR, like Biden, didn’t always get things right and failed on more than one occasion. As FDR famously said, “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” Throughout his presidency, FDR was both ambitious and laser-focused on the interests of ordinary people rather than the privileged class of what he called “economic royalists.”
In this new legislation, as in the previous American Rescue Plan and Bipartisan Infrastructure Package, Biden is following in FDR’s footsteps in directing help where it is needed most — not to corporations and rich people, but to ordinary struggling families.
FDR and Congress took risks throughout the Great Depression in order to deliver for the American people. They took risks because the stakes were too high not to. Countries across the globe were falling to the empty promises of budding authoritarians throughout the 1930s. The great American experiment was on the line, as it is again now.
We are frankly amazed that Democrats have accomplished so much for the common good with such slender congressional majorities. We think FDR would be mightily impressed — but also hyper-vigilant about the risks still lying ahead — from the health of our economy to our basic freedoms to our democracy.
James Roosevelt, Jr. , grandson of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, is a former associate commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Henry Scott Wallace, grandson of Henry A. Wallace, FDR’s vice president and secretary of Agriculture and Commerce, is co-chair of the Wallace Global Fund. Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall is the grandson of Frances Perkins, FDR’s labor secretary, and founder of the Frances Perkins Center. June Hopkins, granddaughter of Harry Hopkins, FDR’s secretary of Commerce and a leading architect of the New Deal, is a professor of History Emerita, Georgia Southern University, Armstrong Campus. Harold Ickes, the son of Harold L. Ickes, FDR’s secretary of the Interior, was White House deputy chief of staff for political affairs and policy and assistant to President Bill Clinton.