The tragedy of thinking like a senator

When Joe Biden was sworn in as president one year ago, this nation faced numerous crises. Two of them — the pandemic and the climate emergency — offer sobering lessons about the consequences of not taking bold executive action, and instead continuing to think like a senator.

Imagine where we might be today if President Biden had fully and strategically invoked the Defense Production Act on his first day in office and put this country on a genuine wartime footing to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The Defense Production Act allows the president to conscript domestic manufacturing capacity to meet critical supply issues to address national emergencies.

While Biden invoked the Defense Production Act at the beginning of his term to assess supply shortages, he failed to fully use it to mobilize the nation’s manufacturing sector to make sufficient amounts of personal protective equipment, rapid testing kits and other medical supplies still in dangerously short supply at hospitals today.

If he had boldly and strategically used these powers, would we still be seeing testing kit shortages and multi-hour testing lines — and the resulting hospital bed shortages as omicron spreads?

More importantly, would there even be an omicron wave if Biden had used the Defense Production Act to compel manufacturers to produce enough vaccines and vaccine supplies for 12 billion to 14 billion doses — enough to vaccinate most of the world, not just most Americans?

Countless advocates pleaded with the Biden administration to get more vaccines to other nations, especially in Africa, fearing that the handshake-agreements would never be sufficient to vaccinate the world.

But in the end, the predictable happened. Focused on the profits of a few pharmaceutical companies and the international COVAX initiative’s empty pledges, the Biden administration chose the safe way out and simply promised to do more down the road. Today, barely half of the world’s population is fully vaccinated, and vaccination rates in much of Africa — where omicron is thought to have originated — are woefully deficient.

And imagine where we might be now if the president had declared the climate crisis to be a national emergency on the first day of his presidency. Here too he could have invoked the Defense Production Act to ignite a renewable energy future using the full force of this nation’s manufacturing and technological powers. 

What could we accomplish if the United States was racing to build a supply chain to put solar power above every parking lot and on every roof, as well as charging an electric car was as easy as filling a tank of gas?

What would the signal have been to all federal agencies if Biden had invoked the National Emergencies Act a year ago and ordered every agency to immediately start work on the most aggressive regulations possible to crack down on greenhouse gas pollution? 

As things stand, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) might propose new carbon standards for power plants in 2022, and perhaps finalize them before the end of Biden’s term in 2024. That’s certainly positive, but the glacial pace of rulemaking here to address the climate crisis isn’t exactly causing the fossil fuel industry to tremble in its boots.

Declaring a national emergency wouldn’t have stopped climate change overnight, nor would it have prevented the innumerable climate-driven calamities in 2021. But lighting a fire under every federal agency would have led to a more comprehensive and faster effort to reduce carbon pollution — and the dirty air far too many Americans breathe every day.

Taking bold executive action on climate may also have given the president more leverage in negotiations over his Build Back Better agenda, now on life support in Congress. But with the EPA and White House moving at a snail’s pace to address climate change, the fossil fuel lobby has been able to focus all its efforts on killing the Build Back Better bill.

Unfortunately, as a “creature of the Senate,” Biden was all too comfortable putting his faith in the legislative process, even though failure was always a very strong possibility. 

Congress is deeply broken and will remain so as long as any one senator can completely derail the legislative process. This hobbled institution cannot solve the climate crisis or even make meaningful progress. It’s equally true that business as usual and the free market aren’t going to end the pandemic, because there is little profit to be made in vaccinating billions of people in the global south.

The good news: Biden already has all the tools he needs to take on both crises and prevail. But he has to stop thinking like a senator. Biden needs to start using the powerful tools provided to the president and act decisively right now.

Brett Hartl is government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

White House