Friday, November 13, 2020

Forget it, Dave

English mezzo-soprano and raconteuse Anna Russell (1911-2006). Via.

Shorter David F. Brooks, "How Biden Could Steer a Divided Government", New York Times, 13 November 2020:

If Joe Biden wants to accomplish something as president, the last thing he should do is follow Senator Elizabeth Warren's advice to issue a bunch of executive orders to fix problems in desperate need of attention, like the Covid-19 pandemic, systemic racism and increasing income and wealth inequality, or the climate crisis. 

Instead he should form gangs with Republicans anxious to cooperate, like Senator Susan Collins, on some attainable goals like an infrastructure bank, or creating more factory jobs in the industrial Midwest to reduce our dependence on China, and persuade Majority Leader McConnell that it's in his own interest to allow the bills on the floor, to help increase his Senate majority in the 2022 elections.

And then, if that doesn't work, he should follow Senator Mitt Romney's advice to issue a bunch of executive orders to fix problems in desperate need of attention.

I'm not making this up, as opera comedian Anna Russell used to say when she was explaining the plot of Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen (when Siegfried, having been drugged by the villainous Hagen into forgetting that he just got married to Brünnhilde, instantly falls in love with Hagen's half-sister Gudrun, Russell would say, "Well! She's the first woman he's ever met who wasn't his aunt!").

Paragraph 5:

With all due respect to Warren, opening the Biden era by stiff-arming Congress and ordering all sorts of big policy changes by presidential diktat could knock the legs out from the Biden presidency.

But (paragraphs 14-16)

Many senators of both parties are already frustrated by how many possibly successful bills simply get bottled up and never reach a vote. “I don’t know what the calculation is that goes on in the mind of the leaders about what to take to the floor, but we don’t vote on a lot of legislation,” Romney told me.

At this point the threat of executive orders comes in handy. If the White House makes a good-faith effort to work in a bipartisan way, if senators come together to craft legislation, and still nothing passes, then Biden will have more justification for doing what Warren suggests.

“If the Senate refuses to tackle the major issues, then the president will and he’ll just issue executive orders,” Romney said....

I guess Brooks has been so busy researching humility and character and his own spiritual development that he missed the entire first ten years of McConnell's majority leadership, from 2010 to now, and is completely unaware of the ample evidence of how McConnell feels about bringing bills to the floor or how he responds to Senator Collins's expressions of concern or to threats that the president might issue an executive order.

But trust me, Barack Obama spent six years refining and polishing this technique, and it did not get the results one might have hoped for, unless one was hoping to increase McConnell's Senate majority (net swing of five seats to Republicans from 2012 through 2016), which I hope one wasn't. Nevertheless, Romney is right, to the extent that he's saying Warren is right. It's just possible it could work better for Biden to aim at adding more Democratic senators in 2022.

Warren's first-day list of executive orders, from an op-ed in Wednesday's Washington Post ("What a Biden-Harris administration should prioritize on its first day"), includes the obligatory Trump-reversing orders Biden has been promising—rejoining the Paris Agreement, restoring the DACA program, and dropping the sort-of-Muslim-ban, and even Brooks manages to agree with at least the first of those—but also some ideas that could make a political as well as moral difference:

  • lowering prices for  insulin, naloxone, hepatitis C drugs, EpiPens, etc., via authority that already exists in the case of pressing public health needs to bypass patent rights and license generic manufacturing
  • updating OSHA standards for worker safety in view of the new conditions created by the pandemic
  • requiring federal contractors to pay a minimum wage of $15/hour
  • declaring the climate crisis a national emergency, because it is
  • anti-monopoly protection and enforcement (watch out Zuckerberg)
  • issuing the "strongest ethics and anti-corruption standards for executive branch personnel ever"

Other proposals maybe have a more targeted appeal: forgiveness of significant amounts of student debt (it would be helpful if people could be made to understand that this does more for graduates of low-rent programs for medical technicians and law-enforcement personnel, people in construction and building management, sound engineering, information tech fields, and so forth than it does for the guy doing Grand Strategy at Yale), or creating a Racial and Ethnic Disparities Task Force to look at the different effects of Covid-19 on different communities and inequities in funding.

But we know as a matter of plain fact that people are ready for those six bulleted items, and don't regard them as ideological. Trump has repeatedly promised (falsely, of course) to issue regulations to lower drug prices, and nobody called him a socialist. Florida, which couldn't mobilize a Democratic majority for Joe Biden, passed a statewide $15 minimum wage proposal in the same election. Brooks's own informants put some of these items on the list of things that could achieve Senate majorities if McConnell would let them on the floor—

I spoke to Senator Mitt Romney this week and he ticked off a series of areas where he was optimistic the parties could work together: fix prescription drug pricing and end surprise billing; an immigration measure that helps the Dreamers and includes E-Verify; an expanded child tax credit; green energy measures.

Isabel Sawhill, the long-term Democratic adviser now at the Brookings Institution, reeled off a few more: expanding national service, student debt forgiveness, a middle-class tax cut.

—but you know he won't. Forget it, Dave, it's Chinatown.

But even Chinatown has voters. There are only two things that can move McConnell, short of Democrats managing to win those runoff elections on 5 January (go Warnock-Ossoff!!!): either keep him frightened about 2022 (Republicans retiring in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, fragile Republican seats in Florida and Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio) or just move him out then.

Hitting the ground running as they say on 20 January with some real action that really appeals to people all over the country (I know, in Mississippi and Kentucky they'll never find out what it is and say they hate it, but that won't be the case in Iowa) is a better way of working toward dethroning McConnell than plunging into months of fruitless negotiation over the child tax credit or a series of Infrastructure Weeks.

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