Election years are supposed to be dominated by political talk; it is said that nothing substantive advances as campaigning predominates. That conventional wisdom doesnt hold up. The last Democratic president saw all his legacy legislation pass in year two. And the real work of governing, from congressional oversight to the implementation and execution of laws, is an ongoing process. So theres plenty to expect, and demand, from government in 2022. Heres an incomplete list of what well be looking out for in the new year:
Depending on who you talk to, the Build Back Better Act is either completely dead or just biding its time. Sen. Joe Manchin, the main (but probably not the only) Senate holdout, has continued to talk to President Biden about the agenda-defining legislation. My working theory is that Manchin cannot exist as a life force unless 50 reporters are huddled around him in a gaggle at all times, and if he stops negotiating on Build Back Better that all ends, so things are still alive in a technical sense. It still seems improbable to me that Manchin does much more than talk, unless forced by circumstances (like the White House going around him with executive actions, but thats for another section).
Even if BBB never gets revived, portions of the plan are likely to turn up elsewhere. Congress must pass a government funding bill by February 18, and a few of the lesser items that were stuffed into Build Back Better could resurface there, like a boost in child nutrition funding, increases in fees for oil and gas leasing (a version of which Manchin supports), or additional investment in agricultural conservation and rural development. These modest and relatively noncontroversial items could get folded into appropriations, but only if an actual appropriations deal is cut; if Congress just advances a kick-the-can continuing resolution, nothing will be added.
Theres been some talk of a short-term expansion of the Child Tax Credit, which expired last month, just as fears grew about the omicron variant weakening the economy. But while there is some Republican support for some version of a CTC expansion, reaching consensus on that would likely take months, and wont get done until theres clarity on Build Back Better. Any voting rights legislation or overhauls of the Electoral Count Act (which certifies the presidential vote) look doomed, unless 50 Senate votes are found to change the filibuster rules, if only for that bill.
Underneath the surface, there are a few consequential bipartisan possibilities. The Ocean Shipping Reform Act of 2021, the first re-regulation of the ocean carrier cartel in a generation and the most significant supply chain legislation currently on offer, passed the House last month with 364 votes. A Senate companion would seem to have plenty of support, if Majority Leader Chuck Schumer grants it the floor time. Schumers top priority is a deal on the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, where a House/Senate conference committee will try to work through differences. This bill, which has already passed the Senate, would invest in domestic semiconductor manufacturing and scientific research, with the political rationale of competing with China (though increased national R&D and insourcing are positives in and of themselves).
Keep this site free and open for all to read...
Perhaps the most ambitious bipartisan effort concerns a series of crackdowns on Big Tech. Various bills have been drafted, including the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, which would structurally separate tech companies from competing with businesses that rely on their platforms; digital privacy laws intended to allow users to protect the use of their data; and updates to the Childrens Online Privacy Protection Act, which gained traction after a Facebook whistleblower detailed harms to young Instagram users.
The potential for passage again depends on whether Republicans beyond Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) are actually serious about breaking with big business and empowering antitrust regulators. The Biden administration hasnt tipped their hand on whether they will aggressively push for a bill, to the frustration of some reformers. Their continued silence amid fierce tech industry lobbying would probably end any hopes of a breakthrough. At the very least, Build Back Better included $1 billion for the antitrust agencies, which could easily make its way into the appropriations process.
Congress does more than vote on bills, though the quality of hearings and oversight investigations has wavered over the years. The only way to properly figure out whats going on in huge complex systemsthe supply chain mess comes to mindis to actually ask questions and get to the bottom of it.
Some of those investigations are happening. Congress will hold hearings early in the year on the Astroworld tragedy and the role of ticketing and promotion monopolist Live Nation, which could open a window into the harms of corporate dominance beyond price. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), who has done some of the more fruitful oversight in recent years, has inquired about the FCCs role in combating spam robocalls and robotexts, a problem that has gotten worse lately. Theres an open House Oversight Committee investigation into top consulting firm McKinsey and its role in the opioid crisis, which could prove explosive.
On the wish list would be a look into the 12,000 canceled flights between Christmas and New Years, in part because of extreme staffing shortages after the omicron surge. Congress gave the airlines $54 billion in COVID relief funds specifically to bolster staff, and yet airlines have bragged for the past two years about their ability to schedule more flights per employee and worsen their staffing ratios. Members of Congress are particularly attuned to airline situations, as nearly all of them are frequent fliers, so Id expect some attention to this.
Joe Biden was elected to end the pandemic. Omicron has put yet another wrench into that, though theres some hope that, based on case rates in other countries, it will reach a peak here within four to six weeks and begin its gradual slide toward endemicity. Still, theres a lot to be done: CDC guidelines based on science rather than the needs of employers, as well as standing up hospital and testing capacity and executing the White House promise to mail test kits to homes in January. Amber McReynolds, a member of the USPS Board of Governors, urged Biden over the weekend to both increase and automate test kit delivery, without a cumbersome sign-up first. Getting this right and easing a path to normalcy will be a top priority this year.
Keep this site free and open for all to read...
The global dimension to this means continuing to vaccinate the world, and removing all barriers to doing so. The global COVAX initiative did ramp up in December, with 300 million doses issued, but thats paltry given the need. You cannot defeat the pandemic without defeating it everywhere.
Economically, the top priority is clearing the supply chain issues that have precipitated price spikes. Omicron has made crew changes difficult and dealt a blow to manpower, with dozens of ships still offshore of the Port of L.A. A more aggressive Federal Maritime Commission, which is asking cargo shippers to file complaints against ocean carriers, could reverse current incentives and actually fix some of the problems, though ultimately many long-standing policies tolerated by both parties would need to change to truly secure logistics and fight inflation.
Among the administrations biggest geopolitical decisions is what to do about China and trade. China did not come close to its promised goods purchases in a 2020 trade pact with the Trump administration, and Biden must now decide whether to reimpose tariffs that were loosened in that deal. The White House must also implement a bill banning imports produced with slave labor in Xinxiang province. Business lobbyists are frowning at the administrations worker first trade policy, but this cannot be a reason to curtail it.
The potential demise of Build Back Better makes more consequential executive actions all the more important, from canceling student debt to effectively legalizing marijuana to taking action to lower prescription drug prices. The White House has thus far signaled a disinclination toward any of these ideas, which will make it difficult to have a successful presidency, coupled with legislative gridlock.
A New Years Eve present came to the administration when FDIC chair Jelena McWilliams abruptly resigned, effective February 4. McWilliams, who chaired the banking regulator but was in the minority on its board amid three Democrats, had been resisting the majoritys ability to work its will on regulatory action. Her departure opens up a whole world of potential bank regulatory actions; all agencies will now be relatively aligned on things like reforming the Community Reinvestment Act, increasing capital requirements, tightening stress tests, and incorporating climate risk into policy. Expect some action here.
Finally, theres a $550 billion infrastructure bill that is just starting to be implemented. Everything from Amtrak modernization to standardizing electric-vehicle charging to approval times for building a smarter electrical grid will have to be decided, to name just a few items. Whether the funding really improves the built infrastructure of the country or just dissolves into the pockets of consultants and managers is an open question.
The states play a major role here, as they get to prioritize the funding grants for things like highway and road improvements, or broadband buildout. That so much of what is, so far, Bidens legacy legislative initiative is in the hands of states (many of whose governors arent exactly enamored of the president) is indicative of the importance of state governing. States have tens of billions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan that could be put to use fighting the omicron variant. They have a years worth of legislating of their own to engage on, including critical voting rights policies that will help determine future elections.
But fully detailing that would take another article.