Michael Meeropol: Biden Must Be Prepared To Act Decisively If Republicans Obstruct His Efforts | WAMC

Michael Meeropol: Biden Must Be Prepared To Act Decisively If Republicans Obstruct His Efforts

Jan 5, 2021

On December 22, President – elect Biden delivered a Christmas message to the country.  He very soberly asserted that:

“Our darkest days in the battle against COVID are ahead of us, not behind us.”   He continued, “… we need to prepare ourselves, to steel our spines. As frustrating as it is to hear, it’s going to take patience, persistence, and determination to beat this virus. There will be no time to waste in taking the steps we need to turn this crisis around. My administration will start to do its part on our first day in office, with masking requirements, a new strategy for testing, accelerated protection, protective gear. And we’re going to challenge Congress and the American people to step up immediately as well to do their part”

He is absolutely right. COVID cases are skyrocketing.   The seven day average of deaths had taken a slight dip at the end of December but recently it reached a higher level than the previous high in April.  

[One can follow the 7 day moving average of deaths from COVID – 19 here.  According to this chart, the previous maximum 7 day moving average of deaths occurred on April 24, 2020 --- it was 2,241.  On December 23, the new maximum was 2,669.   It fell a bit over the next few days (probably because of reporting issues) to 2202 before going back up.   On January 3 it was 2637.]

What is probably the most scary part of the new reality is that medical facilities and workers are seriously overtaxed.   The normal burnout among health care professionals and support staff as a result of working so hard on the front lines for month after month is clearly exacerbated by the clear disrespect that too many citizens are paying these hard working people.   Too many Americans continue to believe that COVID is not as bad as the medical experts tell us.  There are anecdotal cases of individuals in the hospital DYIING of COVID yelling at their health care providers that they (the sick individuals) are being lied to.   The disrespect shows up in millions flaunting their refusal to wear masks, their attendance at large gatherings over the holidays and lots of travel via airplanes.

The unwillingness of too many Americans to make the miniscule sacrifice of wearing a mask and practicing social distancing has to be terribly discouraging to the medical professionals who risk their lives every day to serve the rest of us --- only to have some of their patients willfully ignore the most obvious medical advice.  Expecting January and February to be even worse, it is clear that as Biden prepares to take office, our nation is facing the worst medical catastrophe since the flu pandemic of 1918/1919. 

Meanwhile, the pandemic-induced recession which had been kept at bay because of the trillions of dollars of relief voted by Congress last spring, is now back in full force because all of those relief dollars have long since evaporated.    Though the unemployment rate has fallen from its April peak, job creation and the employment-to-population ratio has stalled.   Absent a strong relief bill, these numbers will get worse.   (And the bill just past is just not strong enough!)

[Unemployment was 3.5 percent in February of last year and peaked at 14.7 percent in April.   By the end of November it had fallen to 6.7 percent.   The number of jobs had peaked in February at 152 million and fell to 130 million by April.   Stimulated by significant federal spending under the CARES Act, the economy created seven million jobs by June.  But then progress stalled and the economy only averaged one million new jobs per month through November.   A similar pattern emerges when we look at the employment to population ratio.   (Many people believe this is a better measure of the human waste caused by joblessness than the measured unemployment rate because workers who have given up looking for work are not counted as officially unemployed.)   From a height of 61% in February, it fell almost to 51% in April before beginning to rise..   It was 54% in June, 56% in August and peaked at 57.4% when improvement stalled.  (It was actually 57.3% by the end of November.)]

So that’s the situation President Biden will find himself in, when he takes the reins of government from an Administration that has --- through incompetence and disinterest and political dishonesty ---  literally caused the death of hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens both in the previous ten months and well into next year.   In fact, while concentrating resources on inducing the private sector to forge ahead at so-called “warp speed” to invent and test anti-COVID-19 vaccines, they totally neglected to set up distribution systems and even arrange for the training of individuals capable of getting the vaccine from vials into arms – a failure of monstrous proportions that led to a painfully slow rollout of the early vaccinations.

[To make matters worse, Biden is faced with the total intransigence by the President who has succeeded in brainwashing a relatively high percentage of his voters into believing that the Democrats stole the election by practicing widespread voter fraud.   On January 6, for the first time in American history since 1877, the election results as determined by the votes of the electorate mediated by the Electoral College will be officially challenged in both the Senate and the House.  Notwithstanding the fact that the House and Senate will confirm Biden as President, the result will be the undermining of the support for the duly elected government by significant numbers of the people.  The seditious behavior of members of the House and Senate in support of Trump’s fantasies will set the stage for a continuous process of Republican obstructionism.   The Republican aim will be to make sure Biden’s presidency is totally stymied in its efforts to defeat the pandemic and create the structural reforms that are absolutely essential to reduce the tremendous inequalities that have been growing for decades and were made significantly worse by the pandemic.   This set of facts is what leads me to make the recommendations that were the center of my oral commentary.]

In his inaugural address in March of 1933 (inauguration day was moved to January during the next session of Congress),  Franklin Roosevelt rallied the nation against the Great Depression proclaiming  “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself ….”  Though perhaps the most remembered words from that address, what Roosevelt said later on in the speech is in my opinion much more significant.

“This Nation asks for action, and action now.   … I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require. These measures, or such other measures as the Congress may build out of its experience and wisdom, I shall seek, within my constitutional authority, to bring to speedy adoption.

But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis--broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”

History tells us that Congress (with gigantic Democratic majorities) gave FDR everything he asked for.  76 bills were passed, 13 major ones.   The most significant creations that came to signify what was called “the first New Deal” included federal relief (the first time the federal government had taken responsibility to spend money directly to aid the poor), the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (a federal agency that operated dams and power plants --- fiercely opposed as “socialism” it remains a fixture in many states and highly popular as an institution), the NIRA (the National Industrial Recovery Act – an effort to protect businesses from price declines which also included a section making it easier to organize labor unions – it was later ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court) , the AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Act --- designed to prop up prices of major farm products --- also later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court) and the CCC (Civilian Constitution Corps--- an institution that provided paid labor for able-bodied unemployed men --- this organization ended up employing two and a half million men between 1933 and 1942).  

Though the historical judgement as to how effective the New Deal was in actually ending the Great Depression is negative, the efforts made and the willingness to constantly experiment with a variety of programs over the years between 1933 and 1940 (when the depression ended for good given the increase in production due to war orders from Europe) gave people hope.   Arguably, the efforts made by the Roosevelt Administration during those 8 years saved American capitalism from the siren attractions of fascism, Italian style and Soviet style communism.  Recall that Roosevelt was so popular that he was able to break the two terms only “tradition” established by George Washington in 1796 and easily win a third term in 1940.

Today the US is confronted with a worse emergency than FDR faced in 1933 ---  an economy rivalling the Great Depression is combined with the worst pandemic since 1919.   And Biden has intransigent Republican caucuses in both houses --- many of whose members as I mentioned above support Trump’s ridiculous claims that he actually won the election.  In other words, Biden will not have anything even CLOSE to the Congressional support that was available to FDR.   In fact, there is every indication that the Republicans will behave exactly as they did when Obama was President – 100% obstructionist with the goal of making it impossible for Biden to accomplish anything so that the Republicans can recapture the  House (and Senate in Georgia votes Democratic on January 5) in 2022 en route to taking back the Presidency in 2024.

Let us recall recent Senate behavior, courtesy of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.  For six of the eight Obama years, with one or both Houses of Congress controlled by Republicans they had one goal --- to block anything Obama proposed.   That was why fiscal policy turned towards austerity much too soon, making the recovery from the Great Recession painfully slow.   (That was why even infrastructure – a bipartisan program dating all the way back to the Eisenhower Administration – failed to get passed.)   That was why reforming gun laws, passing a dream act and many other initiatives supported (according to polling data) by large majorities of the public were impossible.  

In the past two years, the Republican majority in the Senate has been a graveyard for all of the important bills passed by the House.  These include the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, and of course the HEROES Act which was passed in MAY.  Now we wouldn’t expect that a Republican majority in the Senate would just rubber stamp a bill passed by a Democratic House --- but Majority Leader McConnell refused to even let his colleagues in the Senate debate these bills.   Had there not been a crucial run-off election looming in Georgia, it is unlikely that ANY COVID-19 relief effort would have been brought to the floor no matter what the need in the population – the only reason the pitifully inadequate bill was passed was because of those two Senate run-offs.    Once January 20 comes and goes, what incentive will McConnell have to cooperate with the incoming Biden Administration?

So here’s my recommendation on how Biden can deal with this reality in the spirit of FDR’s inaugural address.    Encourage the House majority to pass a new coronavirus relief bill to fill in the gaps left by the law just passed by the Congress.   The Heroes Act passed last spring is an outstanding comprehensive bill.   The simplest thing for the new Congress to do would be to just pass it again.

Biden can give the Senate ONE CHANCE to pass some version of it.

[If the Democrats win the two Georgia races it will be possible for the new majority leader to bring the bill to the floor and arrange for hearings.   If the Republicans retain control of the Senate it will be McConnell’s decision on how to proceed.] 

Say the House passes a bill on January 10,  that gives the Senate 10 days to show the country whether they are serious about combatting the pandemic.   If McConnell is in charge, he will tip his hand very quickly.  Even with the Democrats, the majority will be razor thin leaving plenty of opportunities for Senators to play games with the House Bill. 

If the Senate has not demonstrated that they are serious about dealing with COVID 19 – and of course this does not mean passing the House Bill that quickly but it does mean taking actions to CONSIDER the bill or a bill with the same goals -- then Biden MUST move on to a Plan B.   Remember until the vaccine creates herd immunity people will continue to die --- workers will continue to be lose their jobs [Over 700,000 people filed for unemployment on December 26, 2020] --- front line workers will continue to be at risk.   I propose that if the Senate Republicans are obstructionist, Biden should do FDR one better.  He should “find” money elsewhere in the budget (the same way Trump financed a few hundred miles of “border wall” --  that money came from military counter-narcotics funding).    Once he identifies the money he can “move” he should begin spending it as if the House Bill had passed.  He should also speak forcefully and often that the Republican obstruction is KILLING PEOPLE.   (I would recommend that he or a spokesperson go before the press EVERY DAY and state the number of people who were hospitalized with COVID and the number of people who died from COVID the day before and remind people this is caused by Republican obstructionism!)   He should  say he is loath to behave in an authoritarian way as did Trump  --- but  this is a National Emergency and his actions are necessary because of that Republican obstructionism.

If the Republicans continue to refuse to cooperate, Biden should use executive orders to make the changes essential to carry out his programs.   (Obviously, he won’t be able to change taxation but he can spend money, encourage the Federal Reserve to lend money, and issue executive orders.)   IF the Courts rule against him he should refuse to abide by those decisions while appealing to the Supreme Court.

IF the Supreme Court rules against him, he has what I call the “Andrew Jackson option.”   When faced with the Supreme Court ruling in Worcester v. Georgia, [31 U.S. (6 Pet.) 515 (1832)] (where the Court tried to prevent States in general and Georgia in specific from taking actions within the boundaries of the Cherokee nation because according to the Court’s decision could only be taken by the federal government because it stood in relation to Indians as “nation to nation,”) Jackson reportedly remarked, “John Marshall has made his decision.  Now let him enforce it.”  There is some evidence that this exact wording is apocryphal  but whether he did or did not use those words,  he did say things that indicated he would take no action to enforce it --- and in fact that decision was never enforced.  Biden can say this is a national emergency and be willing to let the public judge his actions. 

I know I am asking a lot of the incoming Biden Administration.   In fact, I believe that at least for the next two years most of these commentaries will be strong recommendations often coming with criticisms if the new Administration gives up too much in attempts to “work together” with the Republicans.   But given both the history of obstructionism, the terrible threats to life and livelihood that will be with us at least till the vaccines allow us to reach herd immunity, these strong actions are essential ---- they represent the kind of leadership we need.

[For a strong statement of how Congress should treat its seditious members see
https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/01/01/pelosi-and-biden-stand-up/ originally published by my brother, Robert, as an OP ED in the Daily Hampshire Gazette of Northampton, Mass.]


Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies

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