Experts Predict Policymaking Pivots Under Biden Administration
With a new administration settling in at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and at the federal agencies, how will policymaking change? Can either party reconcile the divisions emerging in their own ranks, or will they splinter? Will we return to a more deliberate way of policy development and, if so, how soon? How much can be accomplished, or undone, by executive orders alone? Will the Democratic left succeed in its desire to restrict the involvement of lobbyists in the work of the Biden Administration?
For answers to these and other questions, we decided to interview some of the sharpest minds in politics and public affairs, drawn from a range of disciplines, whose answers follow. Members of this panel agree on some things, but disagree sharply on others. But there’s no doubt they will stimulate your thinking as the “first 100 days” unfold.
Vice President, Global Government Relations, Kimberly-Clark Corporation
"Uncertainty makes it harder for companies to assess risk and to plan strategically with hard data. CEOs will be happy with a return to a professional class of managers. We’ve seen what can happen when everyone in a position of power is a newbie and there’s a crisis — today’s pandemic, for example. The result of managerial inexperience can be catastrophic."
The most important thing is we’ll see a return to regular order, with a professional class of people running the administration. The federal government is the largest, most complex organization in the world, and you need managers of such an organization who understand policy and know the rules and regulations governing how policy gets done.
In the previous administration, there was a lot of uncertainty. Uncertainty makes it harder for companies to assess risk and to plan strategically with hard data. CEOs will be happy with a return to a professional class of managers. We’ve seen what can happen when everyone in a position of power is a newbie and there’s a crisis — today’s pandemic, for example. The result of managerial inexperience can be catastrophic.
The X factor is that both parties are embroiled in their own internal struggles. The Republicans are trying to find their identity, but the Democrats have their work cut out for them, too. Biden is a centrist, and he will be under a lot of pressure from those who want to restrict the involvement of lobbyists in the administration. The Democrats will have to figure out how to balance the need for experienced management, the need for absolute integrity and the avoidance of real or perceived conflicts of interest.
Joe Biden has been in government a long time. He has an extensive network of former staff and former colleagues, some of whom run lobbying shops on K Street, run nonprofits, and are working in government. The good-government types don’t like “the revolving door,” but Biden will want to call on the expertise of the people in his extended network. You don’t want undue influence or people cutting inside deals; you want impartial decisions to be made. But you want managers who know how to get things done. What you’ll see is a balancing act; it won’t do anybody any good to put forth proposals that can’t garner significant support from the American people and the Congress.
Managing Director, Washington, D.C., office, Becker
"Something to keep your eyes on, politically, is the difference between the attitudes of urban and rural Latinos. "
Within the first 100 days, I look for a comprehensive immigration package, with DACA, a path to citizenship and increased quotas, though COVID will still be an issue in any discussion of immigration. And you’ll see an end to the Muslim ban. But one factor in all of this is that Biden can’t just countermand Trump’s executive orders. The Supreme Court has ruled that you have to give a reason, and there will be legal challenges. That’s why Biden has brought some 200 lawyers into the administration already.
Something to keep your eyes on, politically, is the difference between the attitudes of urban and rural Latinos. This isn’t well understood yet, but rural Latinos were okay with the build-a-wall effort. Some Tejanos are sixth-generation Texans but still consider themselves Mexicans. They’re not like the urban Latinos, whose politics are more aligned with Black Lives Matter. We saw this in Texas, where Hispanics helped deliver the state for Trump. This is a development that will be more important over time.
Matt Glassman, Ph.D.
Senior Fellow, the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University
"That anti-lobbyist talk made for a good messaging point back when Obama ran for president. But I think he discovered pretty quickly that it wasn’t a very good way to govern. "
There’s been a great deal of uproar over the past four years, culminating in the riots at the Capitol. Knowing how quickly we can get back to “normal” depends on how soon we figure out how much of that uproar is because of Trump or whether it points to deeper structural problems within the Republican party or the party system itself. But just having Trump on the sidelines should have some calming effect, helping get us back to a more deliberative approach to making policy. The question is whether it will be 5% calmer or 85%. Somewhere between, I’d think. It’s Biden’s nature to be more calming, with policy processes beginning to resemble the Obama years more than the Trump years. Biden campaigned on a platform of a return to normalcy.
Of course the old Senate of which Biden is a product was not without conflict. There will be disagreements within the Democratic party — disagreements that will be more difficult to put aside now that the various forces within the party no longer have a common enemy in Trump. Biden believes in compromise, but there are Democrats on the left who don’t even regard the GOP as a good-faith negotiating partner and don’t want to compromise with the Republicans on anything. And those Democrats are opposed to any lobbyist influence in the administration.
That anti-lobbyist talk made for a good messaging point back when Obama ran for president. But I think he discovered pretty quickly that it wasn’t a very good way to govern. He couldn’t get the expertise he needed, and like it or not, lobbyists possess a lot of expertise.
There is a widespread appetite among the Democrats for greater federal control of the election process, as the events of earlier this month brought to public attention. I think there will also be a voting rights bill, and election reform will be on the agenda. Campaign finance reform will be part of that, which is significant because, on its own, I don’t think campaign finance reform would have much of a chance.
Emeritus Scholar, American Enterprise Institute
"But I think the events of the last couple of weeks have exposed the fragility of our democracy, so the Democrats will be realists."
When will things get back to normal? Not before 2027. Even after the Capitol Hill riot, you had 147 Republicans still voting that the election results were illegitimate. So this was no “wake up call” for Republicans who just days before were saying, “Oh, let’s humor [Trump], what’s the damage?” I don’t see Republicans in Congress doing anything more constructive than they’ve done for decades. They will use the same game plan of no-cooperation that they’ve used since the 1990s when Newt Gingrich more or less vowed to fight anything that the Clinton administration tried to do. They feel like this posture of opposition has worked well for them.
Of course, there is a lot the new administration can do in the short term, with nominations to the FEC, the FCC, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for example. Under the little-known Congressional Review Act, they can undo some of the Trump policies with a simple majority vote in Congress. They can move forward with a tax increase on the rich, a public option on health care, and with changes to the filibuster, they can do something on campaign finance reform.
There’s a persistent belief that the left will make things difficult for Biden by setting sky-high expectations. But I think the events of the last couple of weeks have exposed the fragility of our democracy, so the Democrats will be realists. They know they have to accommodate the more moderate members of the party, like Joe Manchin, and I think that Bernie Sanders has proven to be pragmatic enough through the years settling, for instance, for an Affordable Care Act without a public option. I think even AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) will prove pragmatic enough.
National Editor, Cook Political Report
"Clearly, the anger won’t end in the post-Trump era, because it is incentivized. There’s a lot of money to be made by keeping people stirred up on the Internet and on TV."
What we’re looking forward to is a situation in which we can have political discussions about the substance of policy, not when the processes of government are reduced to Twitter or calling out the other guys to score points. There will be deep problems to address, like the production and distribution of the vaccine, but Biden is by his nature a calming influence.
Clearly, the anger won’t end in the post-Trump era, because it is incentivized. There’s a lot of money to be made by keeping people stirred up on the Internet and on TV. You can’t just bring about “unity” by changing the tone from the White House. You have to move toward a situation where trust in institutions is increasing. These institutions have been so maligned for so long but, frankly, have so often failed.
It was easier for the Democrats to appear united when they had a common enemy in Trump. But when you have the White House and slim majorities in both houses of Congress, you have to produce. You can’t just say you could have done more if McConnell hadn’t gotten in the way.
There are tensions between the left and center-left of the Democratic party. The Democratic left talked about Medicare for all, defunding the police, getting rid of ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and decriminalizing border crossing — and those are issues that can split the party. But one issue that is a unifying force within the party is campaign finance reform. Biden and the congressional Democrats are in general agreement on that, and the obvious thing to do early on is lean in to stuff you agree on.
I don’t see efforts to ban lobbyists from the administration going far. When Obama ran, he did so as an outsider — someone who represented a generational shift and would shake things up. It made sense to talk about banning lobbyists, but things are different now, and Biden has made no comparable promises. He knows and loves the Senate. He believes in bipartisanship and can work with McConnell. His “insidery-ness” is now an asset, not a liability.
Executive Vice President, Policy and External Affairs, Edison Electric Institute
"Part of the challenge is that we use our PAC to educate, and it has been more difficult to conduct educational sessions with members of Congress virtually."
The driver behind so much of what is going on — in government and with businesses — is the pandemic. We have all had to change the way we operate and find new ways to build relationships in a virtual world. We were already moving in that direction, but the pandemic pushed the process forward overnight. Part of the challenge is that we use our PAC to educate, and it has been more difficult to conduct educational sessions with members of Congress virtually. So, we have had to find new ways to educate and to push out our messages. Among other things, we developed a podcast, The Current, with 440,000 followers, and a Twitter campaign, #PoweringThruTogether, that already has garnered more than 10,000 mentions and more than 90 million impressions just on Twitter.
As we look ahead, the Democrats have already introduced H.R. 1, which includes sweeping changes to how political and advocacy messages are regulated, and we will have to adjust to those changes if the legislation passes. We have already held two virtual fly-ins with moderate Democrats and Republicans to discuss our legislative priorities and to assess what they think is possible in the new Congress. There is only so much President Biden can do, for example, through executive order. The rest needs to get through Congress, and the majorities in both houses are narrow.
It is important to remember that the Democrats who will not be part of the administration will still have a great deal of influence within it. There’s also a push to ban lobbyists from fossil fuel industries and to ban campaign contributions from them. We are tracking all of these changes and will remain nimble and flexible, as always.
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