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The political world has a parallel universe feel to it these days. In one universe, Joe Biden is filling out his White House staff and planning his policy priorities for once he takes the oath of office. In the other universe, President Trump and his administration are contesting the election results and charging towards a second term.
In reality, President Trump’s paths for securing a second term have increasingly dwindled, as all 50 states and the District of Columbia prepare to certify the results of the election. On December 14, electors will meet in state capitols to cast their votes based on the popular vote winner of their state. Those votes will be formally counted at a joint session of Congress on January 6. Once a candidate reaches 270 electoral votes, the count is “deemed a sufficient declaration of the persons, if any, elected President and Vice President.” Two weeks later, the winning candidate is sworn in. Barring some unprecedented occurrence, that will be former Vice President Joe Biden.
So what awaits the 46th President when he enters the Oval Office? His to-do list is long: dealing with a global pandemic, a weakened economy, tensions with foreign adversaries, the impacts of climate change, racial strife and much more. But his first task is nominating Cabinet members and hundreds of political appointees that will steer the alphabet soup of federal agencies for the next four years.
Of most interest to ACRA members is Biden’s choice for Secretary of the Interior. The current thinking is that outgoing New Mexico Senator Tom Udall is the front-runner for the post, but Congressional Democrats are making a concerted push for one of their own, New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, who would be the first Native American Cabinet member in U.S. history. Both Udall and Haaland have been proponents of cultural resource management and protection during their time in Congress.
Beyond the Interior Secretary, an incoming President Biden will need to name heads of subagencies as well. Of particular interest to conservation advocates is the Bureau of Land Management, which lost nearly 70 percent of its D.C. staff during the Trump administration when its headquarters was moved to Colorado. As Ken Rait of the Pew Charitable Trusts, told The Hill newspaper, the outgoing administration “pushed Humpty Dumpty off the wall, and someone needs to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.” According to The Hill, front-runners for the head of BLM include Steve Ellis, a veteran of the Obama-era BLM, who backers think could bring stability to the agency.
Once staff are in place, high on President-elect Biden’s to-do list is reversing numerous Trump administration executive orders and rules. It is not uncommon for new presidents to roll back executive actions their predecessor made; President Trump reversed many of former President Obama’s rules, for example. But the increasing use of executive orders and agency rulemaking to effect policy changes in recent years – a function of a gridlocked Congress which has frustrated many a president’s agenda – means that incoming administrations can make big changes quickly.
One Trump administration rule that is sure to be in the Biden team’s sights is the White House Council on Environmental Quality’s (CEQ) reform of the National Environmental Policy Act, issued last summer. The rule dramatically reduces the scope of NEPA and decreases stakeholder input and public participation, all of which ACRA believes threatens the protection of our environmental and cultural resources. Because the changes were issued as a regulatory rule and not an executive order, a President Biden could not cancel them with a stroke of his pen on January 20; instead, a new rule will need to go through the regulatory process. That said, a Biden administration can get a head start on nullifying the NEPA rules by directing agencies not to update their internal guidelines based on the Trump rule.
That approach will not necessarily work with the U.S. Forest Service, however, which last week issued a final rule amending its NEPA regulations that environmental advocates say weakens requirements for the Forest Service to study the potential environmental harm of new development and publicly share scientific analysis of proposed changes. ACRA expects that to be a major topic of interest for the incoming administration.
Beyond personnel and rules changes, the incoming Biden administration hopes to secure Congressional approval for a large-scale infrastructure bill; during the campaign, Biden promised to push for more than $7 trillion to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure, fight climate change and create jobs. Whether he will succeed depends in part on the January 5 special election in Georgia, where the state’s two GOP Senators face stiff challenges from Democratic candidates. If both Democrats win, the Senate will be tied 50-50, with Vice President Harris casting the tie-breaking vote. If either Republican wins, the GOP keeps control, and Biden’s big plans will need to be scaled back. Even if Democrats gain functional control of the Senate, securing enough votes for a major infrastructure bill will not be easy: conservatives worry about the price tag, while progressives believe Biden’s plans do not go far enough in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
No matter the prospects for a big infrastructure bill, it’s clear that Congressional Democrats will push these themes during the next Congress. Top Democratic staff on the House Natural Resources Committee shared with ACRA last week that climate change, diversity and equity, and job creation will be the three big prisms through which the Committee will address all policies ideas that come before it.
All three of these issues have resonance within the CRM industry, and how Congress chooses to address them will impact the sector for years to come. Helping the economy recover, increasing diversity in the industry, and protecting our cultural heritage from environmental and climate threats are top priorities, no matter which party won the election.