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The new year brings to Washington a few lingering battles from 2020 and a host of new challenges that policymakers will soon need to confront.
At the end of the year, and after a few days of expressing his opposition on Twitter, President Trump signed into law a massive $908 billion COVID relief package combined with a $1.4 trillion budget for the current fiscal year. The bill includes $325 billion in small business relief with a new round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, $600 stimulus checks to many individuals and children and a $300 weekly unemployment insurance boost. The bill blocks an inadvertent tax increase on small business that took PPP loans that were – or will be – forgiven (this provision was the subject of a letter ACRA and the Society of American Archaeology sent to lawmakers in December) and provides the highest-ever appropriations level for the Historic Preservation Fund.
The stimulus checks were one of the reasons Trump objected to the bill he ultimately signed, calling for Congress to increase the amount from $600 to $2000 per individual. Paradoxically, it was Democrats who agreed with the President, as the Democratic-led House passed a bill to increase the payouts, while Senate Republicans blocked it.
Meanwhile, the election-that-will-never-end appears to be reaching its conclusion this week. First, voters in Georgia will decide Tuesday who will represent them in the Senate in a pair of runoff elections. The incumbents are Republicans; if their Democratic challengers both win, Democrats will seize control of the Senate by nature of a 50-50 tie (with VP-elect Kamala Harris able to cast the tie-breaking vote). Polls show the races are too close to call.
The next day, both chambers of Congress will meet in a joint session to count the electoral votes cast in each state. The normally perfunctory session will be contentious, as a number of Republicans in both chambers plan to object to the electoral votes from some states that certified President-elect Joe Biden as the winner. Although these protests will prolong the process, the outcome is not in doubt, as the Democratic-led House is sure to reject any challenges, meaning that by the end of the day Wednesday, Biden will be declared the winner of the 2020 race by a 306-232 electoral vote margin.
Once the election is settled, Congress can get back to business. Sunday saw the convening of the 117th Congress, which runs until the 2022 midterm elections. Although control of the Senate awaits the Georgia runoffs, House Democrats remain in the majority albeit in lower numbers following the 2020 election. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was re-elected Speaker for what likely will be her last two years in the role.
The usual pomp-and-circumstance of Congress’ first day was muted by the reality that the COVID-19 pandemic is still very much with us. Members came to the House floor to vote in groups to promote social distancing. Two members who had tested positive for the coronavirus did not vote, and three who had been exposed to the virus voted from a plexiglass booth in the balcony.
The virus and the havoc it has wrought also were present in the Speaker’s remarks after her election. While praising enactment pf the COVID relief package, she urged her colleagues to do more to help Americans cope with the crisis: “The House will continue our work to save lives and livelihoods, to build back better in a way that advances justice in America.” She also announced the formation of a Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth. She said that the Select Committee will make legislative recommendations to “to combat the disparities of income and wealth that undermine faith in America’s promise for a better future for our children.”
While the opening session was filled with calls for bipartisanship, nobody expects that to last long. Not only are there major divisions between the two parties over virtually every major issue, but the parties themselves face significant infighting. Republicans are in the midst of a schism over the extent to which they should defend President Trump’s efforts to protest the outcome of the election, while Democrats are torn between their progressive and centrist wings on a host of policy questions. Even if Democrats win a functional majority in the Senate following the Georgia races, giving them control of the three policy-making arms of the federal government once President-elect Biden is sworn in, major ideological divisions within the Party mean that progress on major issues will not be easy. And if Republicans keep control of the Senate, divided government will remain the reality for at least the next two years.
Either way, action on climate, infrastructure, economic recovery and a host of other simmering issues will be contentious and drawn-out. To be fair, slow progress is what the Founders had in mind when they drafted the Constitution, preferring careful debate over rash action. And the division of power between – and even within – the three branches of government was intended to prevent any one faction from gaining too much influence over policymaking. But it is understandable that in a time of multiple crises, the public expects Washington to act.
The good news is that crises have a way of busting through the gridlock. Few would have predicted that House Democrats would embrace President Trump’s call to increase stimulus checks, which is exactly what happened. And there are a number of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who, tired of the fighting, are working behind the scenes to develop policy ideas that can garner majority support.
From the standpoint of the CRM industry, the ability to find bipartisan support will enable it to advocate for progress in the coming year. Just as the industry secured provisions in the COVID relief package to prevent a tax increase on small businesses and to increase the Historic Preservation Fund, 2021 brings hope that, with engaged advocacy, the industry can advance policies that help preserve the past while building for the future.
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