Your Congress in Action: Vol. 21

01/19/2021 1:06 PM | ACRAsphere Blog Team

Your Congress in Action is a series that highlights the Capitol Hill news that affects CRM firms the most. Be sure to subscribe to the ACRAsphere to ensure you don't miss an update.

For a few days every four years, Capitol Hill takes on a new look. A giant stage and scaffolding appear on the Capitol’s west front. Giant U.S. flags are draped from the building’s colonnade. And Jumbotrons fill the National Mall in anticipation of a huge throng of Americans witnessing the peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next.

This year, that scene is dramatically different. The Mall is barricaded and closed. More than 25,000 National Guardsmen patrol the Capitol grounds. And the scaffolding bears the scars of the first violent invasion of the Capitol since the War of 1812.

As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take the oath of office as the nation’s 46th President Wednesday, the nation’s capital and the country it represents are still reeling from the horrific events of January 6th and worried about what’s to come. This inauguration was already going to be unusual, as the coronavirus pandemic forced planners to scale down the event. Now, with Washington looking like a city under siege and the outgoing president facing an unprecedented second Senate impeachment trial, Joe Biden will begin his presidency at a dark and troubling moment for our nation.

What should we expect from the early days of the Biden administration? The President-elect has vowed to move aggressively to counter the pandemic, speed up distribution of vaccines and push Congress to enact a massive economic stimulus package. He also has called for action on climate, infrastructure, health care and a host of other complex issues, all the while promising to heal the nation and turn down the rhetorical volume.

Whether he can succeed depends on a number of factors that will guide the early days of his White House term:

  1. Can the Senate walk and chew gum at the same time? In normal times, the Senate spends the start of a new administration confirming Cabinet appointees. This year, the Senate will need to address the article of impeachment against President Trump that the House sent them last week. Senate impeachment trials focus on whether a president should be removed from office. Since current Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) has said a trial will not start until the day before inauguration at the earliest, any conviction would be symbolic. The Senate also may debate whether to bar Trump from holding office in the future; while removal from office requires a 2/3ds majority vote, past precedent suggests only a simple majority of the Senate could block Trump from serving in office again. With the Senate a 50-50 tie and at least some Senate GOPers ready to cut ties with the 45th President, such an outcome is not out of the question.

    But a Senate impeachment trial will undoubtedly divert attention from other business, like confirming Cabinet nominees. Normally, Senate committees will hold confirmation hearings for many nominees prior to inauguration; to date, none have taken place. Of particular interest to the CRM industry is Interior Secretary nominee Deb Haaland, who is currently a member of Congress from New Mexico and would be the first Native American cabinet secretary. Without a Cabinet in place, it will be more difficult for Biden to enact his agenda and ensure smooth operations at federal agencies.

    Biden has reportedly spoken to McConnell about an arrangement whereby the Senate will spend half of each day on impeachment and half on other business, but it’s not clear Republicans will go along or force an impeachment trial to take priority. Of course, Republicans won’t have the only say; thanks to the Georgia Senate runoff elections, Senate Democrats have more power to set the agenda than before. Either way, the Senate will likely be somewhat distracted from its normal business for some time to come.

  2. Who will run the Senate anyway? The two Georgia Senate runoffs went to the Democrats, creating a 50-50 tie in the Senate. Functionally, Democrats will have the majority once Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is sworn in and can break tie votes. But does that mean that Democrats will call all the shots?

    The last time the Senate was tied 50-50, in 2001, the parties reached a power-sharing agreement, whereby each committee had equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans and party leaders worked together to schedule legislation so that neither party had full control of the agenda. The process worked fairly well back then, but 2021 is different. Partisanship is much worse, and while early 2001 was a fairly peaceful moment in time, today the country faces multiple urgent crises. The extent to which Democrats allow for power sharing – and Republicans accept whatever arrangement is made – will help determine how quickly the Senate can act on legislation and nominations.

  3. Does Congress have the appetite for big legislation? Late last week, President-elect Biden announced a $1.9 trillion COVID rescue plan. The plan includes, among other things, an additional $1400 in stimulus checks to most individuals, added small business support, emergency funding for states and localities, expanded unemployment insurance, and significant funding for COVID testing and vaccine distribution. A number of Republicans expressed strong reservations to the package’s size and cost (and some progressive Democrats criticized it for not being big enough).

    Can a President Biden get such a plan through the Senate? Under regular procedures, Democrats would need the support of at least 10 Republicans to overcome a filibuster on the bill. But Democrats also could use a budget procedure called reconciliation, which would require just 50 votes (plus a tie-breaker by VP Harris). Alternatively, Democrats could eliminate the filibuster altogether, a move that a number of them have supported (and Biden himself has hinted at). Even so, there are a handful of moderate-to-conservative Democrats in the Senate whose support for the package is not assured.

    Even if Democrats are able to muscle such a plan through, the political capital needed to pass it could make it harder for Biden to advance other big policy items on climate change, infrastructure and more down the road. If he has to twist a bunch of arms to pass the COVID relief package, he might not be able to convince reticent Democrats to take tough votes for him a second or third time this year.

  4. How will Biden deal with Trump rules and orders? When the White House changes parties, one of the top items on a new president’s to-do list is to freeze or overturn rules and regulations issued by their predecessor. President-elect Biden is no different. We expect him to overturn a raft of Trump-era executive orders almost immediately. Overturning regulations will take longer, as they will need to go through the official process that allows for public comment. This includes the Trump administration’s 2020 revisions to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which weakened the cornerstone federal environmental statute. However, Congress could conceivably bypass the process by invoking the Congressional Review Act, which enables the legislative branch to overturn regulations issued in the previous six months on a simple majority vote.

  5. Last but not least, will lawmakers be able to work together? The Jan. 6th insurrection didn’t create the longstanding rifts between the parties, but it made them far worse. A number of Democratic House lawmakers have openly accused some of their Republican counterparts of actively abetting the rioters. A headline on NBC News’ website said it all: "Some Democrats in Congress are worried their colleagues might kill them.”

    Meanwhile, the parties both face internal schisms: a number of Republican House members have called for Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), the third-ranking GOPer in the chamber, to lose her post because she was one of 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach the President. And despite Biden’s election win, big policy differences remain between progressive and centrist Democrats; these divides will certainly re-emerge. In a highly charged environment, nobody knows for certain whether members of Congress will be able to find a way to trust one another to work towards the common good,

What does all this mean for the CRM industry? It’s too early to say for certain how things will play out in Washington. But one way or the other, Congress and the White House will get back to work on matters that directly impact CRM firms and professionals. It is essential that CRM professionals keep advocating for their policy priorities.

To that end, please join ACRA on February 4 at 2:00pm EST for Legislation & Policy: What CRM Can Expect in 2021. This webinar will brief participants on the policy outlook for the year, ACRA's 2021 government relations priorities, and how you can make a direct impact on the issues you care about the most. We hope to see you there.

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