The initial legislative thrust of the Biden administration has been a proposed Covid relief bill that would provide funding of $1.9 trillion on top of some $4.5 trillion of Covid relief funding in 2020. In addition, there have been 14 presidential actions (out of 50 published to date on the White House website) re fighting the Covid pandemic and associated economic problems.
Is this response appropriate? Based on what the Biden administration has done to date, we would grade them D on the economic issues and C+ re combatting Covid per se. Discussion follows.
A. Economy – When the second major tranche of Covid relief funding was passed by Congress last December, President Trump objected to the makeup of the bill on grounds that the amount of relief checks for adult citizens should have been set at $2,000 per person versus $600 per person with at least some reduction (total amount not clearly specified) in the other funding. Congressional Democrats offered to support legislation to raise the individual payment amount but weren’t willing to claw back any of the other spending in the massive bill that was on the table.
The president ultimately signed the bill that had been sent to him, effectively leaving the issue of whether to supplement the individual relief checks for the next administration. Trump signs COVID-19 relief bill with $600 stimulus checks, Steven Nelson & Tamar Lapin, New York Post, 12/28/20.
Democrats are now proposing a $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP) to deliver the $1,400 per adult makeup payment, deliver various other goodies including handouts for state and local governments and hike the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.
Congressional Republicans complain that far less money is needed and ten “moderate” GOP senators wrote to the president proposing an alternate plan involving added funding of some $600 billion. The latter invited them to a meeting in the Oval Office. This display of openness to bipartisan negotiations may have been just for show, however, and it has since been made clear that Democrats plan to pass the ARP on a party line vote via the budget reconciliation process. Democrats ready to go it alone on next round of coronavirus aid, Susan Ferrechio, Washington Examiner, 2/1/21.
“I support passing COVID relief with support from Republicans if we can get it, but the COVID relief has to pass. No ifs, ands, or buts,” President Biden told reporters on Friday. Biden’s comments mirror what Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have warned for days: They have little patience for the GOP and are planning to pave the way for passing coronavirus aid, and perhaps other legislation, with only 51 votes.
The basis for budget reconciliation has now been set in motion by bills passed by the Senate around 5:30 AM on Feb. 5 and the House a few hours later, in both cases without a single Republican vote in favor. Biden wants fast Covid aid, but minimum wage hike in doubt, Josh Boak, apnews.com, 2/5/21.
At the White House on Feb. 5, the president argued that there is no reasonable alternative to the planned course of action. Remarks by President Biden on the state of the economy and the need for the America Rescue Plan, whitehouse.gov, 2/5/21.
Our economy is still in trouble – more than 10 million people out of work – we’re still in the teeth of this pandemic – a lot of folks reaching the breaking point – Americans expect their government to help - I’ve met with Republicans - they’re just not willing to go as far as I think we have to go – and there is less risk of going too big than going too small – we can have full employment by early 2022, no need to wait until 2025 (per Congressional Budget Office estimate).
Treasury Secretary (and former head of the Federal Reserve) Janet Yellen was present and presumably approved of the remarks. In addition, the president cited a number of authorities who supposedly support his view, including a Wall Street investment firm, Moody’s, the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, and “a growing chorus of top economists – right, center and left.”
Others have suggested that the US economy is actually in pretty decent shape at this point (e.g., unemployment rate of 6.3% per the latest jobs report) and the amount of Covid relief (or stimulus) being proposed is far more than the situation calls for. Wrong stimulus, wrong time, Wall Street Journal, 2/5/21.
•Democratic economist Larry Summers and former GOP Senator and economist Phil Gramm don’t agree on much. But when they do, it’s probably worth paying attention. Now they’re both warning that President Biden’s $1.9 trillion spending plan may carry more risks than benefits.
•Sooner or later all of this spending will have economic and political costs. The Biden spending bill is the wrong remedy for an economy that is growing. The best economic stimulus is to end the lockdowns and accelerate the vaccine rollout.
SAFE would emphatically agree with the “don’t go overboard” view for reasons that have been repeatedly expressed. See, e.g., Election issues: Deficits and debt, 10/12/20.
If the Biden administration truly is in a hurry to boost the economy and put more idled Americans back to work, moreover it’s hard to understand why the ARP includes a $15/hour federal minimum wage. The predictable effect of this provision would be to reduce employment opportunities for unskilled workers and thereby slow versus accelerate economic recovery. $15 federal minimum wage: an anchor on struggling businesses, Rachel Greszler, dailysignal.com 1/22/21.
Note: This part of the plan will probably be shelved if the ARP is passed via the budget reconciliation process as the “Byrd Rule” limits the inclusion of riders that are not clearly related to the budget. Nevertheless, the issue is likely to keep coming up. Indeed, the president has already signed an executive order directing a study of instituting a $15/hour minimum wage for federal employees.
27, Executive Order on Protecting the Federal Workforce (1/22/2021) - Career civil servants are the backbone of the Federal workforce, providing the expertise and experience necessary for the critical functioning of the Federal Government. It is US policy to (a) protect, empower, and rebuild the career federal government workforce, and (b) to encourage union organizing and collective bargaining so that the Federal Government can “serve as a model employer.” Accordingly, several Trump-era presidential actions are revoked, including (a) the creation of a new category of high-rated civil service employees (Schedule F) that could be fired at will, and (b) requirements for transparency, accountability, and efficiency in taxpayer-funded union time use. Also, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) shall provide a report to the President with recommendations to promote a $15/hour minimum wage for Federal employees.
Other Biden administration policies seem out of synch with the objective of promoting a robust economic recovery as well, notably relaxation of immigration enforcement policies of the Trump administration (resulting in greater availability of low cost workers that will tend to hold down wages) and the adoption of measures to curtail the production, distribution and use of fossil fuels (which will result in job losses in both the energy and manufacturing sectors). These matters will be discussed in future entries.
B. Covid pandemic – Synopses follow of the 14 presidential actions to date in this area. In general, they outline what strikes us as a workable but uninspired modus operandi that does not differ all that much from the approach under the previous administration.
#LEADERSHIP: THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION HAD A COVID TASK FORCE CHAIRED BY THE VICE PRESIDENT (WITH PLENTY OF ADVICE FROM THE PRESIDENT) THAT WAS IN FREQUENT COMMUNICATION WITH STATE AND LOCAL AUTHORITIES. THE NEW STRUCTURE IS A PANDEMIC COORDINATOR ON THE WHITE HOUSE STAFF, REPORTING DIRECTLY TO THE PRESIDENT, WHO LEADS A SLATE OF COORDINATORS IN FEDERAL DEPARTMENTS/AGENCIES. 6, Executive Order on Organizing and Mobilizing the United States Government to Provide a Unified and Effective Response to Combat COVID-19 and to Provide United States Leadership on Global Health and Security (1/20/21) - The federal government must act swiftly and aggressively to combat Covid-19. Accordingly, this order creates a Covid response coordinator (aka czar) position (reporting directly to the president) to coordinate this effort and also prepare for future biological and pandemic threats. Duties of the coordinator will include: (a) reduce racial, ethnic or other disparities in Covid response, care and treatment; (b) efforts to produce, supply and distribute PPE, vaccines, tests and other supplies, including by use of the Defense Production Act; (c) efforts to expand Covid testing and use it as an effective public health response; (d) support the timely, safe and effective delivery of Covid vaccines to the US population; (e) coordinate federal efforts to support the reopening and operation of schools, childcare providers, and Head Start programs; and (f) coordinating “as appropriate” with state & local authorities.
If department heads, etc. become aware of procedural, departmental, legal, or funding obstacles to the Covid response, they should let the coordinator know. The coordinator, in turn, should bring to the president’s attention any issues that require presidential guidance or decision-making.
The role re future biological and pandemic threats is basically a planning and contingency exercise. For starters, the coordinator and other designated officials are to complete a review (within 180 days) of and recommend actions to the President concerning “emerging domestic and global biological risks and national biopreparedness policies.” The report and recommendations should, among other things, incorporate lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic and explain how things should be done next time.
Update: Jeffrey Zients has been appointed as Covid coordinator. He is a mid-career executive with a variety of business and government experience, including service as an acting director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) during the Obama administration.
#FEDERALIZATION OF THE COVID RESPONSE ON PAPER WILL NOT NECESSARILY BE ACHIEVED IN PRACTICE; STATE AND LOCAL PLAYERS WILL CONTINUE TO PLAY KEY ROLES IN COMBATTING THE PANDEMIC AND THE BIDEN ADMNISTRATION WILL NOT BE QUICK TO OVERRIDE THEM. 23, Executive Order on Supporting the Reopening and Continuing Operation of Schools and Early Childhood Education Providers (1/21/21) - Every student in America deserves a high-quality education in a safe environment. This promise, which was already out of reach for too many, has been further threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Educators, childcare providers and families have gone above and beyond to support children’s and students’ learning and meet their needs during this crisis, but it’s not enough. Leadership and support from the federal government is needed “to help create the conditions for safe, in-person learning as quickly as possible; ensure high-quality instruction and the delivery of essential services often received by students and young children at school, institutions of higher education, childcare providers, and Head Start programs; mitigate learning loss caused by the pandemic; and address educational disparities and inequities that the pandemic has created and exacerbated.” Numerous “to do” items are specified for the Education and HHS secretaries, which include proposing actions, providing technical assistance to state and local education systems, and establishing a “best practices” clearinghouse to share ideas that have worked. No time targets for getting students back to school are specified, despite reported comments that the president’s goal is to get all the students who are prepared to go back to school to do so within the first 100 days of the administration. Also, the theme of accumulating data broken down by race, etc. is woven into the plan without regard to the possibility that this thrust may divert attention from the goal of reopening the schools.
The final item on the to do list contemplates that some schools won’t reopen right away. “The Federal Communications Commission is encouraged, consistent with applicable law, to increase connectivity options for students lacking reliable home broadband, so that they can continue to learn if their schools are operating remotely.”
Comment: The previous administration had strongly pushed to reopen the schools for in person instruction, albeit without great success in some areas of the country, and this position is also supported by the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Teachers unions in various locations (e.g., Chicago) have continued to oppose reopening schools, however, based on demands that teachers be moved up in the vaccination line and other safety concerns. Executive order or not, it appears that the president will be reluctant to challenge them unless and until public sentiment for the schools to reopen becomes overwhelming. When the White House can’t handle the truth, Byron York, Washington Examiner,2/5/21.
#HALLMARK OF THE NEW APPROACH: MASK-WEARING WILL BE EMPHASIZED. OTHER MEASURES THAT ARE MENTIONED REMAIN TO BE ESTABLISHED IN MANY CASES. 5, Executive Order on Protecting the Federal Workforce and Requiring Mask-Wearing (1/20/21) - Policy will be to “halt the spread” of Covid-19 by relying on “the best available data and science-based protective measures,” to include wearing masks when around others, physical distancing, and other precautions recommended by the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC). Compliance is mandated for federal employees, federal contractors, and anyone else while in federal buildings or on federal lands. Moreover, public compliance with masking, etc. is to be encouraged “across America” by whatever means may be legally available.
An interagency Safer Federal Worker Task Force is established, with three co-heads, to assess/implement other measures to combat the Covid pandemic, e.g., testing, contact tracing, physical distancing, PPE and other equipment, air filtration, telework options, and vaccination programs.
17, Executive Order on Promoting COVID-19 Safety in Domestic and International Travel (1/21/21) – This order seeks to require travelers to comply with mask-wearing and other science-based public health measures deemed to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Mask-wearing is to start immediately in airports, commercial aircraft, trains, public maritime vessels, intercity bus service, and other forms of public transportation. The Secretary of Transportation and other designated officials are directed to promptly supply the Covid coordinator with recommendations for additional public health measures for domestic travel.
For international travel, arriving travelers (at airports or ports) shall provide proof of recent negative Covid-19 test and comply with other applicable CDC guidelines including recommended periods of self-quarantine or self-isolation after entry in the US. Details of existing policies are to be reviewed and revised as necessary, e.g., timing and type of Covid testing and measures to prevent fraud.
For arrival by land, the Secretary of Transportation and other designated officials are directed to contact officials in Canada and Mexico with the goal of working out requirements at ports of entry and submitting recommendations to the president within 14 days. “The plan should implement CDC guidelines, consistent with applicable law, and take into account the operational considerations relevant to the different populations who enter the United States by land.” Query: What requirements will apply for illegal border crossers and how will they be enforced?
25, Executive Order on Establishing the COVID-19 Pandemic Testing Board and Ensuring a Sustainable Public Health Workforce for COVID-19 and Other Biological Threats (1/21/21) – We need a Government-wide approach to control Covid, which seeks to expand the supply of tests; brings test manufacturing to the United States where possible; enhances laboratory testing capacity; expands the public health workforce; supports screening testing for schools and priority populations (e.g., healthcare workers, essential workers, at-risk settings such as nursing homes and prisons, the homeless, migrants and seasonal workers); and ensures a clarity of messaging about the use of tests and insurance coverage. A multi-agency Covid testing board will be established, to be chaired by the Covid coordinator or his/her designee. The Testing Board will be responsible for the implementation and oversight of the aforesaid policies.
Designated department heads, in coordination with the Covid coordinator, are to address the cost of Covid testing. This will encompass making the testing free of charge for those who lack comprehensive healthcare insurance; ensuring that group healthcare plans will cover the testing; supporting surveillance testing for settings such as schools; and “expanding equitable access” to COVID-19 testing.
Designated department heads are charged with responsibility for planning & recommending the creation of a US Public Health Jobs Corps, “which shall be modeled on or developed as a component of the FEMA Corps program.” Identified responsibilities for this service would be to conduct and train individuals in Covid contact tracing; vaccination outreach efforts; run training programs for state and local personnel including in schools; and “provide other necessary services” to Americans affected by the Covid pandemic.
#SEVERAL PREVIOUSLY USED TECHNIQUES WILL REMAIN IN USE, ALBEIT WITH SOME BUREAUCRATIC TWEAKS THAT DON'T SEEM LIKELY TO CONTRIBUTE TO ADMINISTRATIVE EFFECTIVENESS AND EFFICIENCY. 18, Executive Order on Improving and Expanding Access to Care and Treatments for COVID-19 (1/21/21) – This order seems to be a restatement of preexisting policies. A policy of developing novel Covid therapies (also called “the most promising interventions”) is hardly new, for example, given intensive efforts along these lines over the past year. It is apparently contemplated, however, that “non-governmental partners” will be encouraged to conduct more of their research in rural areas, consider emerging evidence re the long-term impact of Covid on patient health, and strive to include populations that have been historically underrepresented in such studies. There is no mention of containing costs, e.g., by using existing drugs (such as hydro-chloroquine) for Covid.
Proposals to enhance the capacity of the healthcare system to combat Covid, such as targeted surge assistance to critical care and long-term care facilities and guidance to state healthcare systems on how they can do a better job, implicitly assume that federal officials know best and should micromanage the efforts of doctors and other healthcare professionals on the front lines. This preference for top-down direction is not necessarily warranted.
20, Memorandum to Extend Federal Support to Governors’ Use of the National Guard to Respond to COVID-19 and to Increase Reimbursement and Other Assistance Provided to States (1/21/21) – The Stafford Act of 1988 empowers the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help state and local governments during natural catastrophes, typically storms, flooding, etc. This can include assistance from the National Guard and other agencies. In March 2020, President Trump declared the Covid pandemic a national emergency so as to involve the National Guard in the situation. The current memorandum provides for said declaration to remain in effect, with a 100% federal cost share, until 9/30/21. The National Guard may assist with “the safe opening and operation of eligible schools, child-care facilities, healthcare services facilities, non-congregate shelters, domestic violence shelters, transit systems, and other eligible applicants. Such assistance may include funding for the provision of personal protective equipment and disinfecting and supplies.”
41, Memorandum on Maximizing Assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (2/2/21) – This amends Action 20 re FEMA authorization of funds for National Guard assistance in Covid relief efforts to ensure that coverage will not inadvertently be precluded for work performed from January 20, 2020, through January 20, 2021.
29, Proclamation on the Suspension of Entry as Immigrants and Non-Immigrants of Certain Additional Persons Who Pose a Risk of Transmitting Coronavirus Disease (1/25/21) – Citing the emergence of new variants of the Covid coronavirus, new restrictions are placed on the entry into the US of non-US citizens non-citizens of the US who were physically present within the Schengen Area (most Western European countries), the United Kingdom (excluding overseas territories outside of Europe), the Republic of Ireland, the Federative Republic of Brazil, or the Republic of South Africa during the 14-day period preceding their entry or attempted entry into the United States.
21, Executive Order on a Sustainable Public Health Supply Chain (1/21/21) - This order directs immediate actions to secure supplies necessary for responding to the pandemic, so that those supplies are and will remain available to federal, state and local government authorities, as well as to America’s healthcare workers, health systems, and patients. Projections of supply versus need will be made for all the items involved, including vaccines and PPE, and where shortfalls are anticipated arrangements will be made to close the gap by various means including invocation of the Defense Production Act (as the Trump administration previously did in some cases). Also, within 180 days, designated officials will come up with “a strategy to design, build, and sustain a long-term capability in the United States to manufacture supplies for future pandemics and biological threats.” #NEW ADMINISTRATIVE REQUIREMENTS WILL BE CREATED THAT DON'T SEEM LIKELY TO YIELD TANGIBLE BENEFITS. 19, Executive Order on Ensuring a Data-Driven Response to COVID-19 and Future High-Consequence Public Health Threats (1/21/21) – It is my administration’s policy to respond to the Covid pandemic effectively and “[build] back a better public health infrastructure.” Consistent with this policy, department heads shall facilitate the gathering, sharing, and publication of Covid-related data “to the extent permitted by law, and with appropriate protections for confidentiality, privacy, law enforcement, and national security.” Designated departments and agencies will each designate a senior official “to serve as their agency’s lead to work on COVID-19 and pandemic-related data issues” and seek to make the underlying data “publicly available and accessible.” This official, in consultation with the COVID-19 Response Coordinator, shall take steps to make data relevant to high-consequence public health threats, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, publicly available and accessible. However, “nothing in this order shall compel or authorize the disclosure of privileged information, law-enforcement information, national-security information, personal information, or information the disclosure of which is prohibited by law.”
22, Executive Order on Ensuring an Equitable Pandemic Response and Recovery (1/21/21) – The Covid pandemic has “exposed and exacerbated” severe & pervasive health and social inequities in America. People of color – sexual and gender minority groups – those living with disabilities – those living at the margins of our economy – inhabitants of rural areas. And regrettably the lack of “complete data, disaggregated by race and ethnicity,” has further hampered efforts to ensure an equitable pandemic response. Accordingly, I am directing a government-wide effort to address “health equity.” Swift federal action will be required to prevent and remedy differences in COVID-19 care and outcomes within communities of color and other underserved populations. A health equity task force will be established within HHS. Members will include the Secretary of HHS, a task force chair from HHS, other department heads who are invited to participate, and 20 members appointed by the president from outside the federal government. This group, with support from other designated agencies, is to arrange for the collection of “health equity” and the recommendation of funding policies, etc. to correct the deficiencies that are revealed by the data.
24, Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety (1/21/21) – Swift federal action is needed to reduce the risk that workers may contract Covid in the workplace. Issue science-based guidance to help keep workers safe, including by mask-wearing; partner with state and local governments, enforce worker health and safety requirements; push for additional resources to help employers protect employees. Primary responsibility is assigned to the Department of Labor (Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA). Immediate task (14 days) is to review existing guidelines as they pertain to the Covid pandemic and issue revised guidance to employers; also consider the need to adopt any emergency standards (skipping the normal protocol for the issuance of new regulations) in this area by March 15. Follow-up tasks including reviewing and tightening up the OSHA compliance review practices in this area and conducting a multilingual outreach program to ensure workers are informed of their rights, etc. #COST IS TO BE NO OBJECT IN ADDRESSING THE PANDEMIC. 26, Executive Order on Economic Relief Related to the COVID-19 Pandemic (1/22/2021) – The Covid pandemic has led to an economic crisis marked by small business closures, job losses, food and housing insecurity, and increased challenges for working families attempting to balance jobs and caregiving responsibilities. The situation is “particularly dire in communities of color,” and has been exacerbated by the consideration of steep cuts to critical programs of state and local governments. Many individuals, families and small business have had difficulties navigating relief programs, and some aren’t receiving the intended assistance. This economic crisis “must be met by the full resources of the federal government.” All executive departments and agencies (agencies) shall promptly identify actions they can take within existing authorities to address the current economic crisis resulting from the pandemic. Agencies should specifically consider actions that facilitate better use of data and other means to improve access to, reduce unnecessary barriers to, and improve coordination among programs funded in whole or in part by the federal government.