the national interest

Will Joe Biden Let the Senate Kill His Presidency?

Photo: Matt Rourke/AP/Shutterstock

Recovering from the economic devastation from the coronavirus pandemic is likely to require a fiscal response on the order of magnitude of the aftermath of World War II. The good news is that Joe Biden seems to understand this. The bad news is that he does not seem to have a legislative strategy that would make any such legislation remotely plausible.

Gabriel Debenedetti’s report on Biden’s plans unspools the good news. Biden appears to grasp the scale of the catastrophe, describing it as much greater than the 2008 crash and rendering any concern about deficits irrelevant. Biden has moved left on a broad array of issues, courting the party’s progressive wing by adopting some of the ideas championed by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

It is hard to say which of these he will ultimately prioritize, but a recovery bill will almost surely be the first major initiative, and its success or failure will set his administration’s course. A big, effective stimulus would blunt the midterm backlash and increase the chances that Biden, or his vice-president, win reelection. An underpowered stimulus would lead to weak growth and discontented voters.

The problem is that Biden’s willingness to support, or even push for, liberal ideas is not the important constraint. The Senate is. And there is very little reason to believe Biden is thinking strategically about this impediment.

The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was a historically massive fiscal stimulus — several times the size of previous stimulus bills and larger as a share of the economy than any fiscal legislation Franklin Roosevelt signed (though not nearly as large or stimulative as the war buildup that followed his domestic measures.) It was also inadequate to fill the hole created by the recession. It’s impossible to understand the stimulus without grasping both these contradictory points of comparison: its largeness in comparison both with anything that came before it and the system’s capacity to bear change, and its smallness in comparison with the problem.

There are four reasons the ARRA was insufficient to restore full employment. First, nobody at the time knew the full depth of the crisis. Contemporaneous economic reports considerably underestimated the spike in unemployment, the full size of which was only fully measured a year later. Second, deficit panic had widespread currency, not only among conservatives but the business elite, moderate Democrats, and journalists. News accounts from that time routinely treated the deficit, not the recession, as the country’s largest problem and treated Obama’s plan to stimulate through deficit spending as paradoxical.

Third, the Obama administration underestimated the degree to which deficit panic would build and complicate any additional stimulus. They mistakenly believed that if they undershot, they could just come back for more spending, since congressmen love to lavish money on their constituents. And fourth, they needed Republican Senate votes. Having only 58 Democratic senators at the beginning of 2009, Democrats needed to court a handful of Republicans to overcome a filibuster, and those Republicans were focused on curtailing the size and cost of any bill they supported.

The first three reasons would probably not impair a prospective Biden recovery plan. Biden has the advantage of time that Obama lacked; the 2008 crash essentially coincided with Obama’s election, while Biden has months to gauge the scale of the crisis. Business and media elites have also learned from their misplaced fixation with deficits. Moderate Democrats realize that the long-term economic and social costs of high unemployment dwarf the costs of higher debt. The fear of spiraling interest rates that haunted policymakers a decade ago are totally absent today among economic forecasters and economists. Even professional debt scolds are endorsing massive, unconditional outlays. “We should’ve been doing deficit reduction when the economy was good. Now is not the time,” Marc Goldwein, senior policy director at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, tells Politico.

The obstacle that won’t disappear is the Republicans. At the moment, Mitch McConnell’s party is cross-pressured, caught between its small-government impulses and its desire to prevent a depression that will hurt Republicans in November. That’s why Republicans have lurched uncertainly between willingness to open the fiscal spigots and cautious murmuring about overspending. Under a Democratic administration, that tension will disappear. Republicans’ ideology and political self-interest alike will push the party back toward the posture of total opposition.

The difference is that this time, there won’t be 58 Democrats and a handful of Republican moderates to negotiate with. Biden might have 50 or more Democrats. Getting even to that number will require defeating the chamber’s last economically moderate Republican. There is no chance Biden would be able to amass 60 votes for any major fiscal legislation.

There are two ways around this obstacle. One is to abolish the filibuster, a reform that would advance both the interests of the Democratic party (which has far more to gain by lowering the forbidding systemic barriers to new legislation than do Republicans, who can already cut taxes and confirm judges with 50 votes) and the broader cause of democratization. But Biden remains wedded to the Senate and its undemocratic, irrational customs.

Assuming Democrats can’t muster 50 votes to abolish the filibuster, their remaining option would be to pass an economic-relief bill through budget reconciliation, a special legislative vehicle for budget measures, and which cannot be filibustered. Using budget reconciliation seems like an obvious choice. And yet, astonishingly, it’s not clear Biden wants to do even that.

I asked two people in Biden’s campaign, both of whom have previously been accessible, if they knew of anybody who was thinking about a legislative strategy. Neither had an answer. Debenedetti’s story has a quote from Delaware senator Chris Coons, a Biden ally and fellow senatorial romantic. Biden “does have to be closely attentive to: How can we put together a bipartisan coalition to work toward recovery?” Coons says, though he also concedes, “He is concerned about the willingness of Republicans to work in a bipartisan way to power the public out of this.” Debenedetti’s reporting concludes that Biden believes “anything close to a New Deal–size presidency would require some negotiation with (and concessions from) Republicans.”

If that is Biden’s assumption, let me end the suspense: There won’t be anything New Deal–size. There won’t be anything significant at all. Anything that can’t be passed with 50 Senate votes can’t be passed. Biden might — might! — get some sporadic cooperation on low-profile legislation or perhaps a foreign-trade deal or treaty, but Republicans will not cooperate with an economic-relief bill when they understand perfectly clearly that their path to regaining power would lie in prolonging economic misery. They might be persuaded to compromise their anti-government ideals to save their own party from an electoral drubbing, but they will never do that to hurt themselves.

The Senate filibuster is the thin end of the funnel through which any Democratic agenda must pass. Progressive activists have devoted the last two years to forcing Democratic candidates to commit themselves to ever-more-expansive domestic policies. They are focusing on the wrong end, trying to jam more and more policy into the wide end of the funnel.

Biden has already endorsed far more policy than could pass even without any filibuster at all. The crucial decision is what he is willing to do about the filibuster. If he allows McConnell to block a relief bill, he will be signing the death certificate for his own presidency before it begins.

Will Joe Biden Let the Senate Kill His Presidency?