In 1787, at the close of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked whether he and the other founding fathers had created a monarchy or a republic. “A republic, if you can keep it,” he is said to have replied. Last week, America proved it can. A Trump-incited mob seized control of the houses of congress, was evicted in a few hours by beefed-up forces, after which congress resumed the business of certifying the Biden-Harris victory and President Trump promised “an orderly transition of power”. The capitol police failed; the constitutional system did not.
Meanwhile, it is Barack Obama to whom we should look for what is next in America. “Elections matter,” he was wont to tell Republicans who stood in his way. None in recent memory mattered more than last week’s election of two Georgia Democrats to replace two Republican senators. Along with vice president Kamala Harris’s vote to break ties in this 50-50 senate, this adds control of the senate to Democrats’ control of the House of Representatives and the White House.
The initial impacts will be six.
Democrats will make subtle changes in the procedural rules that govern the senate and the house to reduce the power of the minority and make it easier to evade budget constraints on new spending.
Democrats will assume the chairs of all committees, no trivial matter. Elizabeth Warren, no friend of Wall Street, will chair the banking committee and Bernie Sanders seems likely to head the budget committee, which sets Congress’ spending priorities.
Chuck Schumer, who is calling for immediate removal of the President he considers deranged, will become leader in the senate, enabling him to decide what comes to the floor for a vote. Schumer is up for re-election in 2022 and has been threatened by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, slayer of Democratic titans, with a primary fight if he does not hew to the line of her Left faction.
Joe Biden’s cabinet and judicial nominees will have an easier path to senate confirmation.
Democrats will control who gets hailed before congressional committees and what congress investigates.
Biden will attempt to gain control of the distribution of anti-Covid vaccines, now in the hands of state and local officials.
On the policy front, Biden will resist his Left’s pressure to join its march through the institutions of government, to borrow from kindred European radicals. He will not try to pack the Supreme Court or end the filibuster that allows the minority to have a voice in legislation, at least not initially.
Nor will he try to remove Trump’s tariff on Chinese goods, at least not immediately. His team was shaken when the EU signed a trade deal with China despite the president-elect’s request to hold off until he took office. Biden had hoped to have our allies join him in resetting economic relations with Xi Jinping’s communist regime. But since Democrats insist on strict labor standards in trade agreements, and China treats Uighurs as slave laborers, the new President will have some difficulty joining the EU in accepting Xi’s promise to adhere to international labor standards. The EU deal was driven by Germany, and is “a slap in the face” to the trans-Atlantic relationship says Phillippe Le Corre, a China scholar affiliated with Harvard’s Kennedy School and the Carnegie Endowment. The choice was “to do it now, before Biden comes in, and it’s puzzling why this was seen as strategically smart,” Daniela Schwarzer, director of the German Council on Foreign Relations told The New York Times. Not so puzzling to those who have watched Germany refuse to honor its financial commitment to NATO, and agree to finance Putin by buying Russian gas.
Biden is also unhappy with Brexit, and is not keen on a trade deal with Britain. His team has opened lines of communication with Labour leader Keir Starmer, whom it prefers to Boris Johnson, whom Biden believes sold out his beloved Ireland, from whence his great-great grandfather emigrated 170 years ago.
In addition to raising relief checks to $2,000, a certainty given the loss of 140,000 more jobs last month (the loss of about 500,000 jobs in restaurants and hospitality more than offset growth in construction, manufacturing and retail), the President-elect’s fiscal policy includes a Covid-response plan estimated by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget to cost about $3 trillion over a decade, and non-Covid proposals totaling $5.6 trillion, bringing debt to 127% of GDP in 2030 from around 100% now. The Tax Foundation estimates that all of this “would reduce the economy’s size by 1.62% in the long run.”
Biden will ask for about $3.5 trillion in new taxes over a decade, 1.3%-1.4% of GDP. He would raise corporate rates from 21% to 28%, give a 10% credit to encourage made-in-America manufacturing and impose a 10% surtax on offshored business activity, raise the individual tax rate to 39.6% from 37%, and add a variety of provisions that raise the total tax take from those with incomes above $400,000.
Last but far from least, climate change will be the central focus of all polices, the lodestar to which all cabinet members must look for direction. Biden wants to “Ensure the U.S. achieves a 100% clean energy economy and reaches net-zero emissions no later than 2050.” How he will reconcile that goal with his planned infrastructure programme remains a question. It must be acceptable both to his green Left and to his trade union constituents, who want to build bridges, roads and airports that will increase the use of fossil fuels, at least until the dawning of the age of fully electrified transport that does not rely on coal and natural gas to generate the needed electricity.
Then there is the problem of John Kerry, appointed by Biden to be his climate czar, with a seat on the National Security Council and a remit that cuts across those of other cabinet members. Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, worries that “Biden does not yet appear to have defined the limits of Kerry’s role and how it will be integrated into the broader strategy. This has some of Biden’s other advisers worried.” As well they should be.
Kerry has negotiated use of military aircraft, is assembling a staff and negotiating for a prestige office on the seventh floor of the State Department building. He believes, writes Wright, that cooperation with China is the key to progress on climate change, and that climate is the most important issue is U.S.-China relations. According to Wright, for Kerry “Everything else, including geopolitical competition with China, is of secondary importance” to the overarching threat of climate change. Kerry would be willing to make concessions on any issues to get China to agree to cooperate on climate policy, in effect giving the Biden administration two cabinet members in charge of China policy. As Kerry is said to see it, incoming secretary of state Anthony Blinken, nominally Kerry’s boss and a subordinate when Kerry was the secretary, will meet with foreign ministers while Kerry meets with heads of state.
Meanwhile, to understand where America stands now that the hooligans have been swept from the capitol consider this. A major problem for America is how to accommodate the masses of emigrants seeking a better life, few of whom are seeking to immigrate to China. That tells more about the condition of America today than all the politicized funeral orations for American democracy.