Comment: Biden can’t afford to squander lame-duck session

Before the House gavel is handed over to Republicans, here’s what Biden and Democrats must get done.

By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion

President Biden has had a very good week. The midterms turned out better for Democrats than anyone expected and went unusually well for an incumbent president’s party. Russia retreated further in Ukraine. And new data suggested that inflation was moderating, increasing the chances that the U.S. can avoid a painful recession.

So much for the easy part. Biden now will have to maneuver shrewdly if he is to advance Democrats’ priorities and set the stage for the 2024 presidential campaign, whoever the Democratic nominee is. He could start by using the lame-duck session to push for a couple of critical pieces of legislation. But there is plenty more Biden should keep on his agenda despite a likely ( but not certain) Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Since the Force seemed to be with the White House this week, I’m invoking the wisdom of “Star Wars” to make my case for bold action.

Great, kid. Don’t get cocky. I’ll give Biden the same advice I would have offered had the elections gone badly: This had very little to do with you. Biden was entitled to his victory lap news conference Wednesday, but by Monday he’s back to being an unpopular president with an incoming Republican majority in at least one chamber of Congress.

The good news is that his unpopularity wasn’t directly linked to what he has done well or poorly. But the last thing that Biden should do after the midterms is to read the results as an endorsement for either his policy agenda or how he has organized the presidency. Nor should Biden give in to the temptation to shoot off his mouth about how much of a success he is or to taunt former President Donald Trump.

Instead, the halfway point in his term is an excellent time to take a hard look at what’s worked well and what hasn’t. Generally, Biden and White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain have run a smooth operation; but there is always room for improvement, whether it’s on messaging about covid booster shots or pushing the Senate harder on judicial and executive branch confirmations.

One way out! There is urgent business — a “crazyproofing” agenda — that Biden should tackle during the lame-duck session of Congress. The top priority is to pass a reform of the Electoral Count Act. The legislation, which has the support of a few Republicans in addition to the Democratic caucus, would protect against interference in the certification process that we witnessed in 2020.

Second, to fend off potential economic disaster, Biden needs to press the current Congress to raise the debt limit, or, preferably, eliminate it once and for all. Biden has expressed some reluctance to do so, but it’s clearly good politics and good policy.

There are other important things Biden could accomplish with this Congress’s slim Democratic majorities, before extremist flamethrowers such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, get to work next year. Among them, notes The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, are immigration legislation, locking in aid to Ukraine and protecting legitimate Justice Department investigations into the Jan. 6 attack from future House interference. Another action that’s unlikely but is a good idea nonetheless: Remove members of Congress from the line of presidential succession to ensure partisan continuity in the executive branch.

Perhaps I can find new ways to motivate them: Faced with divided government, presidents often focus on executive action to get things done. We can expect Biden to do plenty of that, as all presidents have.

But choosing policy is only part of the president’s job. Implementing laws once they are passed is extremely important. Laws aren’t self-executing; the sprawling federal bureaucracy has to draft regulations, select projects, hire contractors and all the rest of it, and presidents can push them to do so quickly and efficiently; or, as too many presidents have done, allow bureaucratic inertia to impede the process.

President Lyndon Johnson, for example, tended to act as though signing a bill into law ended his responsibilities; and some Great Society programs floundered as a result.

Biden succeeded in getting big-ticket legislation passed and had real implementation accomplishments such as the launch of user-friendly websites for obtaining coronavirus tests and student loan forgiveness. But there is more to be done. For instance, he could help get infrastructure projects started before a hostile House tries to cut off funding. It’s always easier to rally a coalition around partially built roads, bridges and cable lines than to drum up support for prospective ones.

My allegiance is to the Republic. To Democracy! Biden made defense of democracy a key part of his build-up to the midterms. He was correct to do so. Now that the election is over, he should try to assemble a bipartisan group of past and present elected officials who would support broad pro-democracy policies, including the voting rights reforms that were blocked by Republicans in the current Congress. I have little hope it would yield national legislation with a Republican majority in the House, but even rhetorical support for democratic initiatives would be helpful.

This gives him plenty to do. Meanwhile, the country awaits Biden’s decision on whether he will run again in 2024. Biden shouldn’t let the midterm results fool him into thinking the path to re-election would be smooth. The economy will still likely be the single biggest factor in whether he is popular in 2024, and if he isn’t, then Republicans — even Trump — would have a good chance of winning. Presidents can’t control much about the economy, especially in the short and medium term; if they could, recessions and inflation would be very rare! But what he can do, he should.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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