President-elect Joe Biden has an ambitious legislative rescue plan, but he isn’t waiting for Congress to begin addressing what his team calls the “four overlapping and compounding crises” facing America.
Immediately after his inauguration, Biden also plans to sign a sweeping set of 17 executive actions to address those four crises — the coronavirus, the economy, climate, and racial justice — as well as to begin to undo some of President Donald Trump’s legacy.
Included in those orders will be a requirement that masks be worn on federal property, as well as a request for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to extend its eviction moratorium, currently set to expire on January 31, until at least the end of March. The orders will request that a pause on evictions due to nonpayment of federally backed mortgages be extended until March as well.
And Biden will continue the student loan freeze, also currently scheduled to end on January 31, requesting that the Education Department not require monthly payments to resume until at least September 30.
The orders will not — and cannot — address Biden’s promise for more direct checks to Americans, or to provide financial aid for struggling businesses, state, and local governments; that sort of spending can only be approved by Congress. But Biden’s officials have said pressuring Congress to pass legislation addressing these needs will be a key priority.
While many of Biden’s coronavirus-related orders will continue or extend Trump-era policy, the orders focused on his other priorities will expressly undo the Trump administration’s work.
Biden’s executive orders attempt to begin undoing Trump-era policy
The president-elect’s list of planned executive actions is both “partly substantive and partly symbolic,” as the New York Times’s Michael Shear and Peter Baker put it.
The orders on the coronavirus fall more into the former category, but those on climate and immigration are both.
Biden’s first actions on climate, for instance, will be to revoke the permit that allowed the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline — which, once complete, would have moved 830,000 barrels of oil per day from Canada to the Gulf Coast — to move ahead with its construction. President Barack Obama had blocked the pipeline’s progress over environmental and land rights concerns, but its developers found an ally in Trump, who gave it a green light over the concerns of both environmentalists and Native American groups.
Biden will also reverse Trump’s 2017 decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. Trump had derided the agreement as “a total disaster for our country” that was useless and unfairly deferential to China; Biden, however, has defended it as a powerful symbol of international cooperation that will “put the country on a sustainable path to achieve net-zero emissions no later than 2050.” And Biden has also said he will follow this order by convening “the leaders of major economies for a climate summit within my first 100 days in office.”
With respect to immigration, Biden will revoke one of Trump’s signature policies — and one of the first things Trump did in office — by putting an end to the travel ban that has targeted primarily Muslim-majority countries (as well as Venezuela and North Korea) and suffered a string of court defeats early in Trump’s presidency.
Despite those defeats, the ban still blocked citizens of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Venezuela, and North Korea from getting visas, and barred people from Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania from taking up residence in the US permanently.
Biden will also order those provided protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals be shielded from deportation and be allowed to work. And, in undoing a policy central to Trump’s political identity, Biden will end the national emergency Trump declared to secure money for his wall at the US-Mexico border.
Finally, when it comes to racial justice, Biden will take the symbolic step of repudiating Trump’s 1776 Commission, and its work, which was to push a twisted version of history meant to rebut the New York Times’s 1619 Project that put a spotlight on the enduring legacy of slavery.
All told, Biden Chief of Staff Ron Klain said the orders will “make government function for the people.”
Following this first-day flurry of orders, Biden is expected to continue to make policy at the executive level through his first 10 days, signing executive actions addressing the reopening of schools and businesses by “taking action to mitigate spread [of Covid-19] through expanded testing, protecting workers, and establishing clear public health standards.”
A memo Klein released Saturday on the plan for Biden’s first few weeks also highlights plans to “strengthen Buy American provisions,” “advance equity and support communities of color,” “expand access to health care,” and “restore dignity to our immigration system and our border policies” using executive actions, memos, and Cabinet directives.
“President-elect Biden will demonstrate that America is back and take action to restore America’s place in the world,” Klain writes.
Biden is also preparing an ambitious legislative agenda
Early in the Biden presidential transition, his team was staring down the possibility of a presidency without unified control of government, which would have left executive action as one of the primary levers of power available to him.
Following a pair of Democratic victories in the Georgia Senate runoffs on January 5, however, things are looking somewhat brighter for Biden’s legislative agenda. With Senators-elect Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock set to be sworn in Wednesday, each party will have 50 votes — and once Vice President-elect Kamala Harris becomes the tie-breaking vote on January 20, Democrats will have the majority.
Though such a slim margin won’t make things easy for Biden, particularly as moderate Democrats such as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin continue to oppose ending the filibuster, it does mean Biden’s agenda has a real chance.
With the filibuster rule in place, legislation requires a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority to pass the Senate, meaning Biden and Senate Democrats will need at least some Republican support for their agenda — or pursue some policies through an obscure Senate loophole known as “budget reconciliation,” which allows certain legislation that affects primarily taxes and spending to pass with a simple majority. (Vox’s Dylan Matthews previously wrote an in-depth explainer on what Biden can accomplish with this method — including actions that could “transform American life dramatically.”)
But Biden’s ambitions are larger than those policies he could pass without GOP support. According to Klain’s memo on Saturday, Biden will push Congress to act on a day-one immigration bill, a recovery and jobs plan, and “legislation related to voting rights, the minimum wage, combating violence against women, and more.”
Already this week, Biden proposed a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus and Covid-19 relief plan — described as “a bridge toward economic recovery” — that calls for $400 billion in funding for the US coronavirus response and $1 trillion in direct relief.
We need to tackle the public health and economic crises we’re facing head-on. That’s why today, I’m announcing my American Rescue Plan. Together we’ll change the course of the pandemic, build a bridge toward economic recovery, and invest in racial justice. https://t.co/UzGFZY7Jhp— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) January 14, 2021
The same plan would also hike the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and expand the child tax credit, among a slew of other actions.
Details also emerged this week about Biden’s immigration plan, which would create a path to citizenship for more than 11 million undocumented immigrants and an expedited path for DREAMers, recipients of Temporary Protected Status, and essential workers. The proposal is ambitious, but as with Biden’s Covid-19 relief plan, narrow margins in the Senate could make it difficult to pass.
As the memo outlines, though, Biden isn’t planning to put all his eggs in one basket. His legislative priorities will be accompanied by quick executive actions.
“President-elect Biden will take action,” Klain writes, “not just to reverse the gravest damages of the Trump administration — but also to start moving our country forward.”