In 2021, Democrats had big legislative plans after winning the White House and both chambers of Congress for the first time in over a decade.
Many of their goals, however, remain unrealized.
The current version of the Build Back Better Act, a major climate and spending bill that contains several of President Joe Biden’s legislative priorities, was killed by moderate Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) in December. Voting rights legislation is stalled because lawmakers don’t have the 60 votes in the Senate to pass it and have also resisted a filibuster carveout that would enable them to approve it with a simple majority. Police reform has floundered because Democrats and Republicans have repeatedly failed to agree on a compromise, and lawmakers have resisted doing away with the filibuster on that issue as well.
Efforts to lower prescription drug prices, establish a path to citizenship for DACA recipients, and raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour as part of larger bills are among those that ended in disappointment.
The main reasons for the failures thus far: Democrats have very thin majorities, and some want to keep the Senate’s current supermajority rules intact. Since the Senate is split 50-50, Democrats need at least 10 Republicans to join them to overcome the filibuster on any bill. And Democrats need all 50 members to stay united to pass a bill using budget reconciliation, which allows policies related to taxing and spending to circumvent the filibuster.
The party has been trying to pass the Build Back Better Act using reconciliation but has been unable to do so because Manchin has concerns about the size of social spending programs. They’ve faced a similar issue with establishing a filibuster carveout: Democrats also need all 50 members on board for that, and that’s something Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) have opposed as well.
Despite their struggles, Democrats have had success this year, too. In March, lawmakers passed a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill called the American Rescue Plan, which included another round of stimulus checks, an enhanced child tax credit that expires at the end of this year, and dedicated relief for states and local governments.
They were also able to push through a $550 billion infrastructure bill, which provided historic funding for roads, bridges, and clean drinking water. Additionally, they approved more than 40 district court and circuit court judges, the most that any president has seen confirmed in their first year since President Ronald Reagan’s administration.
“We are proud of what we have gotten done in 2021: the American Rescue Plan, the fastest decrease in unemployment in U.S. history, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, over 200 million Americans vaccinated, schools reopened, the fastest rollout of vaccines to children anywhere in the world, and historic appointments to the Federal judiciary,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement in mid-December.
Still, there are major bills lawmakers left unfinished in 2021, and they have limited time to pass them before the 2022 midterm elections. There is concern among some Democrats that failing to pass bills on issues like police reform, voting rights, and immigration will come back to haunt them in the next election cycle. They believe some voters, particularly the voters of color on whom the party depends, will think that Democrats deprioritized policies that would benefit them, affecting enthusiasm and turnout.
“It’s a terrible message,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, in a December press call. “I see the pain and the devastation that [people] feel when they consistently see that they are left behind, that they’re told that... we’re not going to get the changes that are going to keep Black people alive when they’re facing law enforcement, or immigrants to be able to not be deported or separated from their families.”
What Democrats failed to get done in 2021
The Build Back Better Act, which Democrats have been negotiating since this summer, is among the major priorities that the party failed to advance this year.
The roughly $1.75 trillion bill — which included $550 billion for clean energy provisions, funding for child care subsidies, support for universal pre-K, and money for a four-week paid family leave program — weathered months of drawn-out negotiations before Manchin announced that he wouldn’t be able to back the current version in mid-December.
Democrats are hoping to return to the drawing board with a version of the bill that Manchin can accept. But the setbacks the bill has faced mean that some policies, like the expanded child tax credit that has sent monthly payments of as much as $300 per child to most families, are likely to expire before an extension can be passed.
While Democrats could still push to include an expanded child tax credit in the next version of the bill, they will likely need to remove their immigration proposals. As Vox’s Nicole Narea explained, their latest immigration provision would have protected many undocumented immigrants from deportation and enabled immigrants who had come to the US by a certain time to pursue five-year renewable work authorizations. But because Build Back Better is being advanced via budget reconciliation, all of its provisions must relate to the budget in some way. The Senate parliamentarian has said that Democrats’ immigration plan didn’t just affect the budget, so it can’t be included in the reconciliation measure. It’s a decision that makes the future of immigration reform uncertain.
As Build Back Better stalled, Democrats made a last-minute push to approve voting rights legislation. This fall, Senate Democrats were able to reach a compromise on the issue that had the support of all 50 members of their caucus. That was a breakthrough, as previous voting rights bills like the For the People Act, did not have Manchin’s backing.
The compromise bill makes voter registration more accessible for federal elections and establishes 15 days of early voting. Though the bill has Manchin’s support, it has yet to pass because it still needs 60 votes to clear a potential filibuster, and Democrats have yet to get 10 Republicans on board or change the rules.
When it was put to a Senate vote in October, Republicans blocked the legislation from advancing, as they have with other voting rights bills. Democrats still don’t have the 50 votes they need to change the Senate rules, so the legislation is currently in a holding pattern. But because of the narrow window the party has to pass it before the midterms — and renewed interest many lawmakers have expressed in doing so — Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said recently that he’ll bring the bill for a vote in early 2022.
Efforts to address police reform also collapsed in September. Federal police reform became a Democratic priority in the wake of the civil rights protests sparked by the police killings of Americans like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Democrats and Republicans had been in talks for months in an effort to craft legislation that could get at least 10 GOP votes. But the parties couldn’t get past disagreements about issues like how to address qualified immunity, a shield that protects police officers from some legal liability. Democrats haven’t opted to approve a filibuster rules change for this policy, either.
Democrats’ failure to address voting rights, immigration reform, and police reform — all of which have major impacts on voters of color — has prompted concerns that enthusiasm among these key groups could be affected in midterm elections that are expected, based on historical trends, to favor Republicans. “The question is: Will they be able to motivate in a midterm year when they haven’t delivered?” asks Aimee Allison, the president of She the People, a group dedicated to electing women of color to political office.
“It’s not that nothing has happened,” she adds. “It’s that it’s not enough.”
What Democrats did accomplish in 2021
Although there is a lot that Democrats failed to accomplish, they also passed several notable pieces of legislation this year, while advancing a diverse pool of judicial nominees.
The American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion relief package that Congress passed in March, was substantial. It contained enhanced weekly unemployment payments of $300, more stimulus checks, an expanded child tax credit, funding for school re-openings, funding for vaccine distribution, and federal aid for states and local governments.
Many provisions in the ARP have had a sizable impact. Changes to the expanded child tax credit, which made the credit more accessible to low-income families and increased the amount families could receive per child from $2,000 to as much as $3,600, slashed child poverty by 25 percent after the first monthly payment went out. That reduction nets out to about three million children being lifted out of poverty.
The $1,400 stimulus checks in the ARP, which went out to more than 127 million people, helped reduce food insecurity and housing instability in the weeks after the bill was passed, according to a House analysis.
Another major piece of legislation that Congress approved was the $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which passed in November. Although experts noted that it would likely take much more money to fully fix national infrastructure problems like lead pipes, the bill still contains a landmark amount of funding for many items, from clean drinking water to Amtrak.
“I think we have shown a lot of what is possible when we control the House, the Senate, and the White House,” Jayapal said.
In response to a surge of anti-Asian hate incidents during the pandemic, Democrats also passed the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act, which aims to improve law enforcement’s tracking of hate crimes and establish better channels for reporting them. Some activists have argued that the legislation will do little to prevent hate crimes, however.
Democrats’ confirmations to the federal judiciary are significant as well, though the Supreme Court remains tilted to the right. This year, Democrats confirmed 40 judges, more than double what former Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama saw confirmed in their first years in office.
These appointments are poised to affect policy decisions for decades: In recent years alone, the judiciary has played a major role on issues including abortion rights, the Affordable Care Act, and protections for undocumented immigrants. The pool of judges that were confirmed brings more demographic diversity and a wider range of professional backgrounds to these roles, with more women and people of color, and more people who were public defenders.
“I’m proud I appointed ... more Black women to the federal bench and the circuit courts and more former public defenders to the bench than any administration in American history,” Biden said during a December commencement address he gave at South Carolina State University.
Democrats are poised to face many of the same struggles in 2022
Many of the barriers that stymied Democratic priorities in 2021 will be the same in 2022.
Because of the party’s narrow 50-person majority in the Senate, every member needs to be on board in order to pass any measures on a partisan basis with budget reconciliation. Until the party wins a larger majority, lawmakers will be stuck trying to find common ground with more conservative senators like Manchin and Sinema, who’ve respectively been more opposed to social spending and corporate tax increases.
It’s possible Democrats could find a narrower version of Build Back Better that they could pass with all 50 senators, but it’s not yet clear what that bill would look like. Before announcing he was a “no” on Build Back Better, Manchin had proposed a pared-back iteration of the bill that did not include an expanded child tax credit, but kept funding for universal pre-K, an Affordable Care Act expansion, and climate proposals, according to the Washington Post.
If Democrats are going to try another version of the bill, they’ll need to do so quickly: Reconciliation is a lengthier approach, with rules requiring review of legislation by the Senate parliamentarian as well as a potentially time-consuming amendment process. Many members will need to take time to campaign as the midterm elections approach in the fall. Depending on how the midterms go, Republicans could pick up seats in both the House and Senate in 2022, undoing Democrats’ fragile majorities and ending their ability to approve any more ambitious proposals.
Because of Manchin and Sinema’s opposition to a filibuster carveout, voting rights legislation will likely continue to be stalled. Manchin, in a December Fox News interview, indicated that he did not back altering the filibuster rules so that a voting rights bill could pass with a simple majority vote. Sinema, too, reiterated her opposition to a filibuster carveout for this measure.
In a December letter to colleagues, Schumer said that the Senate would take a floor vote on the Build Back Better Act, as well as on Democrats’ compromise voting rights bill in the new year. Unless things change, both votes will fail, leaving Democrats — and their voters — exactly where they are now.