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Democratic priorities for 2021: what’s most important?

2020 contenders are not incredibly clear on what their top priorities are.

US Capitol building Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Setting priorities is the most important priority.

I personally enjoy nice, tidy org charts, so the ways the various Cabinet departments are set up annoys me. I’d like to the see the Bureau of Labor Statistics (currently in the Labor Department) and the Bureau of Economic Analysis (currently in the Commerce Department) and the Census Bureau (also Commerce) merged together in a single National Statistical Agency.

There should be a Department of Energy and the Environment that oversees, well, energy and the environment. And the Department of Energy’s large portfolio related to nuclear missiles should go to Defense.

I could go on like this, but my real point is that even though I think a massive redrawing of the federal org chart would be a good idea, I would never in a million years want to elect a president who’s determined to get this done. Because while I’d like to see it done, I don’t actually think it’s important.

It’s something that, if it ever happens, should happen at a time of weird partisan exhaustion and gridlock (like 2015) rather than as an actual partisan agenda item.

At any rate, nobody running in 2020 is going to make government reorganization their top priority in 2021 if they win. But they’re also not incredibly clear on what their top priorities actually are.

This is an important distinction. A single-payer Medicare-for-all health care system would be a good idea, and if I were making decisions about US health care policy, I would try to shift us continually in that direction.

But I don’t think letting a giant, inevitably contentious congressional fight about Medicare-for-all dominate the 2021 congressional agenda is a great idea. Not because Medicare-for-all is bad, but because the opportunity cost of starting the next governing agenda with yet another huge health care fight is a bad idea.

Climate, democracy, and immigration

In my view, the most important things to tackle right now are climate change, the state of American democracy, and the millions of long-term resident undocumented immigrants in the country.

I don’t think I need to spell out in detail the case for urgency on climate change, and I am ecumenical in the climate solutions I like so I don’t have any particular bill or prescription I’m pushing. But the next president needs to act with considerable urgency on this matter both in Congress and through the administrative state. If you need to ask a vulnerable member of Congress to take a potentially career-ending vote over something, that something should be climate change.

After that, democracy.

We need automatic voter registration everywhere, federal legislation to curb gerrymandering, campaign finance legislation, statehood for DC, a statehood referendum for Puerto Rico, and we need it all fast. To get any of that stuff done we are going to need an end to filibustering of legislation, a rule change that can’t be made fast enough.

And then, connected to the democracy point, we need a path to citizenship for the long-settled and law-abiding majority of unauthorized immigrants in the country. That should be paired not with a huge surge in spending on border security theater, but by effective workplace enforcement.

With most people paying their back taxes and getting legal, the existing deportation apparatus will find itself targeting actual criminals, scofflaw employers, and new attempts to overstay visas or sneak across the border. Then we can maybe turn the temperature down on the politics around these enforcement questions.

What exactly happens with future flows of legal immigration in that mix is important, and I have my own view of what would be optimal. But the most important thing is to get the path to citizenship and future enforcement right, and make whatever deals on future flows that get the job done.

If all that passes and you can also get a Medicare-for-all bill done, then fantastic. If more realistically that’s not possible and you have to settle for smaller changes, that’s fine. You can come back next time and fight for more changes. Fixing democracy and immigration will make it easier to do, and addressing climate is simply a thing that has to happen.

This is an abbreviated web version of The Weeds newsletter, a limited-run newsletter through Election Day, that dissects what’s really at stake in the 2018 midterms. Sign up to get the full Weeds newsletter from Matt Yglesias, plus more charts, tweets, and email-only content.