Biden Signs New Executive Orders Meant to Provide ‘Critical Lifeline’ to Millions
President Joe Biden signed two new executive orders Friday, the latest in a series of actions intended to boost the fight against Covid-19, blunt the economic effects of the pandemic and reverse select policies of the Trump administration.
Saying the government needs to act “decisively and boldly” to address the urgent economic problems facing millions of Americans, Biden at the signing ceremony also made the case for his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which aims to support the economy until the coronavirus crisis ends.
“We’re in a national emergency. We need to act like we’re in a national emergency. So we’ve got to move with everything we got,” Biden said. “If we act now, our economy will be stronger in both the short and long run. That’s what economists both left, right and center are telling us.”
National Economic Council Director Brian Deese emphasized the point at the White House Friday, saying that while the executive orders are no substitute for comprehensive legislation, they are part of an effort to provide a “critical lifeline to millions of families” suffering from the effects of the pandemic.
The pair of executive orders signed Friday touch on multiple issues, including:
Hunger: Saying that one in seven households in America report they do not have enough food — including as many as 12 million children — Biden directed the Department of Agriculture to increase the value of benefits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly referred to as food stamps, by 15% to 20% for approximately 12 million families.
Biden also ordered the department to consider raising benefits by 15% for families that receive aid in place of free or reduced-price school lunches, and to stake steps to make it easier for people to sign up for benefits.
$15 minimum wage: Biden is establishing a $15 minimum wage for federal employees and contractors, who will now be eligible for emergency paid leave as well. The pay hike is to be instituted within the next 100 days.
Stimulus checks: Biden is requesting that the Treasury Department make additional efforts to deliver stimulus checks to those who are eligible but have not yet received them, including an estimated 8 million people who have yet to receive the $1,200 checks that were issued in the spring and summer of 2020. The department may also take steps to improve the process for people to receive relief checks in the future.
Worker rights: Biden directed the Department of Labor to confirm the rights of workers to refuse employment if it involves unsafe conditions, including potential exposure to Covid-19, while remaining eligible to receive unemployment benefits.
Number of the Day: 30
President Joe Biden has signed a total of 30 executive orders, actions and memorandums in his first three days in office, according to CNN. Most are directed at responding to the coronavirus pandemic or reversing policies set in place by former President Trump. You can review all 30 here.
Republicans Hammer Biden’s Big Stimulus Plan
Biden’s flurry of first-week executive orders comes as his $1.9 trillion proposal for the next coronavirus relief package faces intense Republican opposition, including from moderates whose votes might be needed in the Senate if the administration tries to pass the legislation on a bipartisan basis.
Republicans say the Biden plan is too big, too costly and comes too soon on the heels of the package passed in December. "We just passed $900 billion worth of assistance. Why we would have a package that big now? Maybe a couple of months from now," Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said. "The needs will be evident, and we will need to do something significant. But I'm not seeing it right now."
GOP senators made clear this week that Biden’s plan would not be able to get the Republican votes that would be needed for passage. “I don’t think it can get 60 [votes]. Because even the people on our side that would be inclined to want to work with the administration on something like that, that price range is going to be out of range for them,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-SD), according to Politico. “Absent some change and economic conditions, etc., I think that would be a very heavy lift.”
Seeking agreement – or not: Deese is planning to meet with a bipartisan group of 16 senators on Sunday to try to make the case that the economy needs support on the scale of Biden’s proposal, and that the risk of doing too little far outweighs the risk of doing too much.
“We’re at a precarious moment for the virus and the economy,” Deese told reporters at a White House press briefing Friday. "What I can tell you is, if we don’t act now, we will be in a much worse place and we will find ourselves needing to do much more to dig out of a much deeper hole.”
The administration’s push for another large relief package comes as emergency unemployment benefits provided under the $900 billion Covid package passed last month are set to expire on March 14.
Democrats, meanwhile, are also looking at bypassing the threat of a Republican filibuster, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reportedly telling donors Thursday night that she wanted to pass Biden’s plan in two weeks via a process known as reconciliation, which would require a simple majority rather than 60 votes in the Senate. Some House Democrats have considered passing a smaller, bipartisan package focused on vaccine funding and direct payments to Americans, but party leaders reportedly have yet to finalize their strategy.
The White House is reportedly pressing Democrats to be patient as Biden works to figure out the contours of a possible compromise deal. “Biden has spent the last several days on the phone with lawmakers in both parties, and his team has started a blitz in recent days not only to walk through the proposal with lawmakers and staff, but also listen to their concerns and potential proposed changes,” CNN reports.
Debt concerns resurface: A number of Republicans have based their objections to Biden’s plan in renewed concerns about the nation’s large deficits and the rapidly rising debt.
The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell argues in a Friday column that those rediscovered GOP concerns are both hypocritical and misguided: “As soon as a Democrat enters the White House, Republicans pretend to care about deficits again,” she writes. “These foul-weather fiscal hawks neglect to mention, of course, that the GOP’s prized 2017 tax cuts added nearly $2 trillion to deficits — back when the economy was doing okay. Nor did they note that — again, before the coronavirus pandemic — the Republican-controlled Senate passed and President Donald Trump signed spending bills that added another $2 trillion to deficits.”
Rampell notes that, while the country does face long-term structural budget challenges, economists including incoming Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, among many others, have urged Congress to provide more aid and set aside debt fears for the time being.
Yellen, as we told you earlier this week, told the Senate Finance Committee that higher deficit spending is actually the fiscally responsible thing to do right now. “To avoid doing what we need to do now to address the pandemic and the economic damage that it’s causing would likely leave us in a worse place fiscally and with respect to our debt situation,” Yellen said.
Biden has echoed that argument, saying again Friday that the benefits of his plan will far exceed the costs and that our debt situation would ultimately be less stable if we don’t provide additional economic relief now.
Republican objections to Biden’s plan go beyond the cost to the specific policies. “It’s reckless to borrow another $2 trillion on top of $4 trillion already in the pipeline,” Sen. Chuck Grassley writes in a Friday op-ed for Fox News. “While more pandemic relief is needed, some of the line items are a political pipe dream for progressives.” Grassley again calls the Biden plan a “liberal laundry list” and warns that Biden’s proposed $15 federal minimum wage would “wipe out” small businesses that are already hurting.
The bottom line: This weekend’s meeting between Deese and centrist senators will be just one step in the Biden administration’s efforts to navigate a path toward a bipartisan compromise after its $1.9 trillion opening bid. Congressional Democrats are preparing a more partisan approach as a fallback option, but for now Biden reportedly prefers trying to drum up Republican support and believes he can find a way to secure 10 votes from the Senate GOP. Either way, this process is likely going to take a while.
Analysis of the Day: How Much Debt Is Too Much?
In his latest newsletter, economist and former finance professor Noah Smith takes an in-depth look at what he calls one of the most important questions in macroeconomics: “How much can the government safely borrow?”
Smith, known for his Noahpinion blog and Bloomberg columns, offers up an answer that may surprise you: No one knows.
“You might think that with the U.S. federal debt
having surged to over 125% of GDP as a result of COVID relief spending — up from around 60% of GDP before the 2008 financial crisis, it might be time to think about borrowing constraints. And you might think that with Biden planning far more deficit spending
in the coming years, it might be time to think about borrowing constraints.
“But in fact, we don’t actually know
if it’s time to think about borrowing constraints! It might be that we’re heading into the danger zone
, or it might be that the danger zone is still so far away that we could do a CARES Act every month and not run into trouble for decades. Many people will tell you, very confidently, that they know the answer to this question, but don’t believe them. Our lack of knowledge about borrowing constraints represents a deep, profound ignorance. And that ignorance means that unless and until we actually find those limits the hard way, the policy debate over deficits in the coming years will rest completely on people’s priors, assumptions, and ideologies.
“Which is not a good place for us to be.”
Read the full piece here, or scroll through Smith’s Twitter thread on the topic.
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- Biden Wants to Raise Taxes, Yet Many Trump Tax Cuts Are Here to Stay – Jim Tankersley, New York Times
- Right on Schedule, Republicans Pretend to Care About Deficits Again – Catherine Rampell, Washington Post
- Dear Joe Biden, Deficits Still Matter – Ruchir Sharma, Financial Times
- Biden’s Stimulus Plan Suggests He Fundamentally Misunderstands This Recession – Henry Olsen, Washington Post
- On COVID Relief, Dems Should Go Small Then Go It Alone – Eric Levitz, New York
- 100 Million Is Too Few. Biden Should Aim Higher on Vaccinations. – Fareed Zakaria, Washington Post
- What Biden Can Do to Fix America’s Covid-19 Vaccine Mess – German Lopez, Vox
Put the Money Printer on Autopilot – Claudia Sahm, New York Times
- Don't Bank On the Glut of Savings Being Spent – Gary Shilling, Bloomberg
- Don't Let Biden, Democrats Exploit COVID to Enact Liberal Laundry List – Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Fox News
- Biden’s Covid-19 Strategy Should Be Applauded. Here’s Where It Can Go Further – Leana S. Wen, Washington Post
The End of the 40-Year War on Government – Timothy Noah, New Republic