The Legacy Question
Laura Blessing | April 5, 2022
It’s time. Time to talk about the L word. As the cherry trees blossom in Washington and legislators’ minds turn towards reelection, the administration is taking stock of its legacy. In our hyper-polarized era, an administration’s first two years, especially if under unified governance, play an outsized role in the mark they leave on politics, particularly their legislative achievements. While the final picture is incomplete, we can start to see its outlines. How will scholars and the public judge the Biden era?
Different ways of viewing a legacy:
There are a number of ways that one can consider an administration’s lasting mark on politics. Among them are partisan considerations for potential policies, political eras, and the functioning of our institutions. First, partisan considerations. A common way to consider this is by looking at the ideological preferences of political actors and the size of coalitions in Congress. A 50-50 Senate and razor-thin margins in the House meant that, even if Speaker Pelosi’s legendary control of her caucus persisted, a single senator could sink legislation.
As for political eras, the term is subjective but political scientist Stephen Skowronek’s concept of political time is useful here. He notes that presidents who reconstruct politics in their own image (FDR, Reagan) kick off cycles of later executives who continue to articulate this same political order, followed by those who oppose the order, preempting a new order yet to come, with the last gasps of the previous order appearing in disjunctive leaders. Skowronek and others considered Trump to be a disjunctive leader, a sign of the ending of the Reagan era, and considered the possibility (particularly with liberal hopes of an expanded safety net with a permanent Child Tax Credit and more) of a new political order dawning with Biden. But without the votes for such legislation, this may not come to pass—or any new political order will be new in other ways. To be sure, creating a new era is a tremendously high bar for politicians. But after the unorthodox nature of the last administration, many wondered if we were in for such a shift.
Finally, the broader health of our political institutions and how they function is tremendously important. We’ve seen the formal federal budget process break down (particularly since 2010), the weakening of political parties, new threats to elections, the lessening of policy responsiveness, concerns with congressional capacity writ large (everything from underinvesting in congressional staff to the dysfunctional authorizations process) as well as valiant but beginning efforts to address these problems. When we think about this era, will we consider that we have built a legislative and executive branch up to the task of handling the challenges of the day?
Where Biden stands now:
To date, the Biden Administration’s major legislative accomplishments are the American Rescue Plan and the Infrastructure bill. The American Rescue Plan’s $1.9 T package was much more than just pandemic aid, also containing expansions of the Child Tax Credit, direct payments, unemployment benefits, funding for industry, education, and the CDC. Proponents noted the historic expansion of the social safety net, and many overestimated the congressional support Biden had to pass additional policies. After campaigning as a person who would seek bipartisanship and bring GOP votes on board, Biden passed a $550 Billion infrastructure bill (passing 228-206 in the House, with 13 Republican votes), touting it as a policy and a bipartisan victory. Given the urgency of pandemic aid and the more moderate nature of the infrastructure bill, the passage of these should not be surprising.
But bipartisanship is far harder on even seemingly easier legislation, or things that previously brought consensus. To get an idea of just how quickly those political winds can shift and sour, one does not have to look far back. The $2.2 Trillion CARES Act was a historically large and successful piece of legislation, with members acting quickly to come together in an emergency, learning the lesson of moving too small and too slow in the Great Recession. Not a single member of Congress voted against it. Right now, both Democrats and Republicans are talking about pandemic aid as only including the American Rescue Plan: Democrats want to take credit for helping the economy alone (and ignore that Republicans helped under the Trump administration), and Republicans want to highlight deficits and inflation (and ignore that their previous votes also have caused deficits). They should all be taking a victory lap; it’s concerning that they’re not. Claiming credit for helping constituents is in legislators’ very DNA, and when they don’t want to do this it does not bode well for lawmaking in the future.
After much consternation, an attempted linkage with the infrastructure bill, and the herding of many cats, the House passed their version of Build Back Better on November 19 on a 220-213 vote, receiving no Republican votes to then see it languish in the Senate. Both Sens. Sinema and Manchin raised a series of objections, with Manchin seeming to deal it a death blow in late December. The President’s budget, just dropped this past Monday, notably carries barely a whisper of BBB. When the White House is not pushing their heretofore signature legislation in a budget Congress considers a messaging document, that is a damning signal indeed. The question of what could be passed via reconciliation before the next Congress is an open one; no clear path appears for BBB. Voting rights legislation is another unrealized major policy priority that looks unlikely, at least in the forms favored by proponents. Of course, a president’s legacy is more than legislation passed: the heartbreaking situation in Afghanistan and the still unfolding tragedy in Ukraine, with its many implications, are other considerations.
We can look forward further than the present moment. The three ways of viewing a legacy above are not typically synthesized (indeed, partisanship is a problematic concept for Skowronek’s political time). But if we consider our highly partisan Congress and our narrowly-divided Senate, and the over-reliance on reconciliation to pass major legislation, the likelihood of major policies, especially containing social spending, are unlikely to remake the country in a new political era. The bigger policies that do pass, whether because of ten-year windows limiting the deficits reconciliation can incur (legislation is not permanent with these sunset provisions), or because legislators sunset costly provisions even earlier, hoping for later political capital to extend them, means that such policies easily disappear. Thus partisanship and institutional (dys)function block the creation of the sort of new era liberal commentators conceive, with a more European-style safety net. If we are to create a new political era, it will be distinguished by other factors.
It’s entirely possible that the writing was on the wall. Tremendous challenges confronted Biden at his inauguration, with a 50-50 Senate that included Sens. Manchin and Sinema. The messaging of Democratic Party leaders and the coverage they received often did not reflect this. I regularly teach a Public Policy Process course at GU’s McCourt School, and I had my students take bets on the size of the administration’s signature effort, Build Back Better, in late September 2021. I’m proud to say that their guesses better reflected the actual legislative veto players than much of the press. We watched the legislation languish—and finally, in late February, it was time to just call it and declare the lowest guess the winner. (Congrats, Sam!) While many things besides legislation can define an administration, and there are real accomplishments Biden can point to, his intended signature policies may come out, not with a bang but a whimper.