Connecting state and local government leaders
The president made the case for his agenda before a joint session of Congress, as he reaches 100 days in office. Many of his proposals have implications for state and local government.
President Biden in a speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night made a case for a sprawling set of proposals he has put forward to pump trillions of federal dollars into areas like infrastructure, education and childcare over the next decade.
Biden's plans mark a drastic shift not only from the policies backed by his predecessor, but also highlight how he and Democrats in Congress are pushing for a slate of federal investments that would be some of the largest in a generation. They are also seeking to unwind some tax cuts for corporations and higher earners enacted during the Trump years, while calling for tax relief for lower-earners.
"We’re in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st Century," Biden said.
"To win that competition for the future, in my view, we also need to make a once-in-a-generation investment in our families and our children," he added, speaking to an audience in the House Chamber that, due to coronavirus safety protocols, was far thinner than it is usually for such presidential addresses.
Republicans have, for the most part, opposed the president's agenda, arguing Democrats are headed down a path of reckless spending, big government and tax hikes that will add to the nation's deficits and stifle the economy. They've also voiced skepticism about certain clean energy proposals meant to lower carbon emissions and combat climate change.
“I think the story line on the Biden Administration, underscored by the President’s speech tonight, could best be described as ‘bait and switch,'" said U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
He said the "bait" was that Biden "was going to be a moderate, a unifying force and bring us all together," but that the "switch" is that the Democratic party and the president have moved left, more in line with the policy positions held by lawmakers like Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont. "I’m hard pressed to find anything moderate about the Biden Administration," McConnell added.
The president's first 100 days in office have already been significant for states and localities and their relationship with the federal government. States, cities and counties in March saw Biden sign coronavirus relief legislation that sent about $360 billion in direct aid their way as part of $1.9 trillion in overall spending.
Biden is now advocating for policies that would go much further beyond that relief law—notably his roughly $2.3 trillion blueprint for spending on infrastructure and other areas, like expanding care for the elderly and disabled. Securing greater federal investment for public works like roads, transit and water systems has been a longstanding priority for many state and local leaders.
During his address, Biden described the infrastructure package as "the largest jobs plan since World War II."
"It creates jobs to upgrade our transportation infrastructure. Jobs modernizing our roads, bridges, highways. Jobs building ports and airports, rail corridors, transit lines. It’s clean water," he added.
In explaining why the plan is needed, he pointed to gaps in broadband service, recent electric grid failures in Texas and millions of homes and thousands of schools and child care centers that have lead water pipes. He also noted that 800,000 families are on a waiting list to get home care for aging parents, or people with a disability.
Biden also emphasized that the eight-year infrastructure plan would be geared toward driving more manufacturing in America, spurring job-growth. "There is simply no reason why the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing," he said.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican, in a response to Biden's speech, bashed the president's infrastructure plan. He said GOP lawmakers are open to spending on traditional infrastructure, like roads, ports, airports and broadband.
"Democrats want a partisan wish list," he said.
On Wednesday, the Biden administration unveiled another major investment package that includes about $1 trillion in spending and $800 billion in tax cuts over a decade that would involve building out programs like universal pre-school for all 3 and 4 year-olds, and two years of free community college for all Americans.
Both of those programs would involve states sharing in the cost. For instance, the pre-K program would start off with states covering about 10% of the expense and ramp up to 50% over time.
The package that Biden outlined Wednesday features a host of other proposals such as $225 billion for making child care more affordable, raising wages to $15 an hour for child care workers, and providing free child care to some of the lowest-income families with young kids.
"The most hard-pressed working families won’t have to spend a dime," Biden said.
It also calls for a national paid family and medical leave program that would ensure workers receive partial wage replacement if they take time off after the birth of a child, to care for a sick family member and in other situations. The administration estimates that program will cost about $225 billion over 10 years.
To pay for the latest package, Biden is calling for changes to the tax code like bumping the top federal income tax rate to 39.6% from 37% for the highest 1% of the income ladder, as well as raising the tax on capital gains for households earning over $1 million yearly.
"Trickle-down economics has never worked," Biden said. "It’s time to grow the economy from the bottom and middle-out."
Scott, the GOP senator, characterized the newly released plan as "even more taxing, even more spending, to put Washington even more in the middle of your life, from the cradle to college."
For the nation's local governments, Biden's proposals come at a pivotal time. Cities and counties have spent the past year on the front lines of the coronavirus fight, dealing with both the public health crisis and economic fallout and are now looking toward what comes next.
“Never before has a strong intergovernmental partnership been more important," said Matthew Chase, executive director of the National Association of Counties. “We urge our federal partners to embrace bipartisanship and focus on solutions that will enhance our resiliency."
Rip Rapson, president and CEO of The Kresge Foundation, said that the Biden administration's proposals bode well in terms of how the White House is thinking about challenges cities have confronted both before and during the pandemic.
“They clearly understand that these very complex systems of education and child care and public health, and everything in between, are essential to helping cities," he said. "Not just sort of stop the hemorrhaging, but to turn a corner into a much more comprehensive, innovative way of thinking about how the people in cities can thrive."
“This is a fundamental shift. This is both an elevation of the priority of helping cities move forward and it’s also a shift in the methodology," Rapson added.
In Congress, Republicans have shown little willingness to go along with the broad and substantial federal spending that the president and Democrats support and have rejected the idea of rolling back tax cuts that were part of the federal tax overhaul that was a signature GOP achievement during Donald Trump's presidential term.
A group of top Republicans last week did float a more targeted infrastructure package that is closer to $568 billion. While that is far less than what Biden has outlined, it was also a signal that they are willing to engage in discussions with the White House and Democrats.
If Democratic leaders are able to marshal the full support of their caucus in the Senate, where they hold a one-vote majority, it is possible they could push through at least parts of Biden's plans without GOP support, if they use a fast-track process known as "reconciliation."
Scott, in his rebuttal speech, criticized Biden and Democrats for failing to build greater bipartisan consensus. But sharp partisan divides are not new on Capitol Hill and are reminiscent of the Trump era, such as when Republicans assembled and passed their massive 2017 tax package without Democratic support.
Bill Lucia is a senior editor for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington