Trump and the Tea Party starved government; Democrats can build it back better without BBB
This edition of the Revolving Door Project newsletter was originally published on our Substack. View and subscribe here.
We don’t know much about the new Build Back Better – what will be in it, if it has any chance of passing – but one thing is certain: it’s not moving anytime soon. That, combined with the voting rights bill’s recent defeat at the hands of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, has many Democrats looking to executive action as their last best hope to deliver for regular people and hold on to majorities in the House and Senate this November.
In our view, that assessment is about right. Unfortunately, it’s also coming a little late.
From the beginning, we’ve been encouraging Democratic leaders to take a both/and, rather than either/or, approach to legislation and executive action. Beyond the simple fact that the two are distinct government functions (albeit sometimes complementary), there was simple political reality to contend with. With the slimmest of possible majorities, and some fickle caucus members to boot, Democrats always faced long odds on some of their most ambitious legislative proposals. That is not to say that it wasn’t worth pursuing a transformational agenda in Congress. But it absolutely shouldn’t have been allowed to eclipse all other priorities and foreclose alternative avenues for change.
In some ways, what actually occurred is even worse. Congressional Democrats not only ignored, but materially undermined executive action in their single minded pursuit of an agreement on Build Back Better. In September and then again in December, party leaders’ decided to extend Trump-era funding levels rather than “distract” from BBB negotiations by fighting for a more robust budget. That has left countless agencies in the nearly impossible position of enacting an ambitious executive agenda under budgets (and thus staffing levels) set with the express purpose of making that impossible.
For The American Prospect last week, I highlighted the scale of these discrepancies at places like the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). But that just scratches the surface. Just recently, for example, my colleague Fatou Ndiaye wrote about the gulf between the Securities and Exchange Commission’s staffing and its responsibilities, with a particular focus on its new efforts to fulfill its mandate with regards to climate risk disclosure. Over the past year, we at Revolving Door Project have looked at this issue across many other agencies as well and have just recently compiled that work into one place. We’ll have more to come very soon, but if there’s a particular agency you’d like to see featured, please don’t hesitate to reach out at email@example.com.
Happily, it’s not too late for Democrats to get this right, although they don’t have much time. On February 18, the current government funding agreement will expire. In the three weeks and a few days between now and then, it is imperative that Democrats fight for a new agreement that finally gives agencies the resources they need to effectively (and, given the scant time left before the midterms, efficiently) advance a bold public interest agenda.
Of course, it’s all well and good to say, “give agencies the resources they need” but what exactly does that mean? In my American Prospect piece, I propose a simple rule of thumb. At a minimum, Congress should look to restore agency funding to the levels that predated the disastrous Budget Control Act of 2011. In many cases, that will mean going beyond Biden’s budget request.
As with all rules of thumb, there will necessarily be deviations in particular cases. Legislators must look carefully at the way agencies’ responsibilities may have changed and consider how that might affect required funding levels more fundamentally. Consider, for example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA is dealing with more natural disasters today than ever before (that’s the upshot of our climate being in crisis!) and is struggling to keep up, despite having experienced some growth over the last decade. With all signs sadly pointing to further growth in the rate and scale of natural disasters, it’s clear that we need to rethink the size of the country’s emergency response workforce. Congress should also consider appropriating money to clear stubborn backlogs of work that have resulted from persistent underinvestment at many agencies. This applies again to FEMA, but also to the IRS, which is sitting on top of six million unprocessed returns.
Reporters, as you prepare to cover the sprint towards the upcoming funding deadline, consider asking lawmakers about these critical issues. What does it mean for Biden’s agenda on a given issue if they fail to increase government funding? For instance, if fighting corporate profiteering and monopolistic behavior is (rightly) a priority, whither that priority without adequate funds?
Are the resources that lawmakers are proposing really enough to support that agenda? How do they compare to historical levels adjusted for the growth in population? This sort of context will help to make clear what is at stake in this fight.
An insufficient budget is one major hurdle for agency capacity, but it’s important not to forget that it’s not the only one. Agencies will also need to overcome persistent problems in hiring to staff up quickly. We have been encouraging the administration to make this a priority throughout this year so that agencies are prepared to quickly translate new funding into new hires. And it has definitely taken steps in the right direction with changes that ease entry-level hiring and pave the way for experienced officials to come out of retirement. Still, progress appears to still be incomplete and inconsistent.
That much is clear from a recent piece in The American Prospect on the disastrous state of Human Resources management at the Veterans’ Health Administration (VHA). Suzanne Gordon explains how an HR system introduced under Trump but still maintained under Biden, is threatening the VHA’s ability to fulfill its mission. Without addressing these sorts of problems, no amount of new resources will solve the crisis in care for veterans. Luckily, the VHA has had success tackling hiring issues before, and recently. In the spring of 2020, as the pandemic took hold and demands on the system increased, the VHA overhauled hiring practices to drastically reduce the time it took to bring people on board. Clearly it needs to figure out how to make successes like that stick.
Congress can also use the upcoming funding agreement to ease the way for surge hiring by authorizing special hiring authorities that allow agencies to temporarily bypass the most time-consuming and cumbersome aspects of federal hiring. It included such authorities for a variety of agencies when it passed the CARES Act and, even more recently, for the Department of Energy in the bipartisan infrastructure agreement. DOE plans to use that authority to help quickly bring on board 1000 new staffers who will make up its Clean Energy Corps and spearhead new climate initiatives.
Want more? Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last week: