When Senator Joe Manchin announced in December that he would not support the Build Back Better Act, House progressives immediately got to work. As the Congressional Progressive Caucus continued to lobby for passing a social spending package, its members also started crafting a list of potential executive orders that Biden could sign to advance Democrats’ policy agenda.
That list was released in mid-March after months of deliberations, and it outlines a specific strategy for Biden to combat the climate crisis and lower costs for American families with the flick of his pen.
The suggestions from the CPC demonstrate the increasing pressure that Biden faces from progressive Democrats to take more decisive action before the midterm elections in November, where many in his party fear they could get badly beaten.
Progressives warn that, if Biden does not start signing more executive orders, Democrats’ failure to follow through on many of their campaign promises will result in severely depressed voter turnout among their supporters in November, probably allowing Republicans to regain control of the House and the Senate.
If such a thing were to happen, it would represent a perhaps crippling blow to Biden’s first term and cement an unlikely recovery for a Republican party still beholden to its Trumpist base and where Donald Trump himself is considering a 2024 White House campaign.
The CPC’s list of possible orders addresses everything from the climate crisis to immigration reform and healthcare costs, covering a broad array of issues that affect a large swath of the Democratic coalition.
The suggestions include expanding Affordable Care Act insurance coverage for 5.1 million families and lowering the costs of essential drugs like insulin. To help families’ budgets, the CPC is also calling for canceling federal student loan debt and expanding eligibility for overtime pay. On the issue of the climate crisis, the list includes an order to declare a national climate emergency and reinstate a ban on US crude oil exports.
“We have made important and significant progress as Democrats in the first year of the Biden presidency,” the CPC chair, Pramila Jayapal, said. “But our work is far from done. We have an ambitious agenda, and we want to make sure we continue building on this progress.”
The CPC is not alone in turning its attention to the power of the executive pen, as other progressive elements of the Democratic party urge decisive action from Biden.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have held meetings recently to discuss executive orders Biden could sign to advance voting rights and criminal justice reform. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus also expects to soon release its own suggestions for executive orders aimed at reforming the US immigration system, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus is similarly working on a letter to the White House about advancing its policy priorities.
Progressive groups have been vocal advocates for Biden expanding his use of executive orders. Dozens of grassroots organizations consulted with the CPC as it crafted its list, and those groups have underscored the urgency of Biden signing the suggested orders, particularly as Democrats look ahead to the midterms.
“I think young people came out in record numbers in 2020 because they felt that Democrats promised an alternative to what we’ve lived through our entire lives. We’re burdened by a planet in a state of emergency; we are burdened by crushing student loan debt,” said John Paul Mejia, chief spokesperson for the climate group Sunrise Movement, which worked with the CPC.
Mejia argued that the executive orders represent Democrats’ best opportunity to motivate young voters enough to show up in November.
“If young people want to be mobilized and energized and instilled with any form of inspiration to go out to the polls, I think President Biden’s going to really have to take executive action and deliver as much as he can as fast as he can,” Mejia said.
The White House seems to be listening to progressives’ warnings. The Intercept reported on Thursday that the Biden administration is drafting an executive order to bolster manufacturing of clean energy technologies, a suggestion that was included in the CPC’s list.
Despite the recent focus on executive action, progressives are careful to emphasize that they are not giving up on legislative efforts to enact Biden’s agenda.
Carol Joyner, director of the labor project for working families at Family Values @ Work, said the CPC list was “very strong” but not a substitute for passing some version of the Build Back Better Act. After all, some crucial portions of the original $1.7tn spending package – including the expanded child tax credit and a national paid leave program – almost certainly cannot be enacted via executive action.
“This is a fair start, and it reflects the limitations of what you can do and accomplish under executive order. However, we do know that the care infrastructure needs to be established and expanded in this country in order to support working people,” Joyner said. “That type of legislation is what’s going to have a more profound impact on everyone.”
Senate Democrats continue to hold hearings on specific portions of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, with the hope of crafting a new version of the bill that can attract Manchin’s support. In the past week alone, Senate committees have held hearings on lowering childcare costs, increasing homecare services to seniors and investing in clean energy. Manchin has also restarted negotiations with fellow Democrats with the climate portions of the Build Back Better Act, according to the Washington Post.
“I feel cautiously optimistic,” Mejia said of the possibility of getting a spending package passed. “It would be stupid for Democrats not to pass climate provisions of Build Back Better at a time when they not only face the urgent timeline of a climate emergency, but also when young people are losing hope in the party.”
But progressives have been burned by Manchin before, which is why they say Biden needs to pursue a two-prong strategy of signing executive orders while simultaneously trying to advance legislation.
“I’m proud of us for pivoting but also being able to keep both tracks moving around a legislative solution and executive action solution,” said Natalia Salgado, director of federal affairs for the Working Families party. “The progressive movement in general is made up of a lot of organizers. And if you’re an organizer, one of the main lessons you learn at the beginning of your career is that there’s a couple ways to skin a cat.”
One of the downsides of relying on executive orders is that they can be easily reversed whenever Republicans regain control of the White House. In the 14 months since he took office, Biden has already signed 85 executive orders. Many of them reversed Donald Trump’s policies on immigration, the climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. A future Republican president could do the same.
But progressives remain convinced that executive orders are one of Biden’s best options to deliver immediate relief to the young Americans, women and people of color who helped get him elected.
“I don’t think we should be concerned about what happens down the road. Right now, President Biden has the pen,” Joyner said. “And if he can pass executive orders that support working people and help create jobs and help to rebuild our economy and make it stronger and more equitable, then he should do it.”