Most Americans outside the Washington Beltway, I’m willing to wager, couldn’t give a rip whether good policies come out of the legislative or executive branch. They just want government to work for them and their families.
That’s why it’s exciting to see the 98 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus come together behind 55 recommendations the Biden administration could act on without lawmakers’ approval.
The CPC played a key role in pushing an ambitious Build Back Better bill through the House last fall — only to have it stalled in the Senate. They haven’t given up on that agenda, despite the obstinance of Republicans and Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. And Congress is managing to accomplish a few other things, such as the recently passed bill to shore up postal finances.
For the most part, though, Capitol Hill gridlock means the real opportunities for fast action are on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. With their long list of recommendations, the Progressive Caucus aims to light a fire under the president to make the most of these opportunities.
“We know working people can’t wait for relief from rising costs — and that Democrats must use all the tools available to provide it, quickly,” CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said in a press release.
Fortunately, the executive action toolbox is large. While Congress has the sole power to raise taxes and pass a budget, the administration has other tools for tackling American families’ most pressing concerns.
One of the most powerful tools is the power of the public purse. Companies that rely on federal contracts employ an estimated 25 percent of U.S. private sector workers. That share may grow as new infrastructure funds start flowing.
The Biden administration has enormous authority to impose conditions on these companies, incentivizing high-road standards that would ripple throughout the economy. The president has already made good use of this authority by setting a $15 minimum wage and some other pro-labor standards for contractors.
The Progressive Caucus urges the president to go much further. Under their recommendations, federal contractors would need to refrain from union-busting, narrow the gap between CEO and worker pay, have no violations of labor union rights, and offer generous sick leave and vacation benefits. Companies would also have to reveal the details of their political spending and maintain a clean environmental record.
The CPC plan also calls on the president to take on Big Pharma to reduce costs for consumers in several ways, including lowering the prices people have to pay for insulin, Xtandi, inhalers, and several other essential drugs. Health advocates for years now have urged the federal government to use existing authority to take high-priced, essential drugs developed with federal assistance and allow manufacturers to produce lower-cost generic versions. The CPC plan also calls on Biden to allow Americans to import cheaper medications from other countries.
Progressive lawmakers are also urging Biden to use his executive powers to cancel student debts held by the federal government. That move, they say, would bring relief to “millions of Americans who are stuck in the student debt trap — preventing them from buying homes, starting families, and investing in their communities.”
Another way the CPC would put money in millions of Americans’ pockets: expanding the number of workers covered by overtime protections. The Trump Labor Department set the salary ceiling for workers eligible to receive these protections at just $35,568 per year, with no automatic increases. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that only 15 percent of full-time salaried workers are covered under the Trump rule, meaning that millions of low- and middle-income people are working more than 40 hours per week but not getting paid for that extra time.
One of the CPC’s most timely and innovative recommendations for tackling inequality is a proposal for an inter-agency task force to investigate, prosecute, and deter white-collar crime. This would target a long list of bad behaviors, from union-busting to price-gouging. Investigative research by the Groundwork Collaborative and others has made clear that without a crackdown, big corporations will continue to get away with using the pandemic to push up prices and fatten their profit margins.
The plan also goes after wealthy tax dodgers. For example, the CPC calls on Biden’s IRS to close the carried interest loophole, which allows Wall Street executives to pay a lower tax rate than many teachers and firefighters by mis-classifying the bulk of their income as capital gains. They also suggest ways the IRS could expand reporting requirements to make it easier to catch wealthy tax evaders.
The CPC’s sweeping executive action plan presents many other important opportunities for improving lives through lowering health care costs, advancing immigrant rights, judicial reform, combatting climate change, and investing in the care economy. They are also expected to issue an additional set of executive action recommendations related to foreign policy.
If Biden officials were intending to just coast along between now and the mid-terms, the Progressive Caucus clearly has something else in mind.