After a year of thwarted plans and with little time before the 2022 midterms, progressive lawmakers are throwing a Hail Mary to get their priorities into the end zone: a push for President Joe Biden to take what he can of his stymied agenda and enact it through executive actions — perhaps the last best hope for the left’s ideas.
The recommendations, from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, span eight categories, such as lowering health care costs, immigration action, and criminal justice reforms. They include common progressive refrains, such as canceling student loan debt, as well as a suite of ideas to combat the climate crisis, a top priority shared broadly across the party. These are within the purview of the authority invested with the president, which generally means they’re narrower in scope than what Congress could achieve through legislation.
Biden began his administration with a promise to transform the American economy. His $6 trillion opening bid vowed massive investments in infrastructure, child care, health care, and combating climate change, among other priorities. Translating that vision into a legislative agenda, however, shrunk its size and scope. By the end of last year, Democrats had only passed a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill to upgrade the country’s surface transportation systems and fund modest climate resiliency efforts. The fate of the rest of the agenda remains unclear, and the push for executive actions underscores the gap between Democrats’ initial vision and what progressives are aiming for now, even in their best-case scenarios.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill included a number of Democrats’ priorities, and the party has touted it as a major coup ahead of the midterms — including top progressives like Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “There’s no question that Democrats have delivered,” Jayapal said on a call with reporters on Thursday afternoon. “But our work is far from done.” The caucus’s executive action agenda, she said, “is about recognizing our chance to use all the tools in the toolbox that are available to us” — though the authority to use those tools falls wholly with the president, not the lawmakers pushing him to do so. (Jayapal told reporters that she has not yet had formal conversations with White House leadership about the caucus’s recommendations.)
There’s some daylight between progressives’ asks and actions the White House has promised to take. Biden has not, for example, promised to declare a national climate emergency and activate the government’s defense and trade powers to combat it, as the recommendations ask. But this isn’t an Overton window-shifting exercise, progressives insist. Jayapal lauded the administration for “ taking some important steps on standards setting for climate,” she said. “Our proposals are that they take even more.” It’s a push, in other words, for Biden to do as much as his administration will bear, given the narrow majorities he has in both chambers of Congress.
This isn’t to say House progressives have given up on a legislative agenda. Jayapal told reporters that progressives will continue to push on priorities that “can only happen legislatively,” she said, such as protecting voting rights and abortion access. They’ll also press their Democratic colleagues to resurrect priorities for a reconciliation bill, which can pass the Senate with only Democratic votes.
But Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) threw the fate of those priorities into question when he nixed Democrats’ reconciliation efforts in December, and progressive leaders acknowledge that an executive agenda is the last best means for some of their top policies to take effect. “These are still challenges in our communities,” says Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), the deputy chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “What are the ways we can address those challenges as effectively and as quickly as possible? The answer to that, in some instances, is executive actions.”
Progressives also see the push as a chance for the party to put some points on the board before the elections—something that could be crucial for a party marching toward the midterms without passing the White House’s best laid domestic plans. “Anything we do between now and November helps us,” Jayapal said. Left-flank lawmakers further hope that their recommendations will beat back moderate Democrats’ attempts to blame progressives for the lack of legislative wins. “We have a tough time of really getting our message across,” Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) said of the progressives’ plight. “That’s why we’re hoping to get somewhere with these executive actions.”
The left isn’t alone in pinning its policy hopes on the White House. The Congressional Black Caucus, for example, has discussed its own executive action push on voting rights and criminal justice reforms, other Democratic priorities that stalled out in Congress. “If we could do voting rights—whether it’s executive order or any way we can—I think it’s something that we should not walk away from,” Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), the Black Caucus chair, told Politico. Hispanic lawmakers, meanwhile, are crafting an executive agenda related to immigration issues, an issue with renewed interest in the wake of the Ukrainian refugee crisis.
Not all Democrats agree that an executive branch route is the best way to prove the party can deliver. Execution action presents a frictionless but precarious pathway for policy making: The next president can simply reverse the rule — if the Supreme Court doesn’t get to it first. Democrats’ losses during the 2010 midterms forced President Barack Obama to make policy through executive actions during the remaining six years of his presidency; President Donald Trump and the courts washed much of it away in the time that followed. “If you want to give people some stability and a vision forward, you do it in a legislative way,” says Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.). “That means you’re not going to get everything you want.”
“If you have these unilateral demands and you won’t compromise, then don’t be surprised when nothing comes through,” Slotkin, a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, adds. “Come to some of the bipartisan meetings where we’re hammering out details of bills together.”