In early December 2020, former US Speaker of the House John Boehner (Republican-Ohio) and former Chairman of the US House Democratic Caucus Joe Crowley (Democrat-New York) spoke to a group of EU AmChams, representing Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain, on their views of the Biden-Harris economic agenda, how they see the Biden Administration working with a demographically evolving, yet still divided Congress, and the impact on the transatlantic economic relationship and cooperation. Here are some highlights of that discussion.
AmCham: Let’s begin with perception many people have of Congress. Is it as deadlocked and “broken” as the newspaper headlines say?
John Boehner: “The divide we see in America is not much different from the divide we see in many countries in Europe. Driven by 24 hour cable news, and by social media, a bunch of information is being dumped in people’s laps that is either pushing or pulling them into one of two camps. That leaves fewer people in the middle. The constant need for new news allows the loudest voices in both parties to hold their leadership hostage.”
“People on both sides of the aisles have relationship. When I was in Congress, I spoke with Joe Crowley every day. We could disagree without being disagreeable. Even with the partisan divide, those relationships make it possible for the two parties to work with each other. I think we are going to see some examples of that in the upcoming year.”
AmCham: Speaker Pelosi has lost some strength (in numbers) in the House. Can she still push the administration priorities through as effectively as she did for the first two years of the Obama administration?
Joe Crowley: “Anyone who underestimates Speaker Pelosi does so at their own peril. She is proven legislator. When you look at the outcome of this election, you can see that the public dismissed Donald Trump, but it did not dismiss Republicanism. The Democrats were expected to gain between 8 to 15 seats, and the opposite occurred. Republicans also strengthened their positions in state legislatures. That, by the way, goes against the notion that the election were rigged. The narrowness the majority in the House will require bipartisanship if the new administration wants to get anything done, and it could help define which issues become a priority. Infrastructure, for instance, is an area of interest for both parties, and I can imagine an infrastructure package could be something that could pass fairly easily and early in the administration.”
AmCham: Can you explain why so many Republicans in the House and Senate stayed silent during the controversy over the election?
John Boehner: “Most congress people do not want upset the President’s supporters, and they just wanted to lie low and let the situation take care of itself.”
AmCham: How will the Biden administration handle the pandemic differently?
John Boehner: “Biden’s efforts will be more coordinated and the message more consistent, but most of the work will still be done at the state level with governors.”
Joe Crowley: “I think the Biden administration is looking at (COVID recovery) as a type of WPA project (part of Franklin Roosevelt’s anti-depression policies). He wants to put money into infrastructure, because for every dollar you put into infrastructure, the economic multiplier effect you get is very large. They also see a way to massage climate change policy into the (more widely popular) infrastructure spending so that they can make progress on that as well.”
AmCham: One of Biden’s priorities is climate change. His strategy seems to be including climate change initiatives within programs popular with Republicans, such as infrastructure and modernizing manufacturing. Will that be enough to attract Republican support?
John Boehner: “I am not optimistic anything major can get done. We have a major partisan divide on climate change, and I do not see how it can be bridged so easily. We may get some minor changes, but nothing big.”
Joe Crowley: “The question is not whether they will reengage in the Paris Agreement. They have made it clear they will. The question is what they will be able to deliver on those commitments. That goes back to what we said about the narrow margins in both the House and the Senate, the high level of partisanships, and the value of personal relationships. Speaker Pelosi won back the house by winning districts that want their representative to deliver results and do not clearly favor the Democratic position on climate change. She knows those districts, and control of the House, can be lost in two years. Climate change, however, is something that has affected her district and is important to her, and I think she will try to get something accomplished there.
AmCham: Policing was a major issue leading up to the election, and the Biden administration has made racial equity one of its four priorities. How do you think Congress will handle the issue?
John Boehner: “Congress will not play a big role in the issues around police reform. This is mainly in the hands of states, cities and local government. What I do think the administration might do is talk more about these issues as way to generate a larger discussion in America. Not everything needs to be legislated, the president has the biggest soapbox in the world, and I think he will try to use it to lead a conversation.”
Joe Crowley: “I agree that Congress will not play a big role in policing issues. President Biden will try to lower the temperature, and unify the sides, which is the opposite of what his predecessor did. The Republicans did a very effective political job of using “defund the police” during the elections, and the Democrats will need to find a way to communicate their position more effectively over the next two years. That means that big stuff may not be on the table at the very beginning. However, I expect that Congress will address voting rights issues, which is very important for the Black Caucus.”
AmCham: Can you explain the role of caucuses in building consensus?
Joe Crowley: “Caucuses are ad hoc entities, and are not given a budget. Caucuses can be formed around nations, issues and even ethnicities. Many of the caucuses exist within one of the parties, but some attract members of both parties. The Black Caucus has grown in power.”
AmCham: Let’s move on to the relationship with Europe. Will the administration change the US approach to the EU, and will Congress support that change?
John Boehner: “What we will see from the new administration is a different tone, but the issues between the EU and US will remain pretty much the same. We should not be fooled that an election will change much. The issues will still be the issues. How the EU handled data privacy was not received well by either party over here. Nevertheless, negotiating a free trade deal would be beneficial for both sides, and we should not let disagreements prevent progress, especially as China continues to grow at a rapid pace.”
Joe Crowley: “Both parties recognize how important Europe is. I agree what will be different is the tone, and perhaps the clarity of the message. Who our friends and foes were become very muddled over the last four years, and I think this administration will speak with more consistency. This administration will reengage with Europe not only on the Paris Agreement, but on defense, on Iran, and many other issues on which we have common interests. On the other hand, as John Boehner said, the issues we have will remain issues. Funding NATO is not going to go away.”
AmCham: Given how much it could help achieve the priorities on both sides of the Atlantic, one might expect more enthusiasm to spur investment by setting common standards. Instead the digital economy seems to becoming a flashpoint…
John Boehner: “Europe is diverging on digital issues. I expect the new administration to have this high on the to-do list. Consumers in Europe and in the United States will not benefit from a number of differing regulations on data and different rate of taxing the digital economy, and government on both sides of the Atlantic should have a real interest in finding common ground.”
Joe Crowley: “We have a natural alliance when it comes to the threat from China. We can see what ambitions China has, and how much of what it wants to do threatens both the EU and the US equally.”
John Boehner: “China is going to be the next superpower on the planet, and it needs to realize that if it wants to be a major player on the world stage, it has to abide by the world’s rules, which, by the way, it has already committed to do. The US and the EU need to find a way to work with China when it benefits everyone, and a way to counteract China when what it does benefits only itself. We need to walk both the cooperative path and the resistant path. And we have to try to resolve whatever issues we have between each other in such a way that it does not diminish our ability to work together on China.”
AmCham: China is one issue that has loomed large over the last four years. Immigration is another. Do you think there is any chance the parties can finally find enough consensus to reform the system?
John Boehner: “Well, I thought we had a bipartisan agreement in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015, but we never quite got there. This is not so hard to figure out. America allows a million people to come and stay every year. That is more than the rest of the world combined. Our immigration system is broken, and needs to overhauled from top to bottom to reflect the realities of the 21st century. This is another area in which the new administration could construct a bipartisan deal.”
Joe Crowley: “I am not going to hold my breath waiting for an immigration deal. There are still a number of issues on visas and in other areas that make agreement hard. The country still needs to grow, and to attract the best and brightest.”
AmCham: It sounds as though Joe Biden’s experience in the Senate may not bear as many riches as some people say it will…
John Boehner: “Congress is going to be very divided, but I think it can find common ground, and the President will do fine. Starting in late January, the world will start to hear a tone coming out of the America that will be starkly different than the tone it has been hearing.”
Joe Crowley: “I do not think we should believe that all will be well in the world because Joe Biden has spent decades in the Senate, but it cannot hurt. John Boehner often said that when a deal needed to be done with the Obama administration, you would pick up the phone and talk to Joe Biden. Joe Biden knows how the soup gets made. He also knows almost all of the people in Congress who will make that soup. I think this can really help the administration get things done. Kamala Harris also is a bit of a secret weapon for the administration. She is a little more in tune with the younger members of Congress, and she fits into the more progressive wing of the party. She can temper expectations, and help push things forward.”
AmCham: Well, first things first. Do you expect President Biden to get all his nominees approved by the Senate?
Joe Crowley: “All of them? Who knows?” Crowley said. “I think most of them will. There is an public expectation that the President will get to pick the people he wants to work with. The Republicans will likely respect that. We may see some sharp debate on a few, but I expect we will see most of them go through without much problem.”
AmCham: Polls have had a hard time predicting results with precision in such a volatile environment. We would like to institute instead the Crowley-Boehner Index to substitute expert judgement for telephone polling. Would each of you tell us how many Republican and Democratic members of the House there will be after the 2022 election, and the same for the Senate. Finally, what will the President’s popularity rating be?
Joe Crowley: “Democrats have a couple of things going against them in 2022. Republicans did remarkably well in state legislatures in 2020 elections, and now have a 22-15 advantage when it comes to redistricting. This will help them win seats in the House. Historically, the President’s party tends to lose seats in the House in mid-term election. Speaker Pelosi knows the road to the majority runs through moderate districts, and I think that will temper what she will be willing to do. In the Senate, the Democrats have better odds, because two out of every three seat up for election is held by a Republican. Joe Biden is a likeable person, and I think that this will mean he will not have the negative numbers his predecessor had. I would guess he would have a 55-57% approval rating.”
John Boehner: “Joe Biden’s approval rating will be in the low fifties based on his personality, I think there is a good chance the Republicans will take the House back, and could narrowly control the Senate.”