Stoked by social, political, and economic and conflict, trust in our government institutions has fallen to historic lows. Fewer than six in ten Americans (54%) have confidence in the judiciary system, according to a Gallup poll published last year, and just 37% trust Congress.
Andre M. Perry
Senior Fellow - Brookings Metro
Nonresident Fellow - Governance Studies
Senior Research Assistant - Brookings Metro
Senior Research Associate
The January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol symbolizes a profound and dangerous alienation from our political and economic institutions, and recent research suggests that an increasing number of Americans are willing to resort to violence to supplant political leaders who do not represent their interests. Reversing course from this potential tinderbox requires restoring trust in the ideal of an effective government.
Political distrust and alienation are amplified, particularly among independent voters, when politicians promise big things but fail to deliver. The Biden campaign had large aspirations, including free community college and comprehensive climate policy. But due to a narrow Senate majority, the window for making good on these aspirations remains elusive.
President Joe Biden will need more than stirring speeches to restore trust in our democracy. In advance of the State of the Union address on March 1, this piece outlines several actionable items the administration can pursue immediately to help restore faith in government.
Table of contents
- Round up votes for a Child Tax Credit alternative »
- Initiate immigration reform and end the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy »
- Provide paid family leave and support for elder care »
- Cancel student loan debt »
- Provide clemency for nonviolent marijuana offenses »
- Appoint more judges and fill federal vacancies »
- Restoring trust in government starts with getting things done »
Round up votes for a Child Tax Credit alternative
In late December, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced on Fox News that he would not vote for President Biden’s signature Build Back Better bill. Sen. Manchin’s publicly stated concerns include inflation, the deficit, and various climate provisions. But an unspoken dealbreaker stems from his opposition to extending the Child Tax Credit without implementing means-testing, work requirements, and other provisions. Despite the empirical evidence to the contrary, Sen. Manchin reportedly believes that parents will spend the monthly checks on drugs, and is therefore willing to sabotage a social policy that has kept 10 million children from falling below the poverty line.
However, the senator’s opposition to the extended Child Tax Credit opens the door to passing a better bill. President Biden’s first agenda item for 2022 should be to push for a vote on Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-Utah) Family Security Act. The bill is a marked improvement on the Child Tax Credit in almost every way: It gives more money to families, includes payments prior to birth, removes administrative burdens (a Biden administration priority), and unlike the Child Tax Credit, would not functionally exclude the poorest families who do not report taxable income. And while Sen. Romney’s bill includes objectionable provisions such as consolidating or eliminating certain existing welfare programs, these details could be further negotiated in the Senate and House.
By advocating for a modified version of Sen. Romney’s bill, President Biden can accomplish several things at once. First, he can ensure that a vital source of family aid is permanently enshrined, shielding it from the political cycle. Second, by separating the child allowance from the Build Back Better bill, President Biden has more leverage to push Sen. Manchin (and others) to vote for the latter. And finally, Sen. Romney’s bill could push Republicans (and Sen. Manchin) to be on the record in their vote for or against this policy alone, instead of as part of a broader spending package. In a best-case scenario, the bill could gain enough Republican votes to bypass the filibuster, thus representing a strong bipartisan consensus that both parties could champion as a success. Failing that, with Sen. Romney’s vote replacing Sen. Manchin’s, the bill could be passed through reconciliation.
Initiate immigration reform and end the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy
For decades, Congress has failed to vote on comprehensive immigration reform, and presidents have shown the limits of executive orders, including providing long-term protection for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children (commonly known as Dreamers) and were temporarily protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Last year, a federal judge in Texas ruled that DACA is illegal—a decision that is currently under appeal. As a result, Dreamers without DACA status are not eligible to apply, current DACA recipients are scared to renew their status, and it’s not clear what the legal status of DACA recipients will be in the near future.
With no clear policy direction to take, the Biden administration should offer blanket amnesty to Dreamers to ensure that they are not deported under this or future administrations. In addition, the administration should offer deportation relief through the Temporary Protected Status program for undocumented immigrants whose home countries are facing crises. Most notably, in response to the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine,
Relatedly, during his campaign, President Biden promised to end the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols—more commonly known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, which mandates Mexican asylum seekers remain in their country while awaiting court hearings. Last summer, the Biden administration ended the policy, only to have that decision overruled by a federal court. This is now being reviewed by the Supreme Court, which will issue a judgment in June.
As a result of the lower court decision, the Remain in Mexico policy has been reinstated for the time being. And while the Biden administration maintains that this reinstatement is against its wishes, it willingly chose to expand the scope of the policy to include all countries in the Western hemisphere. The Biden administration should immediately reverse this expansion and work to lawfully terminate the full policy as soon as possible.
Provide paid family leave and support for elder care
The Build Back Better bill included a four-week paid family and medical leave program and $150 billion for expanded home care for elderly and disabled individuals. Now that the bill is dead, the administration needs to pursue paid leave and elder care policy either as a package or as standalone bills.
It is clear that we need federal action in this area. Analyses of paid family leave policies at the state level have shown that access to paid leave increases mothers’ labor market participation and job continuity, increases birth weight and reduces infant mortality rates, and increases breastfeeding. But leaving it up to employers to provide paid family leave can lead to racial disparities in access, with only wealthy and white workers reaping the benefits. Some states that offer paid family leave exclude public workers (where Latino or Hispanic and Black women are overrepresented) and private sector workers for smaller employers, who tend to be economically vulnerable.
Given the limitations of employer- and state-level paid family leave, President Biden should propose a policy for all workers, regardless of firm size or sector. The administration could consider a strategy similar to the one outlined above for the Child Tax Credit—working with Republicans to design a bill that can garner enough bipartisan support to clear a filibuster, while forcing all members to a public vote. Biden should also consider using an executive order to require paid family leave for federal contractors, building on a 2015 order by President Barack Obama that provided paid sick leave.
On the subject of elder care, evidence shows paid family leave may reduce nursing home usage, but has limited effects on labor force participation and mental and physical health for individuals caring for elderly family members. This suggests that a different approach is needed to support families in need of elder care. The Biden administration should advance long-term care beyond the pandemic by investing in home- and community-based services and small nursing homes with well-compensated staff.
Cancel student loan debt
President Biden made a campaign promise to cancel at least $10,000 of student loan debt for every borrower. And he has implemented some reforms, including cancelling over $11 billion of student debt for defrauded and disabled borrowers, as well as for borrowers participating in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. But he is dragging his feet in fulfilling his larger promise to cancel student debt for all Americans.
The Biden administration claims it is still evaluating the admittedly vague legal parameters for this action, but a recent Freedom of Information Act request reveals it has had more than enough information to make a determination since early April. If the administration has already concluded that it has the legal authority to cancel debt, it should follow through. If the administration is still uncertain, it should still attempt debt cancellation. After all, there was no court challenge to the pause on student loan payments as a pandemic relief measure, which operated under the same legal statutes the administration would cite to cancel debt. If debt cancellation was ultimately struck down by the courts, President Biden can still honestly say that he did all that was in his power, and can pressure Congress to cancel the debt instead.
It’s possible that the administration is avoiding the issue for a different reason. In a recent Twitter thread, economist Larry Summers claimed that student debt cancellation is “highly regressive”—another in a long lineup of critical voices who have made this argument. But our research debunks this claim, showing that more than half of all student loan debt is held by households that have a zero or negative net worth, and the plurality of outstanding debt is held by borrowers with higher balances who live in census tracts in which the median income is between $20,000 and $40,000. There is no good reason to delay on fulfilling this promise—President Biden should cancel at least $10,000 of student debt for all Americans today.
Provide clemency for nonviolent marijuana offenses
During his campaign, President Biden promised that he would “decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions.” But a year into his presidency, he has failed to take any steps toward fulfilling this promise through executive action, nor has he spoken publicly in support of proposed congressional legislation that would federally decriminalize marijuana use.
While the president cannot simply legalize marijuana through executive order, there are several steps he could take immediately. According to a November report from the Congressional Research Service, President Biden could do any of the following: 1) offer blanket clemency for everyone charged or convicted with a federal marijuana-related charge; 2) restore Obama-era guidelines for the Department of Justice to discourage federal prosecution of nonviolent marijuana offenses, including possession and distribution in small amounts; 3) implement a policy of amnesty to cover future federal charges for the duration of his administration; and 4) use an executive order to direct the Drug Enforcement Administration, Food and Drug Administration, and Department of Health and Human Services to reconsider the classification of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, which could at least ensure broader access to medical marijuana and greater research opportunities into its health effects.
Appoint more judges and fill federal vacancies
This January, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer announced he will retire after this term. Justice Breyer’s retirement will allow President Biden to fulfill his campaign promise to nominate a Black woman to the court—a promise that was vital in helping him win the South Carolina primary. Biden is set to nominate Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who previously served on the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C., and who would be both the first Black woman and the first former public defender to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Beyond the Supreme Court, President Biden is already on track to nominate a record number of federal judges. In his first year, he nominated 73, 40 of whom the Senate confirmed—the most first-year confirmations since the Reagan administration. While appointing judges should not be seen as an opportunity to advance a partisan agenda, these nominations do matter in terms of underlying ideologies and personal experience, which influence rulings. During his campaign, President Biden promised to focus on representation as an important indicator, in addition to basic attachment to rule of law, civil rights and liberties, and foundational precedent.
This important work could prove more difficult this year. Until recently, Senate confirmation of judicial nominees (outside of the Supreme Court) was a largely routine, bipartisan affair. But beginning with the Trump administration and extending to today, growing polarization in the Senate has spilled over into this aspect of democracy. To counter this trend, President Biden should work to ensure that a large number of his appointees are within the bounds of normal nomination, ensuring that he doesn’t compound the already toxic levels of polarization surrounding the federal courts.
Nevertheless, in working to fill the sizable number of vacancies, President Biden has the opportunity to ensure both quantity and quality. In particular, he should continue to ensure that his nominees are properly representative of America’s diversity. As Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) noted, the judges that have been nominated so far—a majority of whom are people of color—“bring sorely-needed diversity to the judiciary: not just demographic diversity, but also professional diversity, adding to the breadth and width and depth of knowledge possessed by the courts.” This is a deeply positive trend that should continue throughout President Biden’s tenure.
Alongside new judges, the president should also accelerate work to nominate political appointees for the 100-plus current vacancies. This includes filling key vacancies such as director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, CFOs for federal agencies (including the Treasury Department), and ambassadors for nations including Italy, South Korea, and Ukraine.
Restoring trust in government starts with getting things done
Noted philanthropist George Peabody once said, “Our task is not to bring order out of chaos, but to get work done in the midst of chaos.” Only a year into his presidency, President Biden has faced plenty of chaos, from war abroad to pressing domestic issues such as inflation and an ongoing pandemic.
Amidst this chaos, it is vital that the president find opportunities to deliver on campaign promises and act decisively to better the lives of all Americans. The nation needs bold leadership that can restore the people’s trust that government truly works for them. While the proposals outlined above are far more limited than the full aspirations of the Biden administration, they present meaningful steps the president can take today to move us in the right direction.