Looking to 2021: The Elections Are Over… Now What?
By Nathan Gardner-Andrews
The last two weeks seem to have marked an important turning point in what has been the long and drawn out saga of the 2020 election – some sense of finality and, finally, an opportunity to look to the future.
President Trump, while not yet officially conceding the presidential race, paved the way on November 23 for President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris to receive full access to federal agencies and federal funds for the transition process – all but ending any suspense over who will inhabit the White House come January 20.
The final vote tallies in the few remaining uncalled races for the House of Representatives trickled in, confirming that Democrats will maintain a majority in the House - but with the smallest majority in decades – far from the expansion of seats Democrats anticipated and ensuring Speaker Nancy Pelosi will maintain only a tenuous hold on power.
And in the Senate, while final control of the chamber will be determined by two runoff elections in Georgia in early January, it seems increasingly likely that Sen. Mitch McConnell will maintain his powerful position of Majority Leader, allowing him to control what legislation and nominations come to the Senate floor and dashing Democrat hopes of controlling both Congress and the White House.
So, with the election outcomes essentially finalized – barring some surprise in the Georgia runoffs - what comes next? What are the implications for the public clean water sector? I have compiled a few thoughts below and what a Biden administration might look like for our sector.
Both Parties Want a Big Financial Relief Package – But How Big?
President-elect Biden, Speaker Pelosi and Leader McConnell have all indicated a desire to pass a significant funding bill – focused on providing more COVID-19 relief and helping stimulate an economic recovery from the pandemic – early in 2021. But the question remains, how much will it be? Senate Republican leadership have indicated they will not go much higher $500 billion, and House Democrat leadership have said they will not accepted anything less than $2 trillion.
The parties have not been able to bridge this difference so far, despite the pandemic raging on and cases skyrocketing across the county. But a new Congress and administration could be the “fresh start” both parties need to get something across the finish line. However, it will be up to President-elect Biden to play a key role in the negotiations between the two sides and ultimately land on a number that everyone will be able to support. It will also be critically important during this process that the water sector continue to be vocal about the need for dedicated funding in any package for drinking water and clean water utilities.
Washington Remains Deeply Partisan and Compromise Will Be Key
Regardless of how the Georgia Senate runoffs turn out, Washington will remain politically polarized and legislation will only be able to pass in a bipartisan manner. If the Republicans win just one of the Georgia runoffs they will control the Senate and its committees. This means they can control what legislation is considered and makes it to the floor for a vote – and nothing will get a vote if it does not have strong bipartisan support.
If the Democrats win both Georgia seats, there will be a 50-50 split in the Senate with Vice President-elect Harris providing the tiebreaking vote. But this will not mean clear sailing for Democrats in terms of legislation. There are enough moderate, centrist Democrats in the Senate willing to break with their party that any legislative proposals cannot be too far to the left and will need to attract centrist votes.
In either scenario, compromise will be the name of the game. This bodes well for water issues and water-related legislation, including infrastructure spending (see more below), as these issues have traditionally been bipartisan and can attract broad support from difference congressional constituencies. It will be up to the water sector and its advocates to help craft and advance bipartisan solutions that can muster widespread support.
An Infrastructure Package is Possible
The concept of an infrastructure package has become somewhat of a running joke in Washington. Every administration for the past two decades has said it wants a comprehensive deal, but no one has gotten it done. And it seems almost every week is some kind of “infrastructure week” hosted by a special interest group to push the concept, but nothing material ever gets done.
With all that said, skepticism is warranted. But maybe, just maybe, this next year is when a package finally comes together. For starters, President-elect Biden is sending strong signals that he wants a comprehensive infrastructure package to be a top legislative priority upon entering office. He knows his strongest political capital will be at the start of his term, so the fact that he is focusing on something like infrastructure investment that can gain bipartisan support is a good sign. Republicans have also expressed interest in an infrastructure deal and appropriately recognize that it can be both a major jobs creator and financially benefit red states and blue states alike.
The issue, of course, will be how much money to invest and how to pay for it, and that may become a hurdle too tall to overcome. But, if a package does come together, it will be critical for the water sector to advocate for as much money as possible to be directed to the sector.
Affordability Challenges Only Growing
The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted and accelerated a trend that has been around for years – the increasing affordability challenges facing communities. The pandemic has exacerbated this situation but has also brought it to the forefront of national policy dialogue in a way that has not happened before.
More policymakers and Members of Congress – both Democrat and Republican – are aware of this affordability challenge is and its impact on the communities they represent, particularly low-income households. Policymakers also understand more than ever before that this is an issue hitting all of America – red states and blue states alike and does not discriminate between urban and rural areas. The start of a new presidential administration and a new Congress provides a vital opportunity to reset the conversation around affordability and the need for greater federal investment.
NACWA will be launching a new campaign in the coming weeks that will seek to reframe the affordability discussion through advocacy and communication with policymakers, regulators, stakeholders, and ratepayers. We will need the support of the entire water sector to help make this campaign a success and ensure affordability challenges are addressed in a holistic manner that provides real relief to households and communities.
Advocacy More Important than Ever
There are certainly many other important takeaways from the election, and these are just a few of my collected thoughts. But the most important thing the results show is this: the water sector still has a lot of work to do to accomplish our goals and continued advocacy will be the key to accomplishing them.
Sure, we have had important successes. But many of our most important challenges, from funding to affordability to improved regulatory reform, remain to be addressed. Strong advocacy is more important than ever, and the voice of the water sector must be heard. I hope you will join with NACWA and the rest of the water sector in this important work. On to 2021!
General Counsel & Chief Advocacy Officer