Following a divisive year in politics, speakers at the 2021 virtual REALTORS® Legislative Meetings’ Federal Legislative & Political Forum discussed President Joe Biden’s efforts to unify the nation and the legislative outlook for the 117th Congress.
While acknowledging that the political atmosphere is more polarized than ever, CNN political commentator Van Jones and NPR national political correspondent and Fox News contributor Mara Liasson concurred that a middle ground can be found.
“A lot of the change happening in America right now is change a lot of people didn’t sign up for,” Jones said. “We have diversity like you’ve never seen before in the country, technology is changing things, the culture is changing, and change is hard. But we can rise together. No group has to fall for another group to rise.”
Biden ran on a platform of bipartisanship with an intent to manage the big changes happening in the country so they include everyone, said Liasson. The widening economic gap has caused many Americans to favor federal programs that bolster the middle class, she added.
“I can’t think of a president that’s had a more ambitious agenda with a smaller majority in Congress,” said Liasson, who has reported on every presidential election since 1992. She cited his American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan, on top of the American Rescue COVID-19 relief package that passed. “He’s trying to basically put a very large antelope through the python.”
The American Families Plan proposes four years of free education, including universal pre-K and two years of community college, plus childcare support for low- and middle-income families, paid family leave, tax cuts for families with children, and ways to address teacher shortages.
The American Jobs Plan aims to fix highways, bridges, and transit infrastructure, improve drinking water, the eclectic grid, and provide high-speed broadband, as well as rehabilitate more than 2 million homes and commercial buildings.
NAR’s Federal Legislative and Political Forum Chair Matt Silver and Vice Chair Ennis Antoine led the discussion. Antoine pointed out that, as a result of the latest census, Republican red states such as Texas, Florida, and North Carolina will gain congressional seats heading into the next election. Jones said that the reapportionment will make it harder for Democrats to retain their majority in 2022, noting that it’s common for the party of the sitting president to lose seats during the midterm election.
“I think you’re going to see the president push through as much as he can,” Jones said. “I think he has a narrow window to act. He has a very fragile and, in all likelihood, a short-lived majority. And in all likelihood, he’s going to do all he can between now and the midterms.”
Liasson said that Biden may break out pieces of the American Jobs Plan infrastructure package, such as universal broadband or bricks-and-mortar improvements. Such measures would help the U.S. be more competitive with China, and would likely pass with bipartisan votes. Other items could pass the Senate in the reconciliation process, which enables budgetary legislation to pass with 51 votes, rather than a super-majority of 60 votes.
“We’ve had a series of two-year presidencies, [meaning] that because the president tends to lose the majority in Congress in the first midterm, they only have a two-year window to pass their agenda,” Liasson said.
Many of Biden’s proposed programs will benefit Republicans, Liasson pointed out, including “kitchen table” issues such as help with college tuition, childcare reimbursement, and job training. “We’re now so tribalized, so polarized, that the economy doesn’t really matter, and cultural issues tend to be more salient. People tend to vote for their tribe regardless of what they think of the other guy’s policy,” she said.
Jones, who has long pushed for bipartisan policymaking, said the problem with extreme partisanship is that so little gets done, and issues that the majority of Americans care about will go unaddressed. Unfortunately, political incentives make bipartisanship difficult, Liasson added, even though it’s clear many voters support it.
As a long-time proponent of environmental sustainability, Jones advocated to get the Green Jobs Act passed, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007, and he worked as the green jobs advisor to President Barack Obama. More recently, he worked with Jared Kushner and the Trump White House on the passage of the First Step Act criminal justice reform legislation.
Jones pointed out that police reform has bipartisan support across the country—this includes banning chokeholds while still supporting police interventions, improving addiction and mental health programs, and creating a public registry of crimes police have committed. “There’s a bunch of stuff we agree on. Why don’t we just get together and pass it?” Jones said.
Climate-change action also has bipartisan support, he pointed out, as floods, fires, and droughts continue to affect farmland and other communities across the country. “There isn’t a single Pentagon scenario that doesn’t include climate disruption as a major threat to U.S. interests,” Jones added.
According to an NAR survey, one-third of REALTORS® have assisted buyers in purchasing property with green features in the past year, and 65% of members said promoting energy efficiency in listings is valuable.
Silver asked Jones and Liasson what role NAR should play in climate change discussions.
“REALTORS® can play a massive role in talking about the importance of energy efficiency. That’s the biggest opportunity for job creation,” Jones said. “That energy-efficiency dollar is the hardest working dollar in the economy.”
Investing in updates, such as putting in new insulation, upgrading heating and cooling systems, replacing leaky doors and windows, not only makes a home more efficient, it cuts emissions and bolsters job creation. “It is a triple or quadruple win,” Jones said. “REALTORS® in particular, by using those bipartisan open doors, can talk about the need for the weatherization assistance program and other energy efficiency programs, especially in buildings. It makes good financial and economic sense.”
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