Coronavirus relief, access to affordable health care, and climate policy are all on the line in Georgia’s Senate runoffs.
On Jan. 5, 2021, voters in Georgia will decide who will represent them in the US Senate: Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock or incumbent Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. The state’s runoff elections, which are occurring because no candidate cleared 50% of the vote in November’s election as required by state law, are drawing national attention, and with good reason.
Republicans currently hold a 50-48 edge in the Senate heading into January’s runoffs. That means that if they win even one seat in Georgia, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can completely obstruct President-elect Joe Biden’s policy agenda, as he did during much of former President Barack Obama’s term. If Democrats win both seats, however, that would lead to a 50-50 tie in the Senate, enabling Vice President-elect Kamala Harris the opportunity to break any tie in favor of Democrats.
Biden will already struggle to get legislation passed due to the necessary 60-vote threshold in the Senate and the GOP’s decade-long pivot toward extremism and refusal to compromise. But if Ossoff and Warnock win in Georgia, Biden would at least have the option to enact some of his policies using the budget reconciliation process, which allows Congress to pass certain tax, spending, and debt limit legislation with only a simple majority in the Senate.
The process generally can only be employed once per year or budget cycle, but since there is currently no budget passed for Fiscal Year 2021, Democrats could theoretically use reconciliation twice next year, as part of the 2021 and 2022 budgets. Democrats previously used the process to pass the Affordable Care Act and expand healthcare access in 2010, while McConnell and fellow Republicans used it in 2017 to pass their massive corporate tax cut.
This means that if Democrats earn a 50-50 tie in the Senate, it could allow Biden to pass at least one major piece of spending policy each year, which could have enormous implications for millions of people in Georgia and across the country.
Here are three potential policies championed by Biden that could depend on whether Ossoff and Warnock win their races.
More Coronavirus Relief for Struggling Americans
The US is more than eight months into its twin public health and economic crises brought on by the devastating coronavirus pandemic. While Congress responded quickly in March, passing three bills to help struggling Americans and businesses, the White House and Republican-controlled Senate have since refused to enact additional aid.
In May, House Democrats passed the HEROES Act—which would have provided a second round of $1,200 direct payments to most Americans, expanded the $600 weekly federal unemployment benefits through the end of the year, and provided extended eviction protections. McConnell, however, has refused to hold a vote on the bill.
In that time, tens of millions of Americans—including hundreds of thousands of Georgians—have fallen into joblessness, poverty, hunger, and face the threat of eviction. Between the end of September and the end of October, the number of Americans saying it was “very difficult” for them to cover their typical household expenses rose by more than 2.3 million, to 34.8 million, according to the US Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey.
RELATED: Don’t Live in Georgia? You Can Still Help Ossoff and Warnock Win the Runoff Senate Races on Jan. 5.
House Democrats have repeatedly tried to reach a compromise with the White House and Senate GOP, but have gotten nowhere.
While the economic outlook has improved slightly over the earliest months of the pandemic, another 742,000 Americans filed for unemployment the week ending Nov. 14, and the latest, worst surge of COVID-19 is likely to hinder any further economic recovery.
For his part, Biden has repeatedly expressed support for further coronavirus relief for Americans. Just last week he urged Congress to reach a compromise on a relief bill ahead of what is going to be a “very dark winter” as cases continue to skyrocket and roughly 12 million Americans are just weeks away from losing their unemployment benefits. Biden pleaded with leaders of both parties to “cooperate” and “deliver results” that address the economic pain Americans are experiencing—but a deal prior to the Christmas holiday appears out of reach.
Warnock and Ossoff, like Biden, have campaigned on providing further aid to Georgians, and could provide the decisive votes to do so if elected. Given the GOP’s intransigence to helping Americans, it is likely that any such stimulus will have to wait until Biden is inaugurated in January. But even then, if Republicans control the Senate, McConnell could simply block any aid bill. If Democrats win both seats in Georgia, however, Democrats could move quickly to use budget reconciliation to pass coronavirus aid.
Kazz Walding is one of the countless Georgia residents who need that help. A stagehand for entertainment, film, and television productions based in Atlanta, Walding lost her job early in the pandemic and was forced to find new work; as an auto mechanic, she earns half of what she used to make. The past several months have taken a toll on her.
“I’ve dealt with depression before, [but] I’ve never dealt with anything like what this situation has done,” Walding told COURIER in September. “We need work. And we need help.”
For people like Walding, Warnock and Ossoff’s victories aren’t just politics: They represent a lifeline amidst the ongoing economic suffering.
Expanding and Strengthening Access to Health Care
Another top priority for both Biden and fellow Democrats is to expand and improve upon the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the 2010 healthcare law that provided more than 20 million Americans with health insurance, guaranteed coverage for pre-existing conditions like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, and removed annual and lifetime caps on coverage.
“We most certainly will be passing a reconciliation bill,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this month regarding how Democrats planned to strengthen the ACA.
That commitment poses a stark contrast to Republicans, who have tried to repeal the law dozens of times since it was first passed. Most recently, the US Supreme Court heard a case brought by 18 Republican-led states—with the support of the Trump administration—to overturn the ACA.
If that happened, it would prove devastating to Georgians like Kellye Call, a 30-year-old resident of Athens who lives with several autoimmune diseases.
“If the ACA were struck down, I would, quite frankly, become disabled,” Call recently told COURIER. “If I don’t have my doctor’s visits and my medications and I [can’t] manage my disease, I don’t have a quality of life. I won’t be able to get out of bed in the morning.”
The Court heard arguments in the case earlier this month and signaled it would uphold the law, which would give Biden and a Democratic-controlled Congress the opportunity to improve the ACA using the budget reconciliation process.
If Democrats are able to enact Biden’s plan as currently proposed, they could:
- create a government-run health insurance option on the ACA exchange that would provide an alternative to private insurance plans and be available to everyone
- give more financial assistance to everyone buying coverage on the ACA marketplace by providing subsidies that cap monthly premiums at a maximum of 8.5% of income, rather than the roughly 10% it is under the current law
- tie those subsidies to the higher-quality, gold-tier insurance plans rather than the silver policies, which would help reduce deductibles and out-of-pocket costs for patients
- automatically enroll uninsured, low-income Americans in either the public option or in Medicaid, depending on whether they live in a state that expanded Medicaid under the ACA. These enrollees would face no or low premium costs and co-pays.
Such an effort could prove life-changing for many Georgians, including the 1.4 million people without health insurance. Georgia is one of just 12 states not to expand Medicaid under the ACA, leaving the state with the fourth highest uninsured rate in the nation among non-elderly Americans. Providing more generous subsidies could also help the more than 460,000 Georgia residents who obtain coverage via the ACA marketplace, reducing the amount they spend on health care.
In fact, health care may have been part of the reason Biden became the first Democrat to win Georgia since 1992. Just before Election Day, the Trump administration approved a waiver allowing the state’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp to end residents’ ability to choose healthcare coverage via HealthCare.gov, a federal website which offers impartial assistance for consumers as they compare and purchase coverage. Under the waiver, which kicks in for 2022, Georgians who rely on the ACA for coverage will be forced to work through private brokers or contact individual insurers themselves, which could lead to confusion and make it more difficult to compare plans, resulting in lower rates of enrollment and allowing brokers and companies to steer people to worse, lower quality coverage.
Once he takes office, Biden could direct his Health and Human Services Department to revoke the waiver and unwind Trump and Kemp’s scheme. He could also then work to expand healthcare access and reduce costs in the state.
But that reality is only possible if Ossoff and Warnock win in January. But if they don’t, Republicans are once again likely to obstruct any efforts to expand healthcare coverage.
Fighting Climate Change and Creating Green Jobs
More than any Democratic presidential nominee in history, Biden campaigned on the issue of climate change. As wildfires ravaged the West Coast, hurricanes battered the Southeast, and inland wind storms decimated Iowa—making the consequences of climate change viscerally clear—Biden released an ambitious proposal to tackle the crisis.
Since the election, Biden has once again made clear that addressing climate change—which poses a near-existential threat to the economy and life itself—is a top priority for his administration. Biden has already signaled he intends to immediately reverse dozens of the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks via executive action, but in order to pass actual climate policy, such as investing in clean energy jobs and infrastructure, he’ll need a Senate majority.
If he gets one, it opens the door to passing several different kinds of climate policy via reconciliation. As Vox noted in 2019, Congress could create a federal Green Bank to oversee a huge round of green infrastructure spending on everything from transmission lines to electric grids to public transit. Such an institution could fund state-level climate plans in places like Georgia, increase tax rebates for electric vehicles, renewable energy programs, and carbon capture, all of which would reduce greenhouse gas emissions—a key driver of climate change.
Congress could also levy a carbon tax, raise taxes on fossil fuels, cut fossil fuel subsidies, and create subsidies for green jobs.
Such measures could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which have been shown to increase the risk of extreme weather events, like wildfires and hurricanes. Moving away from natural gas production could also improve air and water quality, which are often negatively impacted by the oil and gas industries.
In Georgia, warmer temperatures put the state at risk of extreme heat, more severe floods, draughts, more powerful hurricanes, and the destruction of coastal homes and infrastructure. The state currently averages about 20 dangerous heat days per year, but by 2050, that number could pass 90, according to the States at Risk project. Drought, meanwhile, could devastate the state’s agricultural industry, causing hundreds of millions of dollars of losses, and potentially even increase the risk of wildfires.
Warnock and Ossoff have proposed aggressive climate policies to create a clean economy and tackle climate change. In contrast, Loeffler and Perdue have largely avoided addressing the climate issue and instead aligned themselves firmly with President Trump, who has been a huge booster of fossil fuels and a climate science skeptic.
Should Loeffler and Perdue win, it would give Republicans in the Senate power to block any and all climate proposals, should they so choose. The consequences of that obstruction could literally be fatal for Georgians and Americans.
If Ossoff and Warnock win, however, Biden’s ambitious climate agenda could become reality.