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Assortment of experts offer policy remedies for Biden administration during multi-disciplinary symposium presented by the UH Law Center, Hobby School of Public Affairs

June 1, 2021 - To mark the passage of the first 100 days in office for President Joe Biden, a cross-section of national leaders provided analysis on topics such as budget, tax policy and the economy, energy and environmental law policy, health law and policy, immigration, voting and redistricting, racial justice in May during a virtual seminar. The full-day symposium, “Policy Prescriptions for the Biden Administration,” was co-hosted by the University of Houston Law Center and the Hobby School of Public Affairs.

"I'm very pleased that the University of Houston Law Center was able to partner with our sister college, the Hobby School of Public Affairs, to present this event," said Dean Leonard M. Baynes. "We thank all the leading public officials, academics and leading policy experts who contributed."

The centerpiece of the event was a UH experts roundtable discussion that covered a wide range of topics, and was moderated by Baynes and Hobby School of Public Affairs Founding Dean Kirk P. Watson. Participants included:

  • Seth J. Chandler, the Law Foundation Professor of Law
  • Jim Granato, Associate Dean of the Hobby School of Public Affairs, and a professor in political science
  • Richard Murray, Director of the Center for Public Policy’s Survey Research Institute and Lanier Chair in Public Policy
  • Michael A. Olivas, Professor and the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law (Emeritus), and the former director of the Institute for Higher Education Law & Governance.

In his presentation, Chandler weighed the big-picture issues confronting the Biden administration in healthcare.

“The big problem facing us in healthcare in some sense isn't healthcare, it's money," Chandler said. "We are in a very difficult predicament with respect to the budget.  

"Interest rates are projected to increase. We are already paying about 10 percent of our income to amortize the debt. As we grow addicted to some of the benefits that we've bestowed upon ourselves because of the pandemic, the resulting deficit situation is going to make serious healthcare reform more difficult." 

Granato’s contribution was a short-term analysis of the fiscal challenges facing the Biden administration.

“There's a set of events coming from this summer to the end of December that the Biden administration and Congress are going to have to deal with,” Granato said. “The first event is Aug. 1, 2021. That's when the debt ceiling will have to be re-instated. The first thing they have to deal with is if they want to suspend it again or set new limits. The end of the fiscal year is Sept. 30, so they're going to have to come up with some continuing resolutions and some new appropriation bills.

“They'll also have to re-authorize broad insurance, temporary assistance to needy families, the federal transit highway program and also the 50 percent increase in supplemental nutrition assistance.”

Murray commented on the current partisan push across the country to change or restrict voting rights, and how it could make a difference during elections in 2022.

“Twenty-five or 30 states are probably going to enact some significant change in their rules, mostly at the behest of conservative and Republican legislators and outside groups,” Murray said. “The most unpredictable in my judgment is Texas, because on the one hand you have a very favorable environment for Republicans seeking change. They have substantial majorities in the Senate and House that have the first crack at re-districting. They have a Supreme Court in Austin where all nine members are Republicans, and of course all the other state officials including the attorney general are Republicans.

“But they don't control things like birth rates, who moves to Texas and who leaves. Texas is a tremendously dynamic state. Since 2010, the last census, we've added 4,000,000 people. The No. 1 donor state to Texas is California, and No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 are Florida, New York and Illinois. They're not all culturally attuned to a lot of the more conservative values of Texas. That's a dynamic that's underappreciated.”

Olivas, a national expert on immigration law, described how the use of executive power, such as Biden preserving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, is a short-term solution that does not provide long-term policy.

“Some things you can do with executive orders the day you're inaugurated, and President Biden did that,” Olivas said. “President Trump did that too, but that doesn't stick. It handles things for four years and it doesn't really deal with the fundamental needs there are when it comes to comprehensive immigration reform.”

The opening panel, a discussion on budget and tax policy, featured Granato as its moderator. Speakers included:

  • Jason Furman, the Aetna Professor of the Practice of Economic Policy jointly at Harvard Kennedy School and the Department of Economics at Harvard University
  • Mark P. Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science
  • Beverly I. Moran, a Vanderbilt Law School Professor Emerita

Furman used his remarks to discuss the taxation priorities of the Biden administration and discussed evolving thinking on debt and the deficit.

“There's about $4.5 trillion of gross spending, including tax expenditures,” Furman said. “Over a decade there's about $3.3 trillion of tax increases. The biggest item on the investment side is poverty and paid leave, physical infrastructure second and green third.

"The Biden tax plan in gross terms would raise taxes by 1.3 percent of GDP, it also has tax cuts though and so in net taxes would go up by half a percent of GDP."

Mills' topic was budget and tax priorities as they relate to energy. He indicated an enthusiasm for renewables in some quarters of the energy industry because of proposed direct subsidies and direct policy.

“We're undergoing, or should undergo, a broad energy transition,” Mills said. “The world, including the U.S. should use far fewer hydrocarbons like oil, gas and coal and far more renewables. For most of the discussion the renewables center around wind, solar and batteries for cars and the grid.

“The world is going to build more wind, solar machines and electric cars. That's indisputably underway, and indisputably underway without regards to policies that have encouraged that. The underlying technologies are vastly better than they were a decade or two ago. From a broad, philosophical perspective that's a good thing because the magnitude of the world's energy demands, both present and future, are so astounding."

Moran commented on income tax priorities and said the Biden administration must close the loopholes that people use legitimately to pay taxes, and to make paying taxes patriotic for the wealthy.

"During every election cycle since at least the 1980s, there's been talk about how everyone should pay federal tax," Moran said. "Strangely enough since the Reagan administration, most of this talk centers on working class people. That political rhetoric has never tied citizenship or patriotism to rich people paying taxes.

“During World War II, the U.S. managed to use Hollywood movies, radio shows and posters to promote activities that would be considered patriotic, including paying taxes. A great social experiment for the Biden administration would be to fill rich people with patriotic fervor that includes paying taxes as rich people did during the FDR administration.”

Chandler moderated the second discussion on health. Panelists were:

  • Brian Blase, President and CEO of Blase Policy Strategies
  • Timothy S. Jost,  a Professor Emeritus of the Washington and Lee University School of Law
  • Larry Levitt, Executive Vice President for Health Policy of the Kaiser Family Foundation
  • Jacob Reider, the CEO of the Alliance for Better Health

Blase presented on health policy from the Trump administration, and COVID-19's drastic impact.

“The last 16 months of health policy have been clearly been dominated by the pandemic," Blase said. “There were missteps by the Trump administration, by the CDC in particular and some at FDA. But I do think ‘Operation Warp Speed,’ and getting vaccines developed so quickly and into the arms of Americans and people around so quickly is a great testament to the Trump administration policy over the past year in getting that done.”

Jost's presentation focused on some of the legal hurdles facing the Biden administration as it pertains to healthcare.

“The Biden administration has not yet proposed regulations to implement the surprise medical bill legislation, or to amend or rescind Trump administration regulations on association health plans or short-term limited duration plans,” Jost said.

“The Biden administration has moved much more quickly in dealing with litigation involving the ACA and Medicaid. In many areas of healthcare law, the Biden administration inherited responsibility for defending Trump administration policies against court challenges. It has tried to put many of these cases on hold, sometimes proposing policies to replace Trump's policies, and sometimes trying to reach agreements with the litigants who attacked the Trump policies.”

Levitt touched on multiple health issues that the Biden administration is working on, however the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic remains the top concern.

“It's not exactly typical for a new presidential administration to come into office in the midst of a pandemic of historic proportions,” Levitt said. “It's not exactly a surprise that the overriding health priority of the Biden administration so far has been COVID-19, and in particular ramping up vaccinations. There's certainly good news on that front, but it's obviously not fully behind us.”

Reider, who closed out the panel, described how to define health and how information technology can be used to better understand health.

“It's an untapped opportunity for this administration,” Reider said. “How we define health information technology currently is in the domain of medicine, but we are all understanding increasingly that there are social determinants of health that also need to be included. There are tools that are used in other domains wherein social determinants of health need to be accounted for."

Murray moderated the next panel that touched on national and statewide voting issues. Speakers were:

  • Kathay Feng, the National Redistricting Director of Common Cause
  • Mark P. Jones, a Senior Research Fellow at the Hobby School of Public Affairs
  • Michael Li, Senior Counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program
  • Janai S. Nelson, Associate Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

Feng discussed redistricting reforms around the country and parts of the For the People Act.

“This omnibus bill of democracy reform includes four major areas: voting rights, campaign finance, ethics and redistricting,” Feng said. “In order to fix many of the problems we have right now, we have to think about many of these problems as related issues and think about the solution as a holistic one.”

Jones commented on the proposed #HB6 and #SB7 bills in Texas, pointing to the 2020 election as the impetus for this legislation.

"These laws are being proposed now on two fronts," Jones said. "In response to COVID-19 we had a variety of reforms that made it easier and more flexible to vote. The second thing that went on was Donald Trump and claims of Republicans of widespread voter fraud throughout the country."

Li discussed what is expected to be a demographic shift among Texas voters in the next decade.

“Texas is one of the most diverse states in the country,” Li said. “It's projected to be the fourth state where non-white voters will be a majority when all the 2020 census numbers come in. Only three other states are more diverse than Texas in terms of its electorate. It will be a young, dynamic population.”

Nelson said the recent increase in proposed voter suppression laws around the country pose an immediate threat to democracy.

“At this critical juncture in our democracy, I don't think it's an overstatement to say that we are facing a crisis,” Nelson said. “The problem being a wave of voter suppression laws that are overtaking our country and diminishing voting rights across the board.

“The potential solutions are the For the People Act, and another piece of federal legislation, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. There's also a third set of solutions that I don't know we're all paying enough attention to. State-level voting rights acts can fill the breach in many ways where federal legislation is still pending and will take a lot of effort to get passed.”

Olivas moderated the fifth panel, which covered issues involving immigration and racial justice. He was joined by:

  • Lenese Herbert, a Professor at the Howard University School of Law
  • Erika Lee, Regents Professor of History and Asian American Studies, and Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota
  • Thomas Saenz, President and General Counsel at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund
  • Cheryl Wade, The Dean Harold F. McNiece Professor or Law at the St. John’s University School of Law.

Using the death of George Floyd as a backdrop, Herbert discussed how video surveillance of police officers has rarely resulted in accountability.

“For years, we had been told and promised by public policy makers, politicians and some police departments that Americans would in fact get better policing based on video surveillance of police officers,” Herbert said. “This notion that body-worn cameras and dashcams and all of these opportunities for videoing police officers would in fact make a difference in the kind of policing we were to experience.

“These cameras were supposed to give us this new era of accountability. But that never happened. What Derek Chauvin made so incredibly clear, as he sat atop George Floyd's neck for nine minutes and 27 seconds and extinguished his life with his hands in his pant pockets; as he looked at the camera looking at him; as he watched the recording of his conduct - it didn't matter. We don't see law enforcement being moved by the recorded observation of their conduct.”

Lee touched on a number of social and racial justice issues across the country, including the rise in anti-Asian violence during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The most recent statistics have indicated that from March 2020 to the end of March 2021, over 6,600 reports of racist incidents were reported in all 50 states and Washington D.C.,” Lee said. “This represents a 2600 percent increase in anti-Asian hate instances, according to the most recent statistics of the FBI.

“The reasons behind this rise are clear - I think it's imperative to understand them as part of our country's long history of racial violence and discrimination targeting Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, and of course part of the same processes of systemic racism that has impacted Black, indigenous, Latinx and other people of color since America's founding.”

Saenz discussed how the Latinx community was marginalized by the 2020 census and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There was an unprecedented attempt to manipulate the U.S. census under the Trump administration,” Saenz said. “That manipulation focused primarily on the Latino community, and attempted in various means to reduce the count of Latinos in the U.S., or at least reduce the numbers that would have consequence for political representation.  There remain consequences at that attempt at statistical manipulation that continue to shape part of the Biden administration's agenda.

“One way this manifested beyond the census was the Trump administration's response to the pandemic. Ordinarily, one would expect that a pandemic would enable us as a people to unite around a common purpose of working together to defeat the virus that has caused so much death and destruction across our country. Instead, the Trump administration's leadership did not seek to do so. It continued in an attempt to disintegrate. This had particular consequence for the Latino community, because as we now know the Latino together with the Native-American community, have had the highest rates of COVID-19 infections in the country, the highest rates of hospitalization and the highest rates of death from COVID-19. That should have been an opportunity to focus on the continuing contributions of the Latino community."

Wade said her prescriptions for the Biden administration involve actions are not typically taken in the U.S. She also added that it is necessary to have a presidential administration that addresses the anti-Black racism that endangers the financial well-being of the Black community.

“The first is to acknowledge racism as it happens,” Wade said. “We simply cannot afford to wait for years or decades to acknowledge racist practices and policies.

"The African-American community is as diverse as any other community or racial group. Some have emigrated to the U.S. from all over the globe. Some of us are the descendants of enslaved African-Americans, and our families have lived in this nation for many generations. Some of us have been migrants in our own nation. Like other communities, a large percentage of us work hard to educate ourselves and achieve the American dream that includes homeownership."

The final panel, centered on energy and environment was moderated by UH Chief Energy Officer Professor Ramanan Krishnamoorti. Speakers were:

  • Toby Baker, the executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Equality
  • Marcilynn A. Burke, Dean and Dave Frohnmayer Chair in Leadership in Law at the University of Oregon Law School
  • U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (TX-07)

Baker approached his presentation from a regulatory perspective and described the role of the TCEQ.

“There is a belief that regulators can make policy, and I don't believe that that's necessarily true,” Baker said. “I think we can do that in how we implement things, but ultimately at the end of the day my view of being a regulator is I take what the legislature has told me to do. They give me four corners to that statute, and that's my roadmap. We are really restricted to what the Texas legislature tells what we can and cannot do as a regulatory agency.”

Burke said she expects some give and take between the Biden administration pursuing initiatives like environmental justice and the expected transitions in the energy industry.

“My first prescription is not for the Biden administration, but for all of us,” Burke said. “It's that we should temper our expectations. The results of this work are not going to be as wonderful or as disastrous as you might imagine.

“Fossil fuels will continue to play a major role in America for years to come. The concern is that we've been rushed to meet false senses of urgency on political timetables rather than have careful consideration of the impacts on the environment and future generations. That political pressure is significant from the oil and gas industry.”

Fletcher said there are a number of exciting and innovative happenings in the energy space, but it also brings disruption, uncertainty which creates a complex environment politically and policy-wise.

“The global challenge of climate change is an overarching theme from the administration and in the Congress,” Fletcher said. “Those are major drivers of policy-making in Washington right now, and around the world as well. In Congress we are moving forward on legislation that brings together our energy and climate goals. What we're really seeing now is a concerted effort by the administration to address the challenges we're facing. We're seeing that in Congress in various committees.

“I really think we need to work on them together, but to see them as challenges and opportunities - really embracing an all of the above strategy while focusing on greenhouse as emission reductions.”

Click here to watch “Policy Prescriptions for the Biden Administration in its entirety.

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