Letters From an American

Landmark. The American Rescue Plan

And, Merrick Garland gets a seat at the table.

Landmark. The American Rescue Plan

Vice President Kamala Harris participates in a virtual roundtable with women’s leadership groups on the American Rescue Plan Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Today was a big day for the United States of America.

The House of Representatives passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, accepting the changes to the measure that the Senate had added. This bill marks a sea change in our government. Rather than focusing on dismantling the federal government and turning individuals loose to act as they wish, Congress has returned to the principles of the nation before 1981, using the federal government to support ordinary Americans. With its expansion of the child tax credit, the bill is projected to reach about 27 million children and to cut child poverty in half.

The bill, which President Biden is expected to sign Friday, is a landmark piece of legislation, reversing the trend of American government since Ronald Reagan’s 1981 tax cut. Rather than funneling money upward in the belief that those at the top will invest in the economy and thus create jobs for poorer Americans, the Democrats are returning to the idea that using the government to put money into the hands of ordinary Americans will rebuild the economy from the bottom up. This was the argument for the very first expansion of the American government—during Abraham Lincoln’s administration—and it was the belief on which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the New Deal.

Unlike the previous implementations of this theory, though, Biden’s version, embodied in the American Rescue Plan, does not privilege white men (who in Lincoln and Roosevelt’s day were presumed to be family breadwinners). It moves money to low-wage earners generally, especially to women and to people of color. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) called the child tax credit “a new lifeline to the middle class.”  “Franklin Roosevelt lifted seniors out of poverty, 90 percent of them with Social Security, and with the stroke of a pen,” she said. “President Biden is going to lift millions and millions of children out of poverty in this country.”

Republican lawmakers all voted against the bill despite the fact that 76% of Americans, including 59% of Republicans, like the measure. Still, the disjunction between the bill’s popularity and their opposition to it put them in a difficult spot. Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) tweeted positively about the bill this evening, leaving the impression he had voted for it. Twitter users wanted no part of the deception, immediately calling him out for touting a bill he had opposed (although he had been a Republican co-sponsor of the amendment about which he was boasting).

Wicker’s public embrace of the measure after voting no suggests that Republicans might recognize that, without the power to stop popular legislation as they could previously, they need to consider getting on board with it.

For right now, though, Republicans are continuing to push tax cuts. Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) are leading an effort to repeal the estate tax. According to Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, this tax falls on estates over $11.7 million, about a fifth of which are worth $50 million or more. The average estate affected by the tax is worth $30 million, and it affects about 2,500 people a year. It is enacted on capital gains that have not been taxed during the original owner’s lifetime, and usually involves stock. While Crapo calls the tax “the most unfair tax on the books,” Hiltzik calls the attempt to eliminate it “a massive handout to rich families.”

It was not just finance in the news today. This afternoon, the Senate voted 70-30 to confirm Merrick Garland as the attorney general. He will be sworn in tomorrow. Biden chose Garland to rebuild faith in the independence of the Department of Justice, whose credibility was sorely battered over the past four years when it appeared to be operating in the interest of the president rather than the American people. Garland has a reputation as a fair-minded, centrist judge, but Republicans who voted against his confirmation—Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, for example—seem already to be trying to undercut Garland’s investigations, suggesting that he will embrace a “radical agenda” as attorney general.

As soon as Garland is sworn in tomorrow, he will be briefed by FBI Director Christopher Wray and others on the Capitol attack.

Garland’s was not the only nomination to go through today. Former representative Marcia Fudge (D-OH) is now the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Michael Regan is the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, charged both with addressing environmental racism and with helping the nation fight climate change. With their addition, 6 of 24 Cabinet positions will be held by Black Americans, the most in U.S. history.

Amidst all the excitement about the Biden administration’s achievements today, the former president was also in the news. The Wall Street Journal obtained a recording of a phone call Trump made in December 2020 to Frances Watson, the chief investigator of the Georgia Secretary of State’s office. Watson was in the process of looking for fraud in an audit of mail-in ballots in Cobb County after the election. Trump urged her to look at Fulton County, as well, where he insisted she would “find things that are going to be unbelievable.”

Watson had little to say as Trump went on for about six minutes, and seemed to be trying to put him off. He didn’t seem to notice. “When the right answer comes out, you’ll be praised,” the former president told her.

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.