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Transition 2021

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Policy memos from Manhattan Institute scholars for the Biden administration

As President Biden assumes office, his administration and the 117th Congress face several pressing tasks. Among them: accelerating the pace of recovery from the pandemic, helping to get schools reopened and students back on track, and restoring safety to the many American cities afflicted by unrest and rising violence. In these briefs, Manhattan Institute fellows offer actionable ideas for the new government—proposals for educational pluralism, executive branch prudence, economic revitalization, evidence-based criminal justice reform, fair and efficient health care, near-term fiscal relief, and long-term fiscal discipline. Each brief contains specific recommendations for Congress or the new administration, along with links to further reading. Taken together, these recommendations represent an agenda for fostering the growth and opportunity that America desperately needs in the wake of the pandemic.

*These issue briefs were completed before the inauguration and updated as of January 26.



Proposals to reform America’s health-care system dominated the Democratic presidential primaries, and the cost of health care remains one of the top concerns of American voters. Sweeping partisan legislation is unlikely to pass what will be a narrowly divided 117th Congress. Nevertheless, there is likely to be some common ground and scope to:

  • Reduce Medicare out-of-pocket drug costs
  • Auto-enroll seniors in Medicare Advantage
  • Require insurers to renew short-term health-care policies for enrollers who get sick

With the sharp uptick in violent crime in and around many American cities, the new government should seek to better protect public safety while fostering a fairer legal system. Three areas, in particular, are ripe for bipartisan action:

  • Policing
  • Civil asset forfeiture
  • Criminal justice

The coronavirus has profoundly disrupted American public education and substantially harmed the learning trajectories of tens of millions of students. The incoming administration will have its hands full trying to get schools reopened and students back on track. As it does so, it may feel tempted to use this crisis to consolidate federal control or may perceive that the election has given it the mandate to make “systemic” changes to public schools. There will undoubtedly be many groups calling for it to do just that. For the sake of national cohesion, this paper recommends three broad policy areas where the Biden administration should tread lightly:

  • Federalism
  • School discipline
  • The culture wars

Legislation tells only part of the story about how the federal government regulates the conduct of American individuals and businesses. The executive branch has significant authority to enact policy changes on its own through the maze of statutes that Congress has already enacted that grant it discretion. Since the federal government began itemizing its new rules in 1976, more than 200,000 have been added to the Federal Register.

As the Biden administration promulgates its policy preferences, it should exercise restraint in three discrete areas:

  • Guidance documents
  • Third-party settlement payments
  • SEC shareholder proposals and proxy advisory firms

The Biden administration, along with many Democratic members of Congress, is promising radical changes to the nation’s energy infrastructures. The goal of “The Biden Plan to Build a Modern, Sustainable Infrastructure and an Equitable Clean Energy Future”—the latest version of a Green New Deal—is to entirely replace hydrocarbons used to generate electricity by 2035 and put batteries on a fast track to replace internal combustion engines in most cars. The physics of energy, as well as the realities of production at an economy-wide scale, means that the administration’s plan is not remotely plausible and that attempting to implement it would lead to massive environmental disruption and increased U.S. economic vulnerability.

The initial priorities of the new government must be to ensure that vaccines are widely distributed in order to end the pandemic and target relief to families and businesses that are struggling to stay afloat. Once the economy has strengthened, however, the country needs to confront serious and growing budget problems. Annual budget deficits are projected, under current conditions, to rise toward $2 trillion within a decade and bring $104 trillion in new debt over the next three decades. Financing that debt will consume 44% of all federal tax revenues—a crippling burden. To avoid this outcome, the top three budget priorities should be:

  • Short-term relief
  • Taxes and spending
  • Entitlement reform

America’s 486 “urbanized areas” were home to more than 70% of the population, according to the 2010 census; another 9.5% of the population resided in 3,087 smaller “urban clusters.” The fortunes of both are so intertwined that the fate of downtowns matters to suburbs and small towns, and vice versa. Given the overwhelming importance of cities, large and small, to the country, urban policy is a useful lens through which a new Congress and administration can forge changes and reforms in three key areas:

  • Public finance
  • Infrastructure
  • Housing

Higher education took center stage during the Democratic presidential primaries, and congressional leaders in the party are calling for universal student loan forgiveness and tuition-free public college. The incoming Biden administration will thus face pressure to radically expand subsidies for higher education.

Conservatives and moderates tend to reject socializing higher education or declaring a federal student-loan jubilee, which matters because—progressive pressure notwithstanding—Biden will need to work with a Congress that is balanced politically and in which radical measures are unlikely to advance. The good news is that a number of sensible measures are capable of attracting bipartisan support and improving the circumstances of college students and aspiring college students who are truly in need of more help. These measures involve:

  • Pell Grants
  • College loans
  • Nontraditional higher education