As one of his first official actions upon taking office Wednesday, President Biden signed an executive order implementing a federal mask mandate, requiring masks to be worn by all federal employees and on all federal properties, as well as on all forms of interstate transportation. Yesterday Biden followed that action by officially naming his COVID response team, and issuing a detailed national plan for dealing with the pandemic. Describing the plan as a “full-scale wartime effort”, Biden highlighted the key components of the plan in an appearance with Dr. Anthony Fauci and COVID response coordinator Jeffrey Zients.
The plan instructs federal agencies to invoke the Defense Production Act to ensure adequate supplies of critical equipment, including masks, testing equipment, and vaccine-related supplies; calls for new national guidelines to help employers make workplaces safe for workers to return to their jobs, and to make schools safe for students to return; and promises to fully fund the states’ mobilization of the National Guard to assist in the vaccine rollout.
Also included in the plan is a new Pandemic Testing Board, charged with ramping up multiple forms of COVID testing; more investment in data gathering and reporting on the impact of the pandemic; and the establishment of a health equity task force, to ensure that vulnerable populations are an area of priority in pandemic response.
But Biden can only do so much by executive order. Funding for much of his ambitious COVID plan will require quick legislative action by Congress, meaning that the administration will either need to garner bipartisan support for its proposed “American Rescue Plan” legislation, or use the Senate’s budget reconciliation process to pass the bill with a simple majority (with Vice President Harris casting the tie-breaking vote). Even that may prove challenging, given skepticism among Republican (and some moderate Democratic) senators about the $1.9T price tag for the legislation.
We’d anticipate intense bargaining over the relief package—with broad agreement over the approximately $415B in spending on direct COVID response, but more haggling over the size of the economic stimulus component, including the promised $1,400 per person in direct financial assistance, expanded unemployment insurance, and raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.
Some of the broader economic measures, along with the rest of Biden’s healthcare agenda and his larger proposals to invest in rebuilding critical infrastructure, may have to wait for future legislation, as the administration prioritizes COVID relief as its first—and most important—order of business.