Washington, D.C. — Though Election Day is behind us, there are still significant question marks about what to expect from the new Administration and the new Congress in 2021. Here’s a look at what we know so far.
A LOT of people voted.
More Americans voted in 2020 than have done so in any election in more than 100 years. Nearly 2/3 of all eligible voters cast a ballot in 2020 – the most since 73.5% of the eligible population voted in 1900.
For Closely Divided Government.
High turnout did not bring a clear verdict for one party or one agenda, however.
President-elect Joe Biden received more votes than any presidential candidate in history and his popular vote margin may approach 8 million votes while his Electoral College margin is exactly the same as President Trump’s in 2016.
In Congress, most incumbents were re-elected as usual, but Republicans gained ground in the House, where Democrats retained a slim majority with a few House races still too close to call. Republicans appear likely to retain their majority in the Senate, pending the outcome in Georgia. None of the candidates in either of the Georgia Senate races achieved the required 50% threshold, so both races are headed to runoff elections in early January with party control of the Senate in the balance, though Republicans are favored to hold the seats.
No matter what, the House and Senate will both be closely divided. This will not only change the calculus for the leaders of each chamber, but it will also change the size and makeup of congressional committees, particularly on the House side.
Bipartisanship or Gridlock?
Many in the business community see the results as the “best of both worlds” where a Biden Administration is expected to return to steadier, more predictable foreign and trade policies while a closely divided House and Senate keep the ideological extremes of both parties in check.
A big question is the degree to which lawmakers will choose to work together. While gridlock and division continue to be the most likely outcomes, there is a sliver of optimism that the stage is set for leaders to work together to solve problems. President-Elect Biden ran promising to try and unite a fractured nation and bring people together. Moderate members of both parties will have more power than they have in a long time to work together and advance a bipartisan, consensus agenda.
On Rail Issues.
The President-Elect is known by the moniker “Amtrak Joe,” and robust investments in infrastructure are key parts of his plans for economic recovery and for tackling climate change, two of the four priorities set forth in the Biden-Harris Transition agenda.
Infrastructure: The House passed a surface transportation bill earlier this year mostly along party lines and the bill included many provisions that would be damaging to freight railroads. The Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee passed its own transportation bill in 2019, but other committees punted on infrastructure and no bill made it to a vote in the full Senate. Early action on infrastructure in 2021 seems unlikely.
There are reports that the incoming Administration views the House bill favorably, but smaller Democratic margins make it less likely to pass in the new House without changes. The Senate EPW Committee will have a new chair no matter which party controls Congress.
A question left unanswered by both the House and EPW bills was the key issue of how to fund large infrastructure investments, and neither bill addressed systemic modal equity issues.
Climate: Climate change will continue to be a flash point in 2021. The incoming Administration is likely to embed climate change considerations across all aspects of government, including transportation policy and regulation. That said, a closely divided Congress will likely prevent sweeping climate change legislation.
Regulation: A new Administration will mean new appointees to federal agencies and new approaches to regulation, including at the Department of Transportation broadly and at the Federal Railroad Administration. The Surface Transportation Board is already considering several proposals to change the way it regulates railroads. Chairman Ann Begeman’s term expires in December, and while she can stay on for up to one year until Congress confirms a successor, Vice-Chairman Martin Oberman is expected to be named Chairman in 2021. The Senate confirmed Michelle Shultz and Robert Primus to the Board on November 18, filling two seats that had been empty since they were created in 2015. This begins a period of transition for the Board that is unprecedented in its history.
The Elephant in the Room.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic continues to intensify within the U.S., negotiations over relief programs have stalled and those put in place earlier this year expire at the end of 2020. At the same time, individual states are reimposing restrictions to mitigate the spread of the virus. In addition to being job-one for the new administration in January, the lame duck Congress may yet take action on a COVID relief package. And with government funding set to run out on December 11, the current Congress still has its work cut out for it.