Early in the morning on Jan. 6, Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio woke up pleasantly surprised. Democratic victories in both Georgia Senate runoffs the night before meant he was suddenly poised to become chairman of the Senate Banking and Housing Committee, whose expansive purview includes oversight of the nation’s central bank, our financial system, the housing market and a wide network of executive branch agencies.
Only hours later, Mr. Brown found himself sheltering in place in a secure location with 74 other senators as an insurrectionist mob of Trump supporters laid siege to the Capitol building to stop the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in November’s election.
On Tuesday, six days after the attack on the Capitol, still determined to pursue a populist economic agenda amid impeachment debates and the Covid-19 crisis, Mr. Brown briefed me on his priorities for the committee, one the most powerful lawmaking beachheads in Congress.
He talked about his willingness to work around the filibuster and how he and his allies will push Mr. Biden to embrace a host of major reforms that could empower the executive branch, the Federal Reserve’s egalitarian mandate and bolster the working class.
Evading Republican obstruction and convincing Mr. Biden, an instinctually cautious politician, to go it alone if necessary is certain to put his earnest Midwest optimism to the test.
Talmon Joseph Smith: President-elect Joe Biden is expected to announce the details of an economic stimulus proposal that’s set to be “in the trillions.” What do you want to see out of that package?
Sherrod Brown: We have to avoid the wave of evictions that was inevitable before Congress passed the scaled down but important December recovery act and extend the moratorium on evictions and the $25 billion for rental assistance. The other important components will be what we do with significant dollars for state and local government and getting significantly better treatment for unemployed workers and more help for small business.
Then, very important long term components should be expanding the child tax credit, the earned-income tax credit, and that they be entirely refundable. The child tax credit, in some sense, disadvantages lower income people, because it’s not fully refundable.And there is huge interest in the Democratic caucus for fixing that — from Bernie Sanders to Joe Manchin.
I would combine that with something we want to do in this committee, but that will not be part of this package: Set up “Fed accounts” so that anybody that wants a bank account in this country — a no-fee bank account, where they don’t get nickeled and dimed and payday lenders don’t swoop down on them — can have basic banking access.
TJS: Speaking of the Fed, I wanted to ask if you support reopening any Federal Reserve emergency lending facilities similar to the Municipal Lending Facility and the Main Street Lending Facility that the Trump Treasury Department and Republican senators shut down during the last set of negotiations? Mayors have said the interest rate and the three-year payback window that was offered to cities by the Fed was far too onerous.
SB: Yeah, I opposed Secretary Mnuchin’s doing that at the time. And I leave it up to the administration on where they want to go. But the reason I opposed Mnuchin then was that there was no avenue for state and local governments. This new Biden economic proposal will surely include, I would think, hundreds of billions of dollars for state and local governments. So I am really looking to what the administration wants to do, where they want to go on whether to resurrect them.
TJS: Looking at so many of your priorities: A lot of it seems impossible unless you all pass things through simple majorities rather than through the bipartisan wrangling needed to get to the 60-vote filibuster-proof threshold required under normal circumstances.
The incoming Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders plans to push for using the “reconciliation” process to pass, via simple majorities, a much larger follow-up relief bill than what could be possible with a typical 60-vote threshold. But he also wants to push other major reforms through reconciliation — which will push the process’s legal limits. How far do you think you all can responsibly go?
SB: As far as we can go! I would start with what has unanimous or close to unanimous support in the Democratic Caucus. And, you know, there are many of Bernie’s plans that don’t. So I start with that. But I take it from a different direction, I would say, “What can we get done?”
I’ll illustrate it this way. If we were to bring to the floor the $2,000 direct payment, I think that we could very well get 10 Republicans to vote for that. I would like to do as many of these things as we can through regular order. But we can’t allow this health crisis to turn into even more of a housing crisis and then turn in to a financial-slash-banking crisis, which it will if we don’t address it in a much bigger way than [Senator Mitch] McConnell was willing to.
TJS: Finance experts I spoke to said that, as a consequence of the regulatory rollbacks in the latest relief bill — which allow major banks to hide from the markets the scale of their troubled pandemic-related loan restructuring — even civil servants at the Fed have no clear idea about what’s actually going on with banks’ balance sheets right now.
Is there action that you all on the committee can take — if not through legislation, then through hearings — to get some more insight into what’s going on here?
SB: I’d answer it this way: The days of Wall Street running the banking committee are past, and with Democrats in control of the Banking/Housing Committee, things are going to be different. It will mean hearings to unearth special deals that Wall Street has extricated. When Wall Street runs things, the stock market goes up and C.E.O. pay explodes, but wages barely budge, the middle class shrinks — those days need to be over.
TJS: One of Joe Biden’s plans that didn’t get as much coverage was his proposal to greatly expand the Section Eight Housing Choice Voucher Program, by essentially taking that federal rental assistance program and making it available to every family who qualifies.
As you know, around 11 million people who qualify are left out right now. Housing advocates say you all could actually pass this expansion with a simple majority. So is that on the docket?
SB: I don’t really know from a parliamentary aspect whether that can go through with a simple majority or if it can’t. But you’ve heard some of these numbers that, before the pandemic, 25 percent of renters in this country paid more than half their income in rent and utilities — one thing goes wrong, their car breaks down, their child gets sick, they miss a week of work because of a minor injury, and they’re evicted and their lives are turned upside down.
I see it in my city. I was talking to a banker in Cleveland yesterday about how there are a lot of homes that are livable, that with a few $1,000 renovations could be a pretty nice, decent place to live. They would maybe only cost $40,000 or $50,000 to buy. But people can’t get a loan for it because the banks don’t lend for that. And how do we deal with that? We need to figure that out.
Some of it’s what you’re saying — Section 8, some of it’s tax credits of some sort. Some of it’s just how we figure out how to provide loans to make this neighborhood that was a prosperous working-class neighborhood be that again.
TJS: You saw how there was palpable concern in Washington that a Republican-led Senate would have veto power over President-elect Biden’s appointments.
SB: You did and then we won two runoff elections.
TJS: Exactly. So with that threat now presumably removed, what’s the reason for not, along with others in your caucus, pushing the incoming administration to appoint people with strong progressive track records and clearly projected plans to unlock some of the dormant powers within these agencies? Democrats have had a tendency to hand out some of these roles as rewards for party loyalists.
SB: Progressives like me are going to be pretty happy with some of these regulatory people. I’m thrilled with Janet Yellen. In the coming days, I think that we’re going to see people in a number of these agency offices that are good progressives. I wouldn’t have necessarily done it the same way. But I didn’t run for president.
And people like me are going to put pressure on these agencies to make sure they’re doing the right thing, because they’re getting plenty of pressure from the other side.
TJS: It is almost impossible under current congressional rules to incentivize Senator Joe Manchin, or anybody else who might be a crucial vote, to line up in favor of legislation that they have serious doubts about. That’s because of the current ban on earmarks, which allow lawmakers to add special provisions to bills that fund spending in their local districts and states. Do you support bringing them back?
SB: Yeah, I think earmarks make sense. I think earmarks work for good government. I’m not going to be spending a lot of time advocating for the change in policy, but I’m fine with it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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