6 Debates to Expect in 2021 Regardless of Who Wins the Election

Charles Cooper

This election cycle will not be remembered for its focus on policy issues, bringing significant uncertainty to the policy landscape in 2021. However, these handful of issues will be on the agenda regardless of who wins the election.

This election cycle will not be remembered for its focus on policy issues. While the early stages brought some debate around core policy issues, much of the presidential campaign has narrowly focused on COVID and the economy. Tomorrow’s election will have a significant impact to the policy agenda next year, however, there are policies that we can expect to be considered regardless of who wins the White House, Senate and House of Representatives. Below are six key issues that will be on the agenda in 2021.
Data Privacy: Just prior to the COVID pandemic, data privacy was quickly becoming a top tier issue in the House and Senate. The House Energy and Commerce Committee had produced bipartisan draft legislation and the Senate Commerce Committee was working on several legislative drafts. Since then, both Ranking Member Cantwell (D-WA) and Chairman Wicker (R-MS) have both produced data privacy legislation. 
Since the pandemic, data security has only become a bigger priority on both sides of the political aisle. Not only do the committees share a bicameral interest in the issue, rank-and-file members have increasingly focused on the need for a federal privacy law, especially given the policies states (most notably California) as well as the European Union have advanced.
Transportation & Infrastructure: Despite both the House and Senate developing a reauthorization of surface transportation legislation this year, the traditional hurdles in every transportation debate (funding levels and new sources of revenue) could not be overcome before the September 30th Congress and the White House agreed to push the bill until 2021.
There are certainly some policy differences between Republicans and Democrats, but everyone understands the need to pass a robust transportation bill. Among other things, it is viewed by policymakers as a jobs bill and, therefore, remains likely to be paired with a broader infrastructure package that could help boost an economic recovery across a broad range of sectors. With the election over and much of the policy already drafted, both sides of the aisle will prioritize getting this legislation across the finish line.
Agriculture: Debate around agriculture in the 117th Congress has largely been focused on trade and food insecurity (related to economic consequences of the COVID pandemic). The Farm Bill enacted in 2018 is set to expire in 2023 and key committees have understandably been distracted with other issues that are more immediate. While the Farm Bill has more than enough time before expiration, the debate will certainly ramp up in 2021 and the early stages of reauthorization discussions will begin to unfold.
Agriculture rarely gets the policy spotlight in Washington, DC, but 2021 will certainly experience more agriculture policy given a looming Farm Bill debate and the fact that rural economic development policy is rapidly becoming a priority for both sides of the political aisle.
COVID: It goes without saying that the COVID pandemic will remain on top of the agenda in 2021. The pandemic itself will need more attention from both a policy and funding standpoint. I would expect more relief or recovery packages in 2021 as the pandemic evolves and, hopefully, the distribution of vaccine becomes a reality.
At some point in 2021, Congress and the White House may also begin to move towards longer-term policy changes that would help better respond to future pandemics, including supply chain and federal response coordination.
FY 21 Spending: While it is possible that Congress passes an omnibus spending bill in the lame duck session of Congress, I believe they may need to spend much of their political capital on simply protecting against a government shutdown. In the aftermath of a bitter election and Supreme Court justice confirmation, policymakers will be hard pressed to do much more than pass another continuing resolution.
Current funding expires on December 11th and while the House has passed all appropriations bills, the Senate has not passed any pf theirs. It would be a significant lift to get all of these finalized, negotiated, and passed in what will be a short lame duck session filled with post-election fallout.
Oversight: The election could certainly change the course of oversight, but 2021 will be an active year for oversight. A Democratic sweep in the election will shift towards private sector to justify their policy agenda. And if Republicans maintain the Senate and White House, Democrats will likely increase their oversight duties in House committees., the oversight agenda will be very active next year.
The policy agenda next year will be shaped by those who win the election, which brings significant uncertainty to the policy landscape in 2021. But these handful of issues will be on the agenda, although they may not get the headlines of other issues that were bigger priorities on the campaign trail.

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