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What Can Incoming Biden Administration Do To Stimulate Economy Without Congress?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Congress still has not reached a deal on a new COVID relief package to help millions of Americans facing an economic cliff. And frankly, with or without a deal, Joe Biden will still inherit a fragile economy and a closely divided Congress. Some economic experts close to Biden's team have advice for what the next president can do on his own. NPR's Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: One thing most economists agree on is that the best way the president can stimulate the economy is by tackling the public health crisis.

AUSTAN GOOLSBEE: The No. 1 rule of virus economics, I always say, is that if you want to help the economy, you need to get control of the spread of the virus.

KHALID: Austan Goolsbee was a top economic adviser to former President Barack Obama. He also informally advised Biden's campaign. He says congressional spending would be the best solution right now. But if that's not going to happen...

GOOLSBEE: There are many areas where the federal government might get some relief out the door of one of the more obvious spaces being that of student loans.

KHALID: The Trump administration has deferred student loan payments until the end of January. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is urging Biden to go further.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: It is my belief that the new president, President Biden, within the first few weeks of becoming president can simply sign an executive order and eliminate - end - $50,000 of student debt from every student.

KHALID: Felicia Wong agrees. She's a member of Biden's transition advisory board but spoke to me, she said, wearing her other hat. She's also president of the Roosevelt Institute.

FELICIA WONG: Ninety-five percent of all student debt is actually held by the government. And so the secretary of education would have it within her or his authority to cancel a lot of that debt.

KHALID: She says there's another thing the president could do to move money into the pockets of people right away.

WONG: Federal government's a really big employer, and Joe Biden had promised on the campaign trail a $15 an hour federal minimum wage. Well, that would require Congress, but his administration could take an executive action that says that all federal contractors have to pay their employees at least $15 an hour.

KHALID: Biden could try to tackle parts of his economic agenda on his own. He could modify Trump's trade tariffs, for example, or change regulations around the Affordable Care Act. These ideas might be helpful in the long run, says Heidi Shierholz with the Economic Policy Institute, but they don't tackle the financial problems people are facing right now. The economy needs a stimulus and...

HEIDI SHIERHOLZ: The president just doesn't have those tools.

KHALID: The tools, for example, to offer more money to state and local governments so they can keep firefighters on the job. And so the biggest economic test for Biden isn't how much he can do on his own, but how good he is at cutting deals.

SHIERHOLZ: The thing he'll have to resort to is trying to lean on his nearly 50 years of experience in Washington. That is what it will come down to. Can President Biden convince Mitch McConnell to move on some of this stuff? - because that is what it will take to get the stimulus that is needed.

KHALID: Shierholz says there's this assumption that a new president can waltz into the Oval Office and immediately change the course of the economy. But really, she says, the most viable path for economic recovery requires buy-in from Congress.

Asma Khalid, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALT-J'S "3WW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.