Earlier this month, the first national standardized test results since the onset of the Covid pandemic were released. They were troubling. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card — confirmed that students fell behind during the pandemic, with the lowest scores in two decades.
This was the first time in NAEP’s history that math scores declined compared to the previous test, and it was the largest decline in reading scores in over 30 years. While scores were down across the board, they were particularly poor for students of color. The gap between white and Black students was 33 points, the largest disparity since the 1978 assessment. This was a significant step backwards in closing the racial achievement gap, which had been steadily shrinking for the last 15 years. Though unfortunate, these results were foreseeable as urban schools —which have higher rates of low-income and minority students — stayed remote longer than other schools, exacerbating learning loss.
Even before the pandemic, American schools were struggling. In the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, which tests high school students in developed nations, the U.S. scored below average in math, ranking 31st of 78 countries. Failing to even make the top ten, the U.S. ranked 13th in reading and 18th in science. Further, China ranked first place in all three PISA subjects.
It’s no surprise, then, that Americans believe schools are failing to educate students. Just two percent of respondents gave public schools an “A” grading in an August 2022 Education Next poll, and only 20% gave them a “B”, whereas 27% gave them a “D” or an “F.” Likewise, a Gallup poll from earlier this year found that 69% of Americans were somewhat or very dissatisfied with the education system, the highest level since Gallup started asking in 2001.
A spate of recent polls – and elections – reveal that voters have some clear preferences for how they’d like government and school leaders to fix our education problems.
- Get Politics Out of Schools: In a May poll commissioned by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the nation’s second largest teachers’ union, voters said the number one problem in schools was that “education has become too politicized, with 81% of respondents calling it a very or fairly big problem. The plurality (36%) blamed both parties equally for politicization.
- Make Sure Kids Can Read, Write, and Do Math: The AFT survey tested hypothetical messaging from both Democratic and Republican candidates. For the Democratic candidate, the most popular stance was to expand literacy and reading programs for struggling students, with 79% of respondents saying they would be more likely to vote for that candidate. The most popular Republican stance was that schools should focus less on teaching about race and more on core academic subjects like math and reading, with 56% of respondents more likely to vote for that candidate.
- Focus on Covid Learning Loss: In a June poll by Democrats for Education Reform, voters overwhelmingly agreed that addressing Covid learning loss should be a top priority, but that neither party was taking it seriously. In two separate questions, a majority (54%) of respondents felt that Democrats were more focused on race and gender curricula than learning loss recovery, and a plurality (48%) said the same for Republicans. And 60% of respondents agreed Democrats were more concerned with student loan forgiveness than learning loss. The survey also found that investing in one-on-one and group tutoring was the most popular approach to Covid recovery.
- Reward and Encourage Excellence: An August poll by Education Next found majorities of both Republicans and Democrats supported specialized high schools for advanced students, which some districts have redesigned in the name of enhancing racial equity. Respondents also overwhelmingly (72%) supported annual standardized tests (which were paused under Covid but have since resumed), and 65% prioritized academic gains over social and emotional learning.
- Get Back to In-Person Learning: In March 2021, just a year into the pandemic, a Gallup poll found that 79% of parents—including 62% of Democratic parents— supported in-person schooling. In the more recent Education Next survey, 64% of parents were willing to let their child take at least one course online, but respondents wanted to require the majority of classes to be taken in-person.
- Restore Civics Education: A September survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that less than half (47%) of U.S. adults could name all three branches of the federal government. A quarter of respondents could not name any branches. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as only seven states require a year-long civics course in high school and 13 states do not require stand-alone civics instruction at all. According to Annenberg, people who took a civics class scored better on the survey, indicating these courses empower students to better participate in democracy.
Voters are hardly in universal agreement about what needs to be done to fix our schools. Unsurprisingly, many disagree as to what it actually means to “get politics out of schools.” The Education Next poll found 35% of the public wanted more emphasis on the teaching of “slavery, racism, and other challenges faced by Black people in the United States,” whereas 25% wanted less emphasis. A plurality of respondents (39%) wanted to keep it the same. The AFT survey found similar results on the teaching of race, and that 43% wanted less emphasis on teaching gender and sexuality, while 21% wanted more emphasis and 36% wanted the same or were unsure. These are polarizing issues, but Americans of all stripes agree: students must master the basics before they can wade into more complex subjects like race.
Voters also seem to agree that many schools have lost sight of their core missions: teaching children how to learn, maximize their individual talents, and prepare them for a meaningful career. As students head back to school this month, the message is clear: voters want elected officials, education administrators, and teachers to get back to teaching the basics, instead of fighting over politics.
After a two-year long shortage of semiconductor chips, which are integral to almost every facet of our economy, congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle recently united to pass the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022. The almost $280 billion bill includes significant new funding for cutting edge research and new incentives to build semiconductor manufacturing plants in the U.S. Lawmakers hope the bill will strengthen our supply chain and prevent the kind of shortages that hit consumers with higher prices.
But they also hope it will counter a rising threat from China and reduce the fallout of a possible future invasion of Taiwan. It is this threat, perhaps more than any other, that explains how Congress managed to come to the center to pass this landmark bill in a hyper-polarized election year.
China and Taiwan have been feuding since the two separated in 1949, but Taiwan’s Minister of National Defense, Chiu Kuo-cheng, recently said that military tensions with China are the worst they have been in over 40 years. China, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan, has increasingly used its military near the island to project strength. In 2021, nearly 1,000 Chinese military jets and warships illegally entered Taiwan’s territory; 2022 might be even worse as over 800 ships and jets had done so by the end of June. Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022 further heightened hostility, with China sending 27 aircraft into the territory upon her arrival and carrying out a slew of military drills, including missile tests, in the days following.
Conflict in the Taiwan Strait would threaten American economic security. Although the U.S. is the clear leader in semiconductor design (U.S. companies design 85% of the world’s electronic design automation tools, which are necessary for designing advanced semiconductors), none of the most advanced semiconductors are actually manufactured in America. China and Taiwan are the two largest producers of semiconductors, with China accounting for 24% and Taiwan accounting for 21% of the world’s supply. The U.S. has already taken steps to limit China’s dominance and advancement in the sector, recently pressuring the Dutch government to ban the Netherlands-based, Advanced Semiconductor Materials Lithography, which produces a critical component needed for producing semiconductors, from selling its equipment to China.
Although conflict with Taiwan does not appear imminent, U.S. military planners believe China could be planning to invade by the end of this decade. If the unlikely conflict were to commence, the U.S. would be in trouble. Semiconductors make up only 0.3% of U.S. GDP, but they are required to produce 12% of all U.S. economic output. A 2021 Goldman Sachs analysis found that 169 industries have been affected by the chip shortage of the last two years—including the automobile industry, which produced nearly 4 million fewer cars across the U.S., Europe, and Japan than they did in 2020.
America’s reliance on foreign semiconductors also poses a threat to national security. The Taiwanese Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) produces most of the semiconductors used in America’s F-35 fighter jets, anti-aircraft and missile defense systems, and a wide array of military-grade devices. The extent to which the U.S. relies on Taiwanese chips is unknown to the public for security purposes, but the government is apparently worried enough that it is now partnering with TSMC to build a $12 billion factory in Arizona to localize manufacturing. The project is nearing completion, and subsidies from the CHIPS act are expected to help construction remain on schedule.
The CHIPS Act ultimately passed with the support of nearly all House and Senate Democrats and 24 House and 16 Senate Republicans. A coalition of far left and right members tried to kill the bill. Senator Bernie Sanders argued chip companies do not need the money because they are “making tens of billions of dollars in profits and paying their CEOs exorbitant compensation packages,” and Senator Ted Cruz said the Act “invites cronyism and corruption.”
But ultimately, the bill passed because enough Democrats and Republicans found their way to the center to counter the threat from China. And by doing so, they are reflecting where the center of public opinion lies as a growing share of Americans see China as one of the preeminent security threats America faces today.
During the last two years, some of America’s largest school districts have implemented seismic changes in the name of advancing racial equity. Under pressure from activists and some elected officials, schools have changed the criteria for how students are admitted, what classes they take, and how they are graded.
The equity movement, broadly speaking, is trying to close the achievement gap between white and Asian students and their Black and Latino peers. Black and Latino students are underrepresented in not only advanced education programs, but in the lifetime of income and opportunity that follows.
But Americans agree more with the equity movement’s goals than its tactics. Over 80% of people said it was important that local public schools have ethnic and economic diversity, according to a 2021 poll from The Century Foundation. But a 2022 poll from Pew Research Center found 74% thought race and ethnicity should not be considered in admissions decisions.
Contradictory poll results indicate these issues are not so cut-and-dried to the public. People support offering advanced education to students based on ability or merit, but they still value racial diversity. Since the onset of Covid, local governments and school officials have shifted policy toward equity and away from merit in multiple aspects of schooling. But early evidence suggests the public believes many schools have gone too far.
The New Center dug into some of the most ambitious—and contentious—racial equity reforms, the debate around them, and their future.
Admissions to Selective Public Schools and Gifted and Talented Programs
Selective public schools and gifted and talented programs essentially serve the same function: putting high-achieving students in classes with similar students. Selective schools, also known as exam schools, are public schools that require an application to attend. Students are typically evaluated based on grades, standardized test scores, and other merit-based metrics. Gifted and talented programs operate within traditional public schools, offering specialized courses to that school’s students who meet merit-based criteria.
The idea is that by filling a classroom with only high achievers, these students can receive a more rigorous education that may be too advanced for their peers. The evidence is mixed as to whether this idea is accurate. While exam schools do see impressively high standardized test scores and admissions to elite colleges, the data are not clear that the schools actually cause that outcome or if they simply admit students who would have done well anywhere. But a 2014 study of gifted and talented programs by Nobel prize-winning economist David Card concluded that a separate classroom for high-achieving students can be beneficial, especially for minority and low-income students.
Regardless of what the data says, parents, education reformers, and school officials care a lot about which students participate in those programs. Specifically, equity-minded reformers have raised concerns about the metrics considered, and the racial disparities that result from them. They claim that Black and Latino students are often underrepresented compared to their Asian and white peers, and they often advocate changing admissions policies to create a more proportional student body.
Take Lowell High School, a high-performing selective school in San Francisco. In 2020, 51% of Lowell students were Asian and another 18% were white, while 12% were Latino and only 2% were Black. Lowell had a much higher proportion of Asian and white students than the school district as a whole. So, in the name of equity, the San Francisco Board of Education changed Lowell’s admissions process in 2020. No longer would applicants be evaluated by merit; instead, all incoming freshmen who wanted to attend would be placed in a lottery and selected at random. While the move was initially sold as a temporary change to combat logistical challenges posed by Covid-19, the school board voted to make it permanent in 2021.
Equity activists achieved their goal for Lowell: the first class admitted under the lottery had higher shares of Black and Latino students than previous classes. But students in the lottery class earned three times as many Ds and Fs (24%) as the class before them (8%), suggesting that many of the new students weren’t adequately prepared for Lowell’s more rigorous curriculum.
Parents, especially in Asian communities, were outraged by the school board’s reforms. Just 13% of San Francisco voters supported Lowell’s lottery admissions. Many local parents felt that their child had earned a seat at Lowell with exceptional grades and test scores, but were denied because they did not meet the school’s racial preferences. Three of San Francisco’s seven school board members were recalled by wide margins in early 2022; by June, their replacements overturned the lottery and restored merit admissions at Lowell High School.
New York City also recently implemented what is essentially a lottery system for 160 of its selective high schools— known as “screened” high schools—in the name of equity. The selection process is not as purely random as Lowell’s, but it still involves a complicated system in which students are sorted into four (quite broad) academic tiers; students in higher tiers get priority in admissions, but the inevitable surplus of applicants results in a lottery by tier. When school admissions were announced in June 2022, enraged parents and students protested the decision at the city’s Department of Education headquarters. Nearly 30,000 students have left New York City’s public schools this year, some due at least in part to the new lottery. The pushback was so intense that David Banks, Chancellor of New York City schools, already considered scrapping the changes earlier this year and has created a task force to identify changes and alternatives for next year.
In Fairfax, Virginia, the board of the elite Thomas Jefferson High School voted to change its selective admissions policies in December 2021. Rather than evaluating students on grades and essays, the school would also consider a student’s “experience factors,” namely socioeconomic status. While the policy is nominally race-blind, it has resulted in a significant increase in admissions offers to Black and Hispanic students, and a significant decrease in Asian students admitted (the percentage of white students admitted has not changed). The backlash, which included the formation of advocacy groups, protests on campus, and heated online debates, was so intense the courts had to get involved. A federal judge described the changes as motivated by “racial balancing,” which is illegal, but the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, allowing the “experience factors” to stay. An advocacy group opposing the new admissions policy filed a petition to temporarily reverse the appeals court’s decision, but it was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court, leaving the new policy in place.
A group of parents is currently suing the school district in Montgomery County, Maryland over its changes to lottery admissions. Several schools in Philadelphia and Boston announced in early 2022 that they would be moving away from merit-based admissions. The specific reforms may differ from city to city, but the results are always the same: more Black and Latino and fewer Asian and white students in elite public schools.
Equity reformers argue that the status quo for these schools is not merit-based. They say the criteria used in admissions, especially standardized tests, tend to favor students from privileged families. These students often attend better schools (both public and private) and their families can afford tutoring, test preparation, and other outside help. As a result, equity supporters say some students of color with potential are overlooked while other students are only accepted because they were boosted by privilege. This is luck, not merit.
Merit advocates often agree that the system has led to some unfair outcomes. But, as The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley argues, “the cure is clearly more meritocracy, not moving back in the direction of what it replaced.” Riley and others argue the solution would be finding ways to make the tests or other admissions criteria more accurate at identifying talent regardless of income or race, rather than abandoning elite schools altogether.
But when it comes to gifted and talented programs, the goal for many racial equity activists appears to be abolition rather than reform.
Gifted and Talented Programs
Like selective schools, gifted and talented programs enroll white and Asian students at disproportionately high rates. And like selective schools, parents and merit advocates support the exceptional outcomes they’ve proven to provide, even though the programs could be tweaked to more fairly distribute those outcomes. Many equity advocates have disavowed gifted and talented altogether, such as Seattle NAACP leader Rita Green who called it “fundamentally flawed” and “inherently racist,” and called for it to be “just abolished. Period.”
Officials across the country started acting on these calls in 2021. The Seattle school board removed testing requirements to enter their gifted program, and were just one vote short of abolishing it altogether. Boston announced a “temporary suspension” of their program after Covid. And New York City began to phase out gifted and talented entirely, only to back down as a result of protests and uproar. Over two-thirds of New Yorkers supported gifted and talented programs according to a June 2022 poll. And now, Mayor Eric Adams has actually expanded the program, adding more seats and ensuring it is offered in every district in the city.
The Road Ahead
So far, the public debate between merit and equity has taken place mostly at the local level. Equity reforms have come from local school boards or mayors, and the pushback has come from their constituents. But two forthcoming Supreme Court cases could reshape the entire debate.
This October, the Supreme Court will hear challenges to the use of race in admissions at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. While the Court has long defended racial diversity as a legitimate interest for public universities, observers expect the Court’s strong conservative majority to roll back “affirmative action” this time around. How far the ruling will go is unknown, but some legal experts predict the decisions will affect public K-12 education. Some K-12 groups have even filed briefs in the Supreme Court cases, including the National School Boards Association in favor of using race in admissions and Parents Defending Education (a conservative education advocacy organization) against it.
Ideally, a judicial review of the merit and equity debate will reveal what is too often neglected in the political arena: both sides have a portion of the truth. The public may agree that specific changes go too far in the name of equity, such as abolishing gifted and talented or implementing pure lottery admissions; but they still value diversity in education and opportunity for all students. Recall elections and protests that result in a return to the status quo miss the nuances of such a societally important question: what is the purpose of education, and how do we achieve it?
Two Supreme Court decisions about higher education likely won’t solve the merit and equity debate on their own. Subsequent cases will likely be necessary, and local political processes will continue to implement or reject different approaches to equity and merit as public attitudes develop. While Americans will never be in complete agreement about these issues, we have to find a broadly acceptable consensus—one that does not sink trust in the school system or cause electoral turmoil.
Prices in May were 8.6% higher than they were this time last year, the largest year-over-year increase since December 1981.
Gas, food, and housing costs are rising, and voters are taking note. A May Pew Research poll found inflation was the top concern for Americans by a wide margin. Seven in ten respondents called it a “very big problem,” more so than healthcare affordability (55%) and violent crime (54%). Inflation was the only issue that a majority of both Republicans (84%) and Democrats (57%) rated a “very big problem.”
The primary responsibility for curbing inflation lies with the Federal Reserve. The Fed has already sprung into action, raising its benchmark lending rate by 0.75%, the most since 1994. In a report to Congress the Fed said, “[Our] commitment to restoring price stability — which is necessary for sustaining a strong labor market — is unconditional,”
Although the Fed is the prime mover on inflation, the White House and Congress could take important additional steps. Unfortunately, it is becoming clear that all the talk from Capitol Hill will amount to little action.
Democrats are by and large proposing messaging bills—with no chance of becoming law—that they can tout to voters before the midterms. Republicans, for their part, seem content to just blame Democrats, while offering few ideas of their own
As for the White House, President Biden just yesterday proposed a three-month gas tax holiday that already appears doomed in Congress, with many members dismissing the move as a “gimmick.”
The New Center decided to review anti-inflation proposals and found that most of Washington is playing games. Here are just a few examples:
Congressional Democrats are proposing partisan bills, many of which are stuffed with long-time Democratic priorities. Rather than working on compromises that could actually pass, Democrats are focused on looking good to their supporters.
- Fuel Price Gouging Prevention Act – allows the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to sue gas sellers for “excessive” prices
- Price Gouging Prevention Act – allows the FTC to sue companies for price gouging during a “market disruption”
- Big Oil Windfall Profits Tax Act – windfall tax on gas profits above 2015-2019 levels
- End Corporate Greed Act – 95% windfall tax on all profits above 2015-2019 levels for large companies
- Food and Fuel Family Savings Act – gives tax rebate of $600 per person, raises corporate tax rate to 26.5%
- President Biden’s proposals:
- Clean energy and electric vehicle tax credits
- Insulin price cap, Medicare expansion, pharmaceutical price gouging investigation
- Billionaire minimum income tax (unrealized gains tax)
Congressional Republicans have been mostly silent on inflation, speaking up only to blame Democrats. The few bills by Congressional Republicans are toothless, and only one has Democratic co-sponsors (but still not enough to pass a Democratic Congress). The Republican bills include:
- Informed Lawmaking to Combat Inflation Act – requires the Congressional Budget Office to provide inflation predictions on major legislation
- Inflation Prevention Act – prevents new spending that contributes to inflation if inflation is higher than 4.5% (unless 60 Senators agree, which is already needed to pass most legislation)
- Fight Inflation Through Balanced Budgets Act – prevents Congress from passing budgets that do not reduce the national deficit to zero within 10 years
This past week, Congress did manage to overwhelmingly pass the bipartisan Ocean Shipping Reform Act to strengthen supply chains by investigating unfair practices and prices in the shipping industry. This is a constructive step, but more action is required.
The New Democrat Coalition—98 moderate House Democrats—recently released a 24-page inflation plan that includes curbing the national deficit, cutting tariffs and other trade barriers, and investing in workforce development to boost productivity. Senator Mike Lee, a Republican, has made several proposals to boost the supply of houses and reduce shipping congestion through deregulation of zoning and trade, many of which overlap with the New Democrats’ plan.
But these proposals likely aren’t going anywhere either. As Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell put it: “Republicans have not offered concrete proposals because they’d rather the midterms serve as a referendum on the Democrats.”
It all adds up to Congress likely doing little, if anything, to address inflation before the November elections.
Part Two of The New Center’s Two-Part Nuclear Energy Series
It might surprise you to learn that the federal government’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission has no incentive to actually expand the use of nuclear power in the U.S. But it’s true.
On its website, the NRC describes its mission as “to ensure the safe use of radioactive materials for beneficial civilian purposes while protecting people and the environment.” The NRC lacks a mandate to actually grow the nuclear technologies it oversees. NASA’s mission, for comparison, is to “explore the unknown in air and space, innovate for the benefit of humanity, and inspire the world through discovery.” Safety is listed as the first of NASA’s Core Values, but it is not the sole objective as it appears to be for the NRC.
And based on the goals in their strategic plan for 2018-2022, today’s NRC is fixated entirely on dangerous but rare accidents with no focus on the public health and environmental benefits of nuclear energy. Because the Commission is concerned with safety and safety alone, it seemingly concludes the best approach is no new nuclear capacity in the U.S.
“No new nuclear” may not be the official position of the NRC, but it might as well be. Since its inception in 1975, the Commission has never approved a new nuclear plant that made it to operation. It has approved new reactors at existing plants; and there were some plants that opened under the NRC, but they were approved by the NRC’s predecessor before 1975. In total, nuclear growth has plummeted under the NRC. The last time the U.S. saw a net increase in nuclear reactors was 1993.
The alternatives to nuclear power are sources that are worse for the environment and cause even more deaths from accidents and pollution. Nuclear—a baseload power source—would be replaced by other baseload sources such as coal, not only by intermittent renewable sources like wind and solar. Just look at Japan: after essentially dismantling their nuclear energy sector in response to the Fukushima accident, coal and natural gas consumption has mostly filled in the gaps.
Source: Energy Information Administration
Only one person died of radiation exposure at Fukushima. And Three Mile Island, America’s worst nuclear accident, caused zero deaths or injuries. These events were tragic and should never have happened, but regulators must consider them in context: nuclear’s fossil-fuel competitors kill millions of people worldwide each year through air pollution and accidents.
It is time for Congress to give the NRC a new mandate; one that, inspired by NASA’s, instructs the Commission to expand the use of nuclear energy and expedite innovation in the sector.
Safety should still be a top priority, but not the sole priority as it is now. Further, the NRC’s understanding of “safety” should reflect the Biden administration’s May 2022 rule changes which require infrastructure regulators (including the NRC) to consider the “direct, indirect, and cumulative effects” of new projects on the environment. Considering that it is far better for the environment and public health than its fossil fuel alternatives, nuclear energy is the safe path forward.
The new mandate should be coupled with a comprehensive reform of the NRC’s licensing structure, as regulatory burdens have plagued the nuclear sector for decades.
Nuclear energy has historically been held back by cost concerns, and that’s only gotten worse over time. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that inflation-adjusted construction costs grew from $1,500 per kilowatt of capacity in the 1960s to $4,000 per kilowatt in the 1970s. Today, the EIA estimates a new plant would cost $6,000 per kilowatt, or $6 billion in total for an average-sized nuclear plant, which has one million kilowatts (or one gigawatt) of capacity.
A 2020 study by MIT researchers found that one-third of the increase in nuclear construction cost can be attributed to regulation. The author emphasizes that regulation is not the sole cause: a decline in labor productivity—seen across the construction industry—as well as increased material costs and technical restraints are also major causes. But the conservative American Action Forum (AAF) calculated in 2017 that, even after construction, ongoing regulatory compliance (paperwork) alone cost the average nuclear plant $10 million annually.
Regulation is not fully to blame for the cost of nuclear energy, and it is certainly not dispensable. Safety regulations are necessary to prevent both major and minor accidents, especially for technologies as potent as nuclear power. But does the NRC really need 16,368 individual restrictions of nuclear energy, as AAF found in an analysis of the 2014 Code of Federal Regulations? For context, AAF points out that the EPA imposed only 3,484 regulations pertaining to air pollution—which is significantly more deadly than nuclear power. And should it take five years and millions of dollars just to earn approval for new reactors at existing plants, as AAF found to be the case?
Can America’s once-great nuclear power industry be restored? Some lawmakers are working on it. In late April, President Biden allocated $6 billion for nuclear plants that are struggling financially. The move is expected to save at least two plants from imminent closure. Earlier that month, Senators Joe Manchin and Jim Risch introduced the bipartisan International Nuclear Energy Act that would address financing, licensing, and innovation barriers to the domestic and global nuclear energy markets.
Congress could also help ease nuclear permitting time and costs by permanently extending FAST-41, a 2015 bipartisan reform to ease the regulatory burden on large infrastructure projects including nuclear reactors. The program has reduced the time (and money) necessary to earn approval without altering the rigor of safety and environmental reviews, saving projects years of waiting and millions of dollars. FAST-41 is set to expire this year; Congress could streamline the development of nuclear and other clean energy plants by making this successful program permanent.
In a world of imperfect energy options, nuclear energy has long provided the U.S. with a critical base of safe and reliable energy. America needs more of it, now more than ever.
Part One of The New Center’s Two-Part Nuclear Energy Series
A March 2022 Gallup poll found that Americans are split on whether it is more important to protect the environment or produce more energy. Half of respondents prioritized the environment while 46% prioritized energy production. The responses generally followed party lines, but even independents were divided with 49% for the environment and 47% for more energy.
As with most issues in American politics these days, energy and climate have been presented as binary, either/or issues. But there is a neglected alternative that addresses both priorities: nuclear power. Nuclear is a clean, reliable source that can produce massive amounts of energy at scale with no carbon emissions.
Although 69% of Americans want the country to become carbon neutral, many are still agnostic on nuclear energy. A March 2022 Pew Research survey found that 35% of respondents wanted the federal government to encourage nuclear production, while 25% wanted to discourage it, and 37% favored neither.
For its part, Washington has not done nearly enough to educate the public on the benefits of nuclear as a clean energy source. And rapidly expanding it in America will require addressing the cost and regulatory hurdles that have had nuclear stuck in neutral for decades.
“Clean energy” is a rather broad term that may mean different things to different people. But nuclear power should qualify as a clean source under any sensible criteria.
First and foremost: nuclear energy emits zero carbon during operation, and its total lifecycle carbon emissions—including from constructing the plant, mining the fuel (uranium), transporting the waste, and anything in between—are relatively low. Nuclear has among the lowest lifecycle emissions per kilowatt-hour of energy produced, roughly equal to wind and three times lower than solar.
Nuclear is also not as land-intensive as other forms of energy, and it produces manageable amounts of waste.
A 2017 Strata Policy analysis found that nuclear energy requires 12.7 acres of land per 1,000 kilowatts produced annually, the third lowest among all power sources. Solar uses 43.5 acres and wind needs 70.6 acres to produce the same amount of power. The analysis measures total land use and includes things like waste storage, a common point of concern for nuclear energy.
Nuclear waste is manageable; not much is produced and we can handle it safely. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the largest trade association for the nuclear industry, most waste is used fuel: metal rods with solid uranium pellets inside. Nuclear fuel is about one million times more dense than other fuels. A one-inch tall uranium pellet produces as much electricity as one ton of coal. Because nuclear waste is so dense, there is very little of it: all of the waste ever produced by America’s nuclear industry would fit on a football field in a ten-yard-tall stack.
The used nuclear fuel rods are stored in “dry casks,” massive structures of concrete and steel that prevent radiation leakage. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) believes these casks “provide adequate protection for public health and safety and the environment.” The NRC also notes that there have been thousands of shipments of nuclear waste across the country over the last 40 years “without causing any radiological releases to the environment or harm to the public.”
To be clear: nuclear waste is radioactive and highly dangerous. Improper handling can threaten public health and the environment. In April 2021, the Washington State Department of Ecology confirmed a waste storage tank at a decommissioned nuclear weapons manufacturing site was leaking radioactive material into the ground. Officials have warned there could be a “long-term environmental threat” if the spill is not cleaned correctly. Luckily, America’s careful regulation of nuclear energy waste disposal has prevented such leaks from becoming common occurrences.
Despite the general success in nuclear waste management so far, all of the existing storage sites are designed to be temporary. Stakeholders and leaders in Washington have long wanted a permanent disposal option, but politics have gotten in the way.
A decades-long attempt to create a permanent site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, was terminated by the Obama administration for what the U.S. Government Accountability Office described as “social and political opposition” and “not technical or safety reasons.” A 2020 New York Times article asserts that President Trump also opposed Yucca Mountain for political reasons; he saw Nevada as a swing-state whose voters did not want to house nuclear waste. But incidents like the Washington State leak demonstrate why it’s necessary to put politics aside and find a permanent solution for nuclear waste.
Future generations of nuclear reactors might have even smaller land and waste footprints. In 2020, the U.S. approved its first small-modular reactor (SMR) design, which the company NuScale plans to construct by 2029. NuScale’s SMR is only a third of the size of a standard nuclear reactor, and is even safer than existing nuclear power designs due to a passive cooling system that does not require human input during an emergency. As a result, much less land is required for the plant itself and the surrounding safety buffer. Other SMRs in development are looking at alternative or recycled fuels, which should shrink nuclear’s mining and waste footprints even further.
Even without advancements in SMRs, nuclear is the clean energy that delivers. Nuclear power has by far the highest capacity factor, the measure of how often an energy source is producing its full maximum potential output. Nuclear reactors operate at peak performance 93.5% of the time, while wind and solar have capacity factors of 35% and 25%, respectively, because they only produce when the wind blows or the sun shines.
Because of its consistency, nuclear is often used as a baseload power source, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA). “Baseload” is the minimum level of power that must be available to the electric grid at all times. The counterpart is peak load or intermediate power: additional electricity from oil and natural gas needed for the days and times of day when demand is at its highest, such as to operate the heater on a particularly cold night.
The EIA classifies wind and solar as “intermittent renewable” sources that contribute to the grid when conditions are right. They tend to displace oil and gas, since baseload sources like nuclear do not adjust output to match supply and demand. In this regard, wind and solar are not competitors with nuclear power, but complements to it.
While nuclear energy is incredibly reliable once in operation, the fuel it takes currently comes from unreliable suppliers. American nuclear plants import more than 85% of the uranium they use, almost half of which comes from Russia (16%) and its allies Kazakhstan (22%) and Uzbekistan (8%). Much like oil, the uranium market is heavily influenced if not controlled by hostile regimes.
As President Biden said, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent energy crisis is a “stark reminder” that the U.S. must be energy independent. As it stands, America’s nuclear power industry is not independent—but things can change.
Domestic mining of uranium has all but vanished in recent years. After reaching a high of 43.7 million pounds in 1980, domestic uranium production fell sharply throughout the 1980s and 90s and has only continued to dwindle. In 2019, only 170,000 pounds of uranium were produced in America. As a result, a 2020 Department of Energy report concluded that the domestic uranium mining industry was “facing imminent collapse.”
The early success of domestic uranium mining was mostly due to government protection. Generous subsidies and strict trade barriers created a thriving industry, but the industry tumbled a few years after the protections were lifted in 1975 and the Three Mile Island accident stained nuclear’s image in 1979. Domestic nuclear operators began looking elsewhere for fuel. And now, American uranium miners are failing to compete with those in countries like Kazakhstan which have significantly weaker environmental protections.
Perhaps a 1960s system of heavy subsidies and blanket import bans would be unnecessary and unhelpful for the current moment. But the government could take small steps to boost domestic uranium demand; like filling the Strategic Uranium Reserve that Congress funded in 2021 but has still not been started, and suspending uranium imports from Russia and its allies proportionate to the war in Ukraine as we did with Russian oil, natural gas, and coal.
The U.S. government could also spark demand for uranium by growing the nuclear power industry as a whole. In part two of The New Center’s nuclear energy series, we explore what it will take to finally unleash such a nuclear renaissance in the United States.
In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Union (EU) has started trying to wean itself off of Russian energy. This is no easy feat, considering Russia provides about 35 percent of the EU’s natural gas supply.
The EU doubled down on May 4th, announcing its intent to completely ban imports of Russian oil and refined petroleum products within the next six months. To achieve this ambitious goal, the EU will need significant help from international allies.
In late March, the White House announced a joint task force with the EU focused on reducing dependence on Russian energy with an immediate emphasis on securing energy (read: heat) for the upcoming winter, but it also addresses deals and measures that could affect European energy for a decade.
The task force announcement identified two crucial goals it will be working toward:
1. Diversifying natural gas supplies to the EU, which means securing gas from countries other than Russia (such as the U.S.)
2. Reducing demand for natural gas in the U.S., by displacing it with other forms of energy, thus increasing the supply of gas available for Europe
There were some specific policy actions mentioned in the announcement. For example, the EU has announced plans to replace inefficient home heating systems in Europe with smart thermostats and heat pumps, saving about as much natural gas as the U.S. is pledging to send. President Biden has also allocated $6 billion to keep America’s nuclear plants from shutting down, a key step in replacing domestic natural gas consumption with reliable, carbon-free energy.
But there are still plenty of details to be filled in, which is what The New Center aims to do below. Although the most consequential steps the United States can take revolve around making it easier to produce and transport American natural gas, several more steps to boost other energy sources are essential too. Here is what it will take to significantly reduce the EU’s reliance on Russian energy.
Increasing natural gas storage and supply
1. Fill EU natural gas reserves.
Context: The EU directed its members to fill their natural gas storage to 80 percent capacity by November 2022, but the International Energy Agency recommends filling them to 90 percent. Stockpiling would increase the supply of natural gas available in the upcoming winter when demand peaks (for heating). It would also increase demand for natural gas right now, which should incentivize more producers to sell to Europe.
Action Item: Members of the EU should fill their natural gas strategic reserves as much and as quickly as possible.
Timeline: Members have until November 2022 to complete this and the benefits of increased supply would be felt throughout the winter and early spring of 2023.
2. Federally guarantee loans for natural gas export terminals.
Context: There are roughly a dozen liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facilities in the U.S. that have earned regulatory approval but still lacked funding as of March 25th. Building more terminals would reduce shipping bottlenecks and ultimately deliver more energy to Europe, but some private lenders are worried about the uncertain regulatory future of natural gas and are hesitant to invest.
Action item: The federal government should guarantee loans made to LNG export terminals. This would encourage private funding by reducing risks for investors and acknowledge that the U.S. and the world will need significant quantities of natural gas for years to come, even as we continue to deploy renewable energy sources.
Timeline: There are seven proposed LNG terminals whose developers are expected to make a Final Investment Decision and begin construction in 2022. By comparing these projects to existing terminals, we can make rough estimates of when and how big their impacts will be. If all seven proposals are completed at similar rates as the existing terminals, America’s export capacity would increase by around 42 percent by the end of 2025, from 76.5 million to 109 million tonnes per year. Once the larger projects are completed around 2027, the new export capacity could be over 160 million tonnes, more than doubling what we export today.
Existing US Natural Gas Export Facilities
Proposed US Natural Gas Export Terminals, 2022
3. Abolish the Jones Act.
Context: The Jones Act is a century-old law passed by Congress requiring that cargo ships be fully manufactured in the U.S. to sail from one American port to another. As of 2019, there were zero American-made ships able to transport large amounts of natural gas. As a result, moving natural gas around the U.S.—including to liquefaction and export facilities to be shipped to Europe—requires pipelines, trains, and trucks, which are all more costly and time consuming.
Action Item: Congress should repeal the Jones Act, or at the very least the Departments of Defense or Homeland Security should issue Jones Act waivers for natural gas tankers.
Timeline: Colin Grabow, a trade policy scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute, predicted to The New Center that energy markets would react quickly to Jones Act reform. He acknowledged that many industrial tankers are signed to multi-year contracts, so it could be another two to three years before the full extent of the benefits are realized. But even before then, he suggests oil and gas producers could quickly begin lowering costs, maintaining production, and operating more efficiently without Jones Act barriers.
4. Promote drilling on federal land.
Context: The Department of the Interior recently announced it would resume selling leases for oil and gas production on federal lands, but at higher royalty rates than previously charged and with 80 percent less land available for drilling. This will discourage domestic oil and gas production and raise prices for consumers. And making federal land off limits to energy exploration will not meaningfully advance the fight against climate change. Demand for oil and gas would inevitably be met by other countries, many of which have weak or no environmental standards compared to the U.S.
Action item: The administration should delay increases in royalty rates and changes to drilling policies at least until after the European energy crisis subsides.
Timeline: New drilling operations would take six months to a year to noticeably affect America’s energy supply.
5. Streamline regulatory approval for new drilling operations.
Context: The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is a 1970 law requiring strict climate-focused reviews for any projects seeking approval. The “Environmental Impact Statements” required by NEPA average over 500 pages in length and take five years to produce. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) takes 120 days to respond to drilling applications, while comparable state agencies take just ten days as they are not bound by the same NEPA red tape. Further, President Biden is reinstating certain NEPA rules (loosened by the Trump administration in 2020) that give regulators more leeway to reject proposals by calculating the project’s “indirect effects” on the climate.
Action Item: Congress should limit environmental impact statements to 250 pages and ensure that FAST-41—a bipartisan reform that established a two-year timeline for NEPA approval and created a taskforce to guide projects through the application process—is appropriately enforced. In the meantime, the Biden administration should maintain the 2020 reforms to NEPA.
Timeline: Even if NEPA were reformed today and FAST-41 were properly enforced, it would still take up to two years to earn approval for new drilling operations and another year after approval before new drilling would affect America’s supply. This is a long-term reform with long-lasting benefits.
Displacing natural gas use in the U.S.
1. Expand PACE to encourage private adoption of clean energy.
Context: The Property Assessed Clean Energy Program provides upfront financing for clean energy systems on private property that owners pay back over time. Only 28 states and Washington, D.C. have active PACE programs, and only three apply to residential property.
Action Item: The Department of Energy should tie State Energy Program grants to requirements that recipients implement or expand PACE laws to all consumers.
Timeline: A 2020 study from the University of Southern California found that PACE programs in California saw modest increases in solar installations within two months of the programs starting, with larger gains starting around ten months and increasing until at least 24 months (when the study was concluded).
2. Expand net-metering options to incentivize clean energy.
Context: Net-metering is a practice in which people who generate their own electricity via solar power can sell their excess energy back to the grid. These customers are typically compensated in credits on their monthly utility bills. Currently, only ten states allow net-metering.
Action Item: The Department of Energy should tie State Energy Program grants to requirements that recipients implement or expand net-metering laws. The requirements should preference net-metering programs that assess direct energy costs and overhead business costs separately, so as to not unfairly increase prices for those who cannot or will not switch to solar.
Timeline: A 2021 report to the California Public Utilities Commission revealed that the state’s revamped net-metering program implemented in June 2016 modestly increased adoption by the end of 2016, with larger effects in 2017 that continued over time. The data is not broken down into months, but this roughly tracks with the data on PACE adoption in California.
3. End solar panel tariffs.
Context: In February 2022, President Biden extended tariffs the previous administration placed on imported solar power equipment through at least 2026. These tariffs have increased solar panel costs by an average of $600 per installation.
Action Item: President Biden should rescind these tariffs, making cheaper solar panels available to Americans and thus encouraging solar power adoption.
Timeline: It is hard to predict how long it would take for cutting tariffs to influence consumer behavior. Presumably it would take several months to a couple of years to show effects, as PACE and net-metering did. Once a consumer is convinced by lower prices, the average duration of the home solar installation process is three months.
4. Ease solar installation licensing requirements.
Context: 45 states require licenses to install solar panels. Most require a general electrician license, but some have specialized licenses a solar installer must obtain. 17 of these states plus D.C. do not allow other states’ licensed professionals to practice within their borders. Licenses can cost hundreds of dollars and require thousands of hours of training, reducing the supply of contractors and raising costs for consumers.
Action Item: The Department of Energy should tie State Energy Program grants to requirements that recipients reduce fees for obtaining licenses and recognize licenses issued by other states. The Department should also provide model licensing legislation that upholds public safety without discouraging future contractors.
Timeline: Most states require around four years of experience to earn an electrician license. Assuming they do not reduce these requirements, it would presumably take more than four years before the contractor supply is noticeably affected. The benefits from allowing professionals to work across state lines could be seen much sooner although the impact would presumably not be as large.
5. End anti-solar zoning laws.
Context: Non-hardware costs (those associated with zoning and permitting) make up two-thirds of residential solar costs. In far too many states and localities, it is too expensive and time-consuming to deal with convoluted processes to get permission for home solar panels. Some municipalities and HomeOwners Associations (HOAs) can further restrict or forbid rooftop solar panels.
Action Item: States’ Departments of Energy should provide straightforward information to the public on solar zoning and permitting rules as well as guides to complying with them to reduce hassle for contractors. States should also pass Solar Access Laws that protect peoples’ right to collect the sunlight that falls on their property.
Timeline: It would presumably take a few weeks or months to produce these guides and enact the necessary policy changes, plus another three months to install solar panels for early adopters. The impact would likely continue to grow over time as price reductions convince more consumers to switch to solar.
Ultimately, there is no single policy step that will enable the European Union to end its reliance on Russian energy. But together, these policies—to expand U.S. natural gas exports and accelerate the adoption of cleaner energy sources—can help cut off the most important source of funding (and power) for Vladimir Putin and the Russian government.
The Department of Education has proposed changes to the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) that many school reform advocates find alarming. The rules will make it harder for certain charter schools to receive federal funding, threatening to chill the charter movement. Specifically, officials want to require CSP beneficiaries to provide evidence of “unmet demand” for charters in their area, such as “over-enrollment at existing public schools” in order to receive funding.
13 Republican senators signed a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona criticizing this proposal, saying it would likely defund charter schools in big cities. They also note that the administration is not accepting charter school waitlists as evidence of demand, but rather focusing on the raw numbers of available schools. “Demand for charter schools is not just about the availability for any seat, but the demand for a high-quality seat,” they explain.
Earlier this year, the New Center published a proposal for 10,000 new charter schools in America over the next ten years. In it, we address charter school demand as well as the particular advantages of charter schools in urban environments. These excerpts can be useful in the newest charter school conversation:
About 3.5 million students attend charter schools (out of 48.1 million total public school students), with another million on waiting lists (although this number could be somewhat inflated because one student can be on multiple waiting lists, or enrolled in one charter but on a waiting list for another). The National Association for Public Charter Schools estimates that demand for charter schools is almost three times higher than the current supply. This means five million more students would attend charter schools if one were more available to them.
Charter school supply is not meeting demand. According to the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the average number of charter school deserts per state is 10.8. They define a charter school desert as “three or more contiguous census tracts that have poverty rates greater than 20 percent but that have no charter schools.” (Census tracts are regions defined for the purpose of taking a census, and they often coincide with city or town boundaries.)
This is a problem because it means students are missing out on the benefits charter schools have proven to offer. There have been several different studies in recent years attempting to measure the gains that students can make in charter schools versus traditional public schools, and most show charters consistently performing better, particularly in urban areas.
- A Stanford University study found that charter students in 41 urban districts made learning gains equivalent to 40 additional days of instruction in math and 28 days in reading than their district peers
- A Brookings study found that Boston charter students scored higher on standardized tests and were 43 percent more likely than their public school peers to attend a four year college
- Professor Sarah Cordes found that New York City public schools boasted higher test scores when charters were nearby; the closer the charter, the higher the score
- Another Stanford study found that increased competition from charters in Washington, D.C was associated with several additional weeks of learning gains in math and reading for local public school students.
The benefits of urban charter schools are concentrated among low-income and minority students. The proposed changes to CSP threaten to deny opportunity to children who would not have it otherwise.
The full version of our 10,000 Charters policy paper can be found here.
During her confirmation hearings, Supreme Court nominee Kentanji Brown Jackson pledged to recuse herself from an upcoming case on affirmative action if she is confirmed as a new justice. Students for Fair Admissions alleges that Harvard—where Judge Jackson serves on the Board of Overseers—is violating the Civil Rights Act with its race-conscious admissions policies. This case has reignited a discourse on affirmative action that has existed in the U.S. for more than half a century.
In the majority opinion of the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote: “We expect that, 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary” for universities to achieve diversity. Race relations in the U.S.—and the composition of the Supreme Court—have shifted dramatically since that case. Now, as the 25-year mark approaches and a potentially momentous decision is in sight, The New Center takes a look at affirmative action and the American people’s perception of it.
Affirmative Action in Perspective
When American universities first implemented affirmative action in the 1960s, they did so in response to a pressing problem. Black students made up just 4.3 percent of college enrollment despite Black people representing 10.5 percent of the U.S. population. Black students represented 9.8 percent of college enrollment by 1975 but 11.7 percent of the U.S. population in 1980. But by 2019, the gap had narrowed to within a percentage point. Black people represented 12.6 percent of enrollment and 13.4 percent of the general population.
As diversity in higher education grows, affirmative action programs have evolved with it. Eight states have banned the consideration of race in college admissions, while another 11 states have no public universities that consider race. Only 19 percent of all public universities report considering race in admissions, yet 59 of the 100 largest private universities did so in 2015.
Americans (Likely) Don’t Support Affirmative Action
In February of 2019, Gallup and Pew—two of America’s most respected polling institutions—each released similar affirmative action polls that came to virtually opposite conclusions. In the Pew poll, 73 percent of respondents believed that universities should not consider “race or ethnicity in college admissions decisions.” This included majorities of each race and each political party surveyed. By contrast, Gallup reported that 61 percent of respondents favored “affirmative action programs for minorities.” Gallup notes this was the first time their poll found a majority of white respondents in favor of affirmative action.
Nate Cohn, a public opinion expert at The New York Times, wrote about this issue, “The polls don’t tell a clear story. Some polls show that affirmative action is very popular. Others show that it’s not popular at all. How pollsters pose the question is a critical factor.” Cohn expands, “My best guess is that affirmative action is fairly unpopular. But… it’s not clear that even a well-worded question would give us much insight…”
The abstract nature of this issue might explain why it is so hard to poll. “Affirmative action” does not reference any specific policy, but rather a range of practices which are designed to increase diversity and inclusion. But while polls have presented a mixed picture on affirmative action, the American people, in recent years, have spoken much more clearly at the ballot box on the issue.
Affirmative Action at the Ballot Box
Over the decades, voters have both created and abolished affirmative action policies through state ballot measures. But in the three most recent votes, Americans rejected affirmative action. The table below illustrates how many voters opposed affirmative action, either by voting to ban it (Oklahoma, Colorado) or rejecting an amendment to allow it (California, Washington). 2008 was the last time affirmative action “won” such a vote.
The biggest variable determining who does or does not support affirmative action—perhaps surprisingly—might not be race. According to one analysis of California’s vote, a voter’s level of education was the most significant demographic factor. Counties with more college-educated residents supported affirmative action at much higher rates than other counties.
The Court Protects Affirmative Action
The upcoming Students for Fair Admissions decision is just the latest installment of a long-running legal issue. The Supreme Court has heard nearly 30 affirmative action cases since the 1970s. Some of the landmark decisions include:
Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 1978
- The Court ruled that universities could not have “racial quotas” or a set number of seats reserved for certain races. But the Court confirmed that public universities could consider race in admissions to promote diversity.
Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, 2003
- The Court overturned the University of Michigan’s “points system” that weighted race too heavily, emphasizing that affirmative action must be narrow in scope. But the Court reaffirmed the constitutionality of race-based affirmative action, but speculated that it might not be necessary 25 years after the decision.
Fisher v. University of Texas, 2016
- The Court upheld Texas’s use of affirmative action, which considered race among other factors to fill seats remaining after admitting the top ten percent of students from each high school. Texas’s use was restrained in scope and came only after purely meritocratic factors.
While voters have had conflicting opinions on affirmative action, the Supreme Court has been relatively stable. The Court has consistently asserted the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions policies while striking down those that establish quotas, make race a primary admissions factor, or are otherwise not narrowly tailored. As a result, opponents of affirmative action have had to work through state legislatures and popular ballot measures.
But as the 25-year window after the Grutter case closes, the Supreme Court could break precedent and dramatically restrict or re-imagine affirmative action in the United States.
“Drain the Swamp” is a popular campaign line for a reason. Eighty-five percent of the public says corruption is a big or moderate problem and it’s not hard to see why. Recent years have seen several examples of members of Congress trading stocks in industries they regulate, or appearing to trade based on non-public information (e.g. the onset of Covid-19). This may not technically be insider trading, but it does not seem ethical to many Americans either. Sixty-three percent of Americans now say members of Congress should be banned from trading individual stocks, and a growing group of bipartisan legislators agree.
Overall, Americans simply do not trust the government. As illustrated by the chart below from Pew Research, less than a quarter of people trust the government to do the right thing “just about always” or “most of the time,” which is near historic lows. Meanwhile in a 2021 survey, the Project on Government Oversight—an independent government watchdog—found that 90 percent of Michigan and Ohio voters believed federal corruption costs taxpayers a lot of money.
Stock trades by some members of Congress are certainly not helping bolster trust. From questionable individual trades to exorbitant overall returns, Americans have good reason to question Congress’s investing practices. Here are some of the more troubling cases:
- Senators Richard Burr, Kelly Loeffler, Diane Feinstein, and James Inhofe were investigated by the Department of Justice (DOJ) for selling off millions of dollars of stock in early 2020 after receiving secret Covid-19 briefings and before the market crash in March of that year.
- Senator Rand Paul reported—over a year late of the 45-day reporting deadline for bigger transactions—that his wife had purchased shares of antiviral drug producer Gilead Sciences in February of 2020.
- Former Senator David Perdue made nearly 2,600 trades in one term, accounting for a third of all congressional trades in that timeframe. He invested in a series of cybersecurity and financial companies while serving on a cybersecurity panel and the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee.
- Representative John Yarmuth, chairman of the Budget Committee, was invested in cannabis companies while championing the MORE Act, which would legalize marijuana and likely increase his stocks’ value.
Even outside of the thoroughly scrutinized cases above, members of Congress have unusually high returns from investing. Unusual Whales, a financial information outlet, conducts an annual analysis of congressional stock trades using data available through STOCK Act (a law designed to create more transparency around members’ investing) reporting and comparing it to historical stock market data. On trades in 2021, House Republicans and Democrats each averaged 14.7 percent returns, while Senate Democrats averaged 15.4 percent and Republicans averaged just under 13 percent. Over the same timeframe, the S&P 500—a large index fund and a bellwether for the broader stock market—saw 13.6 percent returns, meaning members of Congress beat the stock market on average. For context, around 90 percent of professionally managed mutual funds fail to beat the market in a given year.
Stock market success does not necessarily indicate wrongdoing. No member of Congress has been charged with insider trading under the STOCK Act implemented in 2012. Former Representative Chris Collins was convicted of insider trading in 2020, but he was using information gained from being on a private firm’s board of directors—which is beyond the scope of the STOCK Act. Nonetheless, this is a moment where even the appearance of impropriety hurts America’s already-low trust in government. For this reason, Congress needs to go above and beyond to assuage Americans’ concerns.
The STOCK Act Falls Short
The Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act of 2012 banned members from investing based on non-public knowledge. It also required members of Congress, their senior staff, and high-ranking executive branch officials—including the President—to report all stock trades over $1,000 in value within 30 days, or 45 days if the trade was made by their spouse or a broker. Late disclosures result in a $200 fine that increases for subsequent infractions.
But, according to Insider, “accountability and transparency are decidedly lacking” in the STOCK Act. A former investigator from the Office of Congressional Ethics told Insider that enforcement of the STOCK Act’s disclosure requirements is “virtually non-existent,” while a senior congressional aide said the Act’s enforcement “depends on the honor system.” Insider’s investigation revealed that 54 members and 182 staffers have been late in reporting trades since 2020; only four of those members have provided proof of paying the late fees.
Bipartisan Calls for Reform
Representatives Abigail Spanberger and Chip Roy—a Democrat and a Republican, respectively—are leading the charge to fix the STOCK Act. The duo’s bill is called the Transparent Representation Upholding Services and Trust (TRUST) in Congress Act and would require all members of Congress to transfer their investment portfolios to a blind trust, where it would be managed by a broker without the knowledge of the member. Members would be allowed to invest in diverse index funds as well as bonds from the U.S. Treasury on their own, but all transactions involving individual stocks would be handled through the blind trust.
The TRUST Act would only apply to members of Congress and their households, but other recent reforms have limited the ability of other public employees to trade, too. In 2021, the Federal Reserve banned its officials and senior staff from investing in individual companies. In February 2022, the Senate passed a bill requiring Supreme Court justices and other federal judges to disclose their investments as they are currently exempt from the STOCK Act. Under the TRUST Act, the current restrictions for executive branch officials and senior staff would remain in place.
Similar legislation has been introduced by Senators Jon Ossoff and Mark Kelly. Congressional leaders from both parties—Chuck Schumer, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, and Kevin McCarthy—are all supportive of stock trading reforms too.
A rare moment of bipartisan support combined with historically low levels of trust in government makes now the right time to reform congressional stock trading.