Grants Experts Discuss Expectations Under the Biden Administration

Jerry Ashworth
November 16, 2020 at 09:35:45 ET
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(Editor’s note: As Joe Biden has now taken office as the 46th U.S. president, we asked members of Thompson’s grants editorial advisory board for their thoughts on the impact the incoming Biden administration would have on grants and cooperative agreements. Although these conversations took place last year, we have made some updates to this article to make it more timely.)

President-elect Joe Biden likely will face difficult challenges during the early months as president as the nation continues to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic and right-wing extremists groups. Promoting trillions of dollars more in COVID-19 stimulus funding will be a high priority, key officials within the grants community told Thompson Grants. 

Grants consultant Sandy Swab, a former official at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), said she expected Biden’s transition team would attempt to work immediately with Democrats in the House and Senate on a COVID relief package. Such a package would provide more funding to states for unemployment and food assistance through grant and loan programs offered by the departments of Agriculture, Labor, Treasury and the Small Business Administration. It also would support funding for hospitals, training and family support systems. She also anticipated the Department of Education could receive extra funding to make schools ready for distance learning and to help them meet health guidelines under the pandemic.

“In general, I think you will see a major effort to address the pandemic economically,” as well as to reduce the dramatic increase in COVID cases and deaths, she said. “The government will be looking at what programs can support the needed services for states and communities to deliver a uniform health response with economic stability.”

Aside from COVID issues, Swab expected the Biden administration to focus on infrastructure programs (e.g., transportation, broadband), as well as economic development, community policing, social justice and public housing programs. Further, she anticipated Biden will prioritize climate concerns through programs administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy, Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Karen Norris, subject matter expert and principal of Kanoco Consulting, also expected the Biden administration to emphasize the need for a COVID stimulus relief package. Should such legislation be approved, she anticipated an even greater use of data analytics by the Treasury Department to identify instances of potential fraud, waste and abuse involving the use of these funds. Along these lines, the new administration likely will emphasize the need to develop effective vaccines and medicines to better manage COVID going forward.

Norris also noted that she would be watching to see what steps the Biden administration takes towards the cross-agency priorities (CAP) goals under the current President’s Management Agenda, particularly the “Results-Oriented Accountability for Grants” (CAP Goal 8), “Sharing Quality Services” (CAP Goal 5) and “Getting Payments Right” (CAP Goal 9), as well as OMB’s role in addressing these. Norris also said she will be looking to see whether the Biden administration rescinds any executive orders or presidential memorandums issued during the Trump administration.

Reinstating Programs Deemed ‘Nonessential’

Heather Pullen, senior public affairs consultant with Langton Consulting, said she anticipated that the change in presidential administration would affect grant funding priorities, and federal regulatory and policy interpretation and enforcement. “New executive and professional staff at the major federal agencies such as the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Treasury, Education and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be transitioning in with their own ideas and plans on how to improve the internal processes that determine grant funding priorities and regulatory policy enforcement,” she said. “Programs and projects in areas that were deemed ‘nonessential’ during the current administration could very well be moved to the top of the priority list, creating a big shift in where money will be allocated over the next four years. Programs that have been continuously funded [under the Trump administration] could now see major cuts or complete elimination under the new presidential administration.”

Pullen also said she expected to see a “shift in the opposite direction” on the interpretation and enforcement of federal regulations and policies as new agency officials “will have very different ideas on what a regulation means and how it should be enforced.”

Grants consultant Liz Gombash, who formerly was a grants official at a Florida community college, said that from an education perspective, she anticipated that the Biden administration will try to encourage increased investment in education, specifically greater funding opportunities that support academic programs that are typically offered by community colleges. This includes workforce training programs, for which incoming First Lady Jill Biden is a strong advocate. Gombash noted that this could revive hopes for “the long-overdue” reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Gombash further expects to see increased funding to support programs designed to strengthen educational opportunities for diverse student populations, which could mean the rescission of OMB Memorandum M-20-34, which made the use of federal funds for diversity-related training unallowable. “Diversity training is fairly common in federal grants involving education, so many nonfederal entities and grant applicants have been challenged with not only understanding the order, but also figuring out how to take appropriate actions to ensure that they are in compliance,” she explained.

Possible Rescission of Executive Orders

Cornelia Chebinou, director of the Washington office of the National Association of Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers, noted that Democrats and Republicans differ in their views on public assistance funded through grant programs, so with a new administration, “those working in the grants arena can expect some differences to overall grant execution and in guidance and regulation that more resembles efforts of years past.”

Chebinou did expect that Biden would prioritize key campaign issues such as providing additional emergency relief related to the COVID pandemic. He also will likely move to address tax, economic and immigration challenges, as well as attempt to “roll back many of the reforms put into place by President Trump, an area that could result in welcome relief for regulatory bottleneck.”

While the Trump administration emphasized the need to deregulate many parts of government, the Biden administration may reinstate many key regulatory initiatives, and rescind some executive orders issued during Trump’s term in office. Chebinou specifically pointed out Executive Order 13771, which requires any executive department or agency that plans to announce a new regulation to propose at least two regulations which will in turn be repealed. “This order appears to have significantly roadblocked current regulatory processes, and its repeal could provide needed clarity to those seeking additional guidance,” she said. “President-elect Biden has publicly stated his desire to restore order to established government norms, which will likely result in more clarity and greater efficiency to grant program administration that may have been clouded by current administration policies.”

Other Viewpoints

Diz Locaria, Esq., partner with Venable LLP, said he expected to see some of the following changes under the Biden administration:

  • A de-emphasis on military spending, and a renewed emphasis on both domestic and international nonmilitary programs, along with an increase in funds for domestic housing, education, health care, environmental and international diplomacy programs. For example, Locaria noted that the Teen Pregnancy Prevention program, which had previously received bipartisan support, was “gutted by an abstinence first policy,” and he expected many programs like this could be restarted.
  • A move to quickly reinsert the terms “climate change” and “global warming” throughout agency verbiage, adding that agencies such as EPA, NOAA, NSF and possibly the Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section, may be directed to reinvigorate climate change research.
  • A desire to work with the Congress to encourage legislation tightening laws around monetizing the presidency and nepotism, along with promoting controls that would protect government officials from presidential retaliation. This could also lead to a renewed enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, Financial Conduct Authority and other fraud and corruption statutes.
  • The rescission of Executive Order 13950, which set forth a national policy not to promote race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating and prohibits federal contractors from instilling such views in their employees in workplace diversity and inclusion trainings, as well as promotes efforts to improve community policing.

Dan Durst, senior manager at Capital Edge Consulting, stated that due to the adversarial relationship between the Trump and Biden administrations, he would expect to see increased oversight and scrutiny on grants and contracts awarded over the past four years, especially those made during the past year. “We had our first glimpse of some of the warp speed contracts [awarded] recently and they were fixed-price in nature, drawing a lot of questions regarding the estimates that led to those prices,” he added. “With the vaccine, therapy and relief spending combined, you have a large population of organizations that have never managed federal funds being subjected to the applicable regulatory requirements. Single audits are going to increase significantly due to the Coronavirus Relief Fund money, and I expect the rate of noncompliance to follow suit.”

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