The best thing you can say about the framework Build Back Better deal released by the White House today is that it could become a very good piece of legislation. At the moment, however, it is not. The challenge for Democrats is to hold on to the parts that work while redoing the pieces that don’t.
The good aspects to the bill have two basic components. First, the taxes. The revenue in the bill ultimately determines the size of the spending, and as I’ve been warning for months, the biggest threat to Biden’s agenda is the reluctance of centrist Democrats to tax the rich. You could easily raise twice as much revenue exclusively from the rich as Congress has settled on. But the $1.9 trillion Biden has wheedled out of Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, and friends is ample enough to fund a robust and historic piece of social legislation.
Second, the climate spending, at $550 billion, is a historic, even massive, investment. The next closest thing to it would be the green energy spending in President Obama’s 2009 stimulus, which, at $90 billion, set off waves of innovation in solar, wind, batteries, and other green technology. Spending five times as much may still be inadequate to the scale of the challenge, but it still represents an impressive feat.
The bad part is the composition of the rest of the spending. It is a mess. Democrats simply do not have enough tax increases to fund all the programs they want, and while they have jettisoned some of their hoped-for expansions of the welfare state, they haven’t trimmed the list enough. Their solution is to partially fund several of the programs, hoping against all odds that future Congresses will fund them.
The sections describing universal preschool and high-quality child care both feature the oxymoronic phrase “This is a long-term program, with funding for six years.” The truth is that any program lacking permanent funding is all but certain to disappear. Republicans are overwhelming favorites to capture at least one, and probably both, chambers of Congress in the midterm elections. It is historically difficult for the minority party to regain control of Congress without the wave election that comes only with the opposing party holding the White House.
For this reason, there is little chance Democrats control the White House, House, and Senate in six years. And without all three, they cannot pass social legislation that has no Republican support. Democrats have been deluding themselves about the pressure Republicans will face to continue popular programs, but the truth is that the Republican Party is very comfortable sitting on its hands and letting popular programs expire. Republicans only failed (narrowly) to repeal Obamacare because it required taking active steps to pass a bill. If Obamacare had expired automatically, as several of Biden’s programs would, it would no longer exist today.
For that reason, a consensus has developed among policy wonks that it makes far more sense to focus on a smaller number of well-funded programs than to try to wedge ten pounds of flour into a five-pound bag. But even though most Democrats agree with this philosophy in theory, actually following it has proven difficult. Everybody likes the idea of doing a few things well as long as their own pet program is one of the few things.
One demonstration of the political difficulties faced by paring the list came Wednesday night, when reports circulated that Democrats had cut out their (half-baked) program for paid family leave. Twitter exploded in progressive doomerism and hyperventilated claims that they would never accomplish anything. Several members of Congress dedicated to family leave insisted they would not accept this exclusion and would try to reverse it. Every program they eliminate from their list is going to produce the same reaction.
Creating intraparty consensus on which programs to fund and which to leave for the next opportunity is a process Democrats have not completed yet. They are going to need more time. I don’t have especially strong views on which programs they should prioritize — each one addresses vital social needs. But they need to pick, and what Biden has now is a list halfway pared-down.
In the meantime, they can lock in what they’ve agreed to. If the Democratic centrists can accept all the tax increases Biden proposes, they should say so publicly in return for progressives accepting this reduced top-line figure and agreeing to vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill. And they should also lock in the climate spending provisions before Biden begins negotiating a climate deal — American leadership is only going to be worth as much as the commitments Biden can put on the table.
Democrats don’t have forever, but they can take the rest of the year to work out which programs they will fund permanently and which they’ll put aside. They can produce something historic. The time pressure of Biden’s climate trip, various congressional deadlines, and, perhaps, the upcoming elections in Virginia and New Jersey have created an artificial rush for a process that remains incomplete. Whether Biden has a historic legacy or squanders the party’s only chance to expand the safety net for years is a question that will be answered by what the Democrats do starting now.