build back better

The Democrats Have a Collective-Action Problem

Good luck, Chuck. Photo: MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In the name of political expediency, the Democratic Party is working round the clock to make Joe Biden’s agenda less popular.

Some aspects of this project are already well familiar to close observers of Capitol Hill. For weeks, Kyrsten Sinema and a smattering of PhRMA’s favorite House Democrats have been fighting to remove the president’s most popular policy — allowing Medicare to negotiate down the price of prescription drugs — from the Build Back Better agenda. Sinema is also reportedly opposed to raising tax rates on corporations, high-income individuals, and capital gains despite the fact that (1) such tax increases enjoy overwhelming popular support and (2) the Democratic Party’s key electoral advantage for its entire modern existence has been its greater willingness to soak the rich. (Sinema reportedly agreed to tax increases of some kind late Thursday afternoon, but their exact nature is not known as of this writing.)

Joe Manchin, meanwhile, has reportedly tried to pare the bill’s proposed expansion of long-term care for the elderly, a policy that boasts significant support even among Republican voters (and that Manchin’s home state of West Virginia could sorely use). He has also attempted to restrict Biden’s child allowance (a.k.a. the enhanced child tax credit) to the small minority of American parents who have jobs but earn less than $60,000 a year.

That the Democratic Party would need to make some politically costly concessions to the electoral intuitions (and/or ideological hang-ups) of these moderates has long been apparent. As of this writing, it’s not clear how successful Sinema and Manchin will be. But most reporting indicates they have succeeded in shrinking not only the bill’s overall size but also the scale of its drug-pricing reforms and progressive tax increases.

Yet it’s not only moderate Democrats who are forcing their party to embrace a less politically expedient and more substantively flawed agenda: Garden-variety congressional Democrats are contributing to the problem by insisting on the passage of many half-assed reforms, instead of a small number of fully funded permanent ones.

Even in its $3.5 trillion version, the Build Back Better agenda was too extensive to completely finance. Instead of making the child allowance into a permanent feature of the U.S. welfare state, for example, Biden had set it to expire in 2025. Now Democrats are trying to fit $3.5 trillion worth of initiatives into a roughly $1.75 trillion bill. Although they have dropped some reforms in their entirety (tuition-free community college is a dream deferred), Democrats are still trying to include pared-down versions of the bulk of them. The latest framework includes funding for universal prekindergarten, the child allowance, housing, paid family leave, elder care, expanded Medicare benefits, and higher Affordable Care Act subsidies, in addition to a scaled-down version of Biden’s climate agenda.

The quantity of reforms in the mini Build Back Better bill has taken a steep toll on their quality. The party’s proposal for paid family leave no longer guarantees parents 12 weeks with their new children but merely four — and not until 2024. The party’s child-care proposal threatens to increase costs for middle-class families by both delaying the onset of their subsidies and restricting their dollar value. The child allowance is now a one-year program that expires in 2023. Just about every other policy will receive a fraction of the funding Democrats had initially deemed necessary. This is a recipe for (1) fortifying Americans’ skepticism of government by providing them with overcomplicated, underfunded new programs, (2) reinforcing middle-class voters’ (false) perception that the welfare state does not work for them by placing them on the wrong side of various means tests, and (3) enabling a future GOP government to erase Biden’s legacy without lifting a finger (since Democrats have set that legacy to self-destruct).

As the Washington Post’s Jeff Stein has reported, this is not necessarily what the White House wants; many Biden advisers would prefer to do a few things well and permanently, rather than many things half-heartedly. But from a vote-herding perspective, it is easier to get individual Democratic legislators to accept that their personal legacy item is getting pared back than it is to tell them it’s getting scrapped. Furthermore, lawmakers often have their own unique political intuitions about which interest groups can be safely let down and which need to be taken care of.

Alas, when you aggregate all these individual calculations of policy merit and political advantage, you end up with legislation that is patently less substantively meritorious or politically advantageous than it could otherwise have been. A bit less than $2 trillion isn’t enough money to finance a climate agenda and seven-to-eight robust social-welfare programs. But it is enough to fund two or three such initiatives. If the Democratic Party had enough internal organization to act in anything remotely like its collective self-interest, it would prioritize the strength and durability of its programs over their number.

In practice, I think this would militate in favor of prioritizing a permanent child allowance over subsidized child care. Both are worthy initiatives, but the latter is much easier to screw up through underfunding. The program would need to make child-care employment lucrative enough to attract a large influx of workers into that sector in order to meet the heightened demand such subsidies would spur. If that doesn’t happen, it is conceivable that some middle-class families will have a worse experience with the child-care system than they do currently, which is politically suboptimal. By contrast, sending parents checks is something our government has proven (somewhat) competent at. Similarly, universal prekindergarten is close enough in structure to K–12 schooling that it’s hard to imagine the policy getting screwed up too badly, especially since it already exists in many states. Selecting one more reform from the remaining list wouldn’t be easy: Seniors deserve better Medicare benefits (and it is politically wise to give older voters what they deserve), America desperately needs more federal funding for housing, and closing the Medicaid gap would help a lot of people in need. The choices here aren’t easy, but if leadership can’t find a way to roll its moderates, then some choices about priorities will need to be made. And “Let’s just do almost everything, only poorly” is a bad answer.

Unfortunately, due to the Democrats’ apparent dearth of mechanisms for asserting top-down discipline in the service of collective aims, the party’s final answer to its legislative conundrum could be even worse than that.

The Democrats Have a Collective-Action Problem