There’s a big new debate among Democrats now that it’s clear the price tag of the Build Back Better budget-reconciliation bill will have to come down from $3.5 trillion to the roughly $1.5 to $2 trillion their senatorial majesties Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema will allow. The two ways to pare the package are pretty obvious: enact a few big things in their original glory and drop others, or enact the whole enchilada in some sort of bargain-basement form. The latter approach typically involves either means-testing to reduce the number of beneficiaries, which progressives and those who poll likely voters stoutly oppose, or providing shorter-term benefits and daring Republicans to kill them if they can, which some progressives and polling mavens do like.
My colleague Eric Levitz recently weighed these options and came down emphatically in favor of the few-things-done-well approach (or, as his headline put it, “against temporary half-assed reforms”). More important, it’s the strong preference of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as she wrote to her caucus over the weekend:
Overwhelmingly, the guidance I am receiving from Members is to do fewer things well so that we can still have a transformative impact on families in the workplace and responsibly address the climate crisis: a Build Back Better agenda for jobs and the planet For The Children!
Aside from imposing that approach on unhappy progressives favoring a broader if less permanent agenda and on “centrists” who want means-testing or other limitations on the “transformative” items remaining, there’s the question of choosing what’s in and what’s out. It won’t be easy to achieve consensus, and any resolution will leave significant elements of the Democratic coalition unhappy.
But a lot of the angst involved in this set of decisions depends on a bit of dogma that really needs to be reexamined: Congress cannot do anything important in an election year.
Yes, it’s true that members of Congress up for reelection in any given cycle, as well as their Senate colleagues whose majority status is at risk, are less likely to favor perilous votes in an election year — particularly for the party controlling the White House in a midterm election where they are likely to lose ground in any event. But how about votes on genuinely popular initiatives that may actually improve the reelection odds of incumbents supporting them while giving that party’s challengers a strong and united message?
This could be one way out of the current Democratic dilemma: Remove from the FY 2022 budget-reconciliation package and reserve for a FY 2023 follow-on measure — to be debated and enacted in 2022 — some tasty, poll-tested initiatives that aren’t central to any short-term economic-stimulus strategy. A very good candidate for this treatment is the expansion of Medicare to include dental, vision, and hearing benefits. It’s very popular (a June 2021 Kaiser Family Foundation survey found 90 percent of respondents called it a “top” or “important” priority for Congress). It’s also pretty expensive (the enhancement was “scored” by the Congressional Budget Office as costing $358 billion in 2019).
Delaying, rather than dropping, the initiative could reduce the price tag of the Build Back Batter package significantly without infuriating its progressive proponents (such as Senate Budget Committee chairman Bernie Sanders). The delay may also accommodate dubious but strongly expressed centrist fears that too big a spending package right now could escalate inflation and/or make Democrats look fiscally irresponsible.
A shift from 2021 to 2022 for the most popular spending initiatives may be even more effective if matched with the most popular revenue-raising measures to pay for them, which might include higher taxes on the very wealthy or Medicare drug-price-negotiating authority.
For this gambit to work, of course, Democratic leaders would need to be resolute about their willingness to move another big reconciliation bill in 2022. The centrists who forced down the size and shape of the Build Back Better package would also need to be open to it. They should be since they say they’re just hesitant to commit to more spending before we know the future direction of the economy.
As for the impact on Democratic prospects in the midterms, it’s hard to see how a united party advancing a clear, highly popular agenda just as voters begin to focus on their 2022 preferences (presumably late next summer or even in the early fall) could fail to benefit. The Democratic base would be gratified by a promise delayed yet still fulfilled, while persuadable swing voters are precisely those boosting the poll numbers of the most popular initiatives like the Medicare expansion. If you’re like me and figure that Democrats will probably lose the House next year no matter what they do and that they need to accomplish all they can before 2023, splitting the original Build Back Better wish list into sequential pieces of legislation makes perfect sense.
So it’s possible for Democrats to have their cake and eat it, too, while remaining unified. The first step is to stop assuming their ability to legislate ends with 2021.