Most Democrats agree that if the party’s centrist wing insists on squeezing down the size of President Biden’s domestic policy agenda, it is better to enact a smaller number of well-designed programs than a larger number of underfunded half-measures. Alas, that consensus does not include all Democrats, and one notable exception is Biden himself.
“It’s clear that it’s not going to be $3.5 trillion,” he said the other day. “So the question is how much of what is important do we get into the legislation? I’m of the view that it’s important to establish the principle on a whole range of issues without guaranteeing you get the whole ten years.”
There are two ways to cut down the cost of a program without eliminating it completely. One is to reduce the benefits or the eligibility — if you want to cheap out on, say, child care, you could make recipients pay more or restrict eligibility so that only poor families benefit, and so on. Another is to pass a full program but for a shorter time period.
A phased-out program can work if you think it will prove so popular that both parties feel the need to extend it. That has happened before with programs like tax credits for renewable energy, which Republicans never liked but have agreed to extend as part of bigger deals.
However, the notion that any of the proposals in Biden’s Build Back Better agenda would attract Republican support seems fanciful. Republicans hate social spending, especially for poor people. Zero Republicans in either chamber expressed even the slightest interest in enacting any of the social programs Biden proposed. The only element in Biden’s plan that has any conceivable chance of Republican support would be the child tax credit, and even that is highly unlikely — Republicans like Marco Rubio have relentlessly attacked the plan as a giveaway to the lazy poor.
Bizarrely, Punchbowl reports, Biden told Democrats yesterday that “the Affordable Care Act subsidies he is seeking would cost $180 billion for three years.” I have not seen any other publication report this specific plan, but it does seem to comport with Biden’s general intention to keep as many of his priorities as he can, in shrunken form.
This would be the strangest and most self-defeating possible way to save money. There is no chance any Republican would agree to extend any part of the Affordable Care Act. Hatred of Obamacare has an almost religious cast among Republicans. The main reason the program needs federal support in the first place is that Republican states have refused to accept funding to extend Medicaid coverage to their citizens.
And even though their refusal to accept this funding from Washington means uninsured people in their state — who, in turn, show up at the emergency room for treatment they can’t pay for, costing hospitals money — Republicans oppose it anyway. That is to say, they hate the program so much they are not only willing to let poor people suffer and even die from lack of medical care, they are even willing to impose financial hardships on hospital owners, who they actually care about.
So, if any subsidies for Obamacare expire after three years, they will disappear unless Democrats control the House and the Senate as well as the presidency. The odds of that happening, given the narrowness of Democratic control and the historic tendency for the president’s party to lose seats, are low.
In a more big picture sense, the whole reason that Democrats are pulling teeth to devise budget savings — through taxing the wealthy, negotiating lower prescription drug costs, and better tax enforcement — is because Senate rules dictate that deficit-financed spending or tax cuts must expire within a decade, unless they are paid for. Every dollar they’re raising should correspond to a dollar in permanent new social benefits. If they waste that money on temporary benefits, they will end up with nothing to show for their pain.
The circumstances of narrow Democratic margins are forcing the party into difficult choices. But they need to maximize the dollars they do spend so that they have changed the face of government for the better.