For more than half a year, Joe Manchin has been haunting the Democratic Party’s dreams. The West Virginia Senator’s stream of evasive, semi-intelligible, frequently inhumane pronouncements have left the Biden presidency in a suspended state of half-death, half-life.
On Monday afternoon, he delivered remarks that seemed to indicate closure but instead prolonged the party’s agony. Manchin’s commentary contained many of the familiar Calvinball elements. He insisted the bill must be vouchsafed by the Congressional Budget Office as not increasing the deficit, painting himself as the last person in Washington who cares about red ink — even as he demands passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which is funded by smoke and mirrors and very much would increase the deficit, per the CBO. And he blamed progressives for holding up the bill’s passage, even though it was on the precipice of being passed before his own comments threw that into at least some doubt.
Still, on his main sticking point, Manchin is correct.
Manchin’s primary critique is that Build Back Better establishes more programs than it is willing to fund. Democrats have cut down the scale of their spending ambitions, but not far enough to fit the size of the tax increases Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have agreed to. Their solution is to half-fund several of the programs.
Specifically, the child-care, pre-kindergarten, and Obamacare-expansion funding in the bill would end after 2025. Democrats have been waving off this feature as a minor flaw. It is not a minor flaw. It is a gigantic problem with the bill. They are attaching a self-destruct button onto some of the most important elements in the legislation, all but guaranteeing they will disappear, unless Democrats somehow hold on to both houses of Congress as well as the presidency in four years.
Manchin objects to this gimmick from the right: He accepts the premise that somehow the programs will prove so popular that Republicans will have no choice but to cast affirmative votes to extend them. If this is true, it would mean the bill would increase the deficit by hiding its true cost. Alas, it’s probably not true. Either way, it’s a terrible way to design the bill.
One reason Democrats find themselves in this pickle is Manchin himself, who has opposed many of the tax increases they have put on the table that would allow for funding a complete version of Biden’s program. But given the shrunken tax revenue Manchin and Sinema are offering, they haven’t been able to agree among themselves which programs to prioritize. Even their partial efforts to pare down the priorities have met with fierce blowback — progressives are mobilizing to put the paid-family-leave plan Biden cut out back in the bill.
Rather than adding to the number of programs in the bill, they should be subtracting. This is not to say the choices are easy. Every one of Biden’s proposals addresses a compelling social need, and the tax increases he put on the table are more than enough to fund them. But they need to choose because every dollar devoted to a program that’s going to go poof is wasted.
Democrats haven’t finished the hard work of deciding which priorities to fund and which to leave for their next opportunity. If Manchin forces them to make those choices, he is doing the party a favor.