Inflation has become the Biden administration’s biggest political problem. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has complained the most vocally about inflation and is also doing the most to block the administration’s agenda. Given all the above, it might seem Manchin has been a helpful force. “In fact,” tweets Jeff Bezos, reflecting a conventional wisdom among some centrists, “the administration tried hard to inject even more stimulus into an already overheated, inflationary economy and only Manchin saved them from themselves.”
The reality, however, is that Manchin has done a lot to complain about inflation and very little to fight it. Indeed, he has accomplished very little at all.
Manchin has drawn a loud chorus of angry critics on the left who oppose his goals and a somewhat less loud chorus of praise from centrists who support them. This has resulted in people mixing up their feelings about what Manchin is trying to achieve with assessments of his effectiveness.
On the whole, I don’t agree with Manchin’s goals (though I sympathize with them in part and more than I did a year ago). But that is a separate question from whether Manchin is advancing his goals effectively.
Did Manchin meaningfully scale back the inflationary effect of the Democrats’ policies? No, not really. His primary input to the American Rescue Plan was to slightly ratchet down the eligibility threshold for the relief checks from a ceiling of $100,000 a year for an individual (and twice that for a married couple) to $75,000 and $150,000. That shaved a grand total of $12 billion off the cost.
I want to be clear that, at the time the bill was working its way through Congress, I was not concerned about inflation and believed that understimulating the economy posed a greater risk than overstimulating it. So I can’t blame Manchin for failing to predict and stop this bill’s contribution to inflation. But we should be clear that at the moment he had the opportunity to put the brakes on rising costs, he did not seize it.
A second failing of Manchin’s in the crafting of that bill has since become apparent. Democrats used that bill to fund one year of an expanded child tax credit on the assumption they would later extend it and make it permanent. Manchin has since objected to an extension, causing the payments to end and producing a stalemate. He could have made this position clear and communicated his red lines early, so that Democrats could seed a program they had the votes to sustain, rather than cutting checks Manchin would later stop.
Manchin’s concerns about inflation, while well founded, have been dreadfully mistargeted. As Larry Summers has noted, both the social investments in Build Back Better and the taxes to pay for them would be at least mildly counter-inflationary. (Providing more child care and social support for workers would increase the labor supply.)
Manchin has nevertheless cited inflation as a reason to oppose these measures. Waving through the bill that actually increased inflation, then blocking a bill that would not increase inflation because you regret the first bill is the opposite of what he should have done. It’s like canceling your child’s college education because you feel bad you splurged on a fancy vacation.
And even as he has swung from underreaction to overcorrection, Manchin has handled his position with less than the seriousness it demands. He has pouted at his treatment by the White House, raging at minor perceived slights such as a visit to his state by Kamala Harris and a relatively anodyne White House statement naming him as the source of a stalemate.
More recently, NBC reported that Manchin has ideas for what could go into a revised bill to tax the rich and spend some of the proceeds on climate-change investments and other needs. But Manchin reportedly won’t write the bill himself. “People familiar with Manchin’s thinking say he has repeatedly laid out his demands in public,” NBC reports, “but that he’s unlikely to put pen to paper to write a reconciliation bill — that’s a job for Democratic leaders.”
Democratic leaders should take this cue and try to write a bill. But why is Manchin making them read his mind? If he has better ideas on public policy, why wouldn’t he try to pass into law a bill that advances them as faithfully as he would like?
Manchin could not only be writing his own bill; he could also be writing a list of executive actions and insisting Biden agree to them as part of the deal. Does he want Biden to approve more drilling on public land? Maybe he would like Biden to bring down cost pressure by rescinding the Trump tariffs? Well, he has unique leverage to get that done, rather than wait around for Biden to read his mind.
It is fair enough to believe the White House ought to have handled Manchin more deftly. If your pivotal legislator has a hypersensitive ego, the administration should walk on eggshells around him. But Manchin has agency, too. Deciding to conduct himself in this fashion is to choose the needs of his own ego above those of the country.
Again, Manchin has taken a great deal of abuse from progressives who disagree with him on policy. My point here is that even if you believe Manchin’s policy views are correct, he is not advancing his own positions effectively.
In general, it’s unfair to blame a single politician for policy outcomes that often lie primarily outside their control. But Manchin has held a uniquely powerful role as the Senate’s swing vote. By dint of his position, he could have been one of the most powerful and influential legislators in the history of Congress. Instead, he has used his power primarily to pout and complain about problems he’s had every opportunity to help solve.