Manchin's obstruction is a setback, but the Build Back Better bill is still in play. Negotiations in 2022 will revive the legislation and implement the public policies our country desperately needs.
After Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) announced that he would not be supporting President Biden’s flagship social spending package, House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jefferies issued a powerful reminder to Democrats both in and outside Congress: “The Build Back Better act is not dead. We always live to fight another day.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stated earlier in a “Dear Colleague” letter that leadership was hopeful that an agreement will be reached in early 2022. This optimism from Democratic leadership sets an example that should be followed. While Manchin’s opposition to the landmark legislation is a major setback, it gives congressional Democrats the chance to reflect on the lessons learned over the last few months. The Build Back Better Act will be back, provided the right voices shape its return.
Joe Manchin is not complicated. In both personality and policy, he has been consistently straightforward. He decided to force Democratic leadership into months of negotiations simply because he could. Rutgers University professor Dr. Brittney Cooper accurately summarized what ultimately drives Manchin: “He loves having all this power [and] gets off on making folks do his bidding.” During said negotiations, the senator clearly publicized his objections, most recently in a press release published by his office after his infamous appearance on Fox News. Manchin’s policy differences with the Biden Administration have also been extensively covered. While Sen. Manchin may have a handful of genuine concerns about the latest reconciliation bill, his driving force continues to be his longing for the national spotlight and supreme authority over legislation. This constitutes a dangerous problem, yet it is ultimately a simple one. The solution to Joe Manchin is also uncomplicated: work with him when possible, work around him when not.
Manchin was never going to support the Build Back Better Act (BBB) in its current state. In his press release, he stated that “the American people deserve transparency on the true cost of the Build Back Better Act… [congressional Democrats] continue to camouflage the real cost of the intent behind this bill.” This attacks the very fabric of the reconciliation package. While it was being written, a schism within the House Democratic caucus over BBB funding resulted in a controversial funding mechanism. Under the current plan, more programs would be included in the bill for less time. Instead of funding selected programs over the long-term, the assortment of priorities would instead expire in just a few years. The programs would then have to be extended in separate legislation, which the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office recently calculated would add $3 Trillion to the overall cost of the bill. Sen. Manchin is opposed to these added costs, which makes him opposed to the entire package. Congressional Democrats spent months pursuing unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with him.
While they unanimously supported the current Build Back Better Act while it was moving through the House of Representatives, members of the New Democrat Coalition (NDC) have been raising concerns about those budgetary gimmicks for months. In September, NDC Chair Rep. Suzan DelBene warned that funding long lists of programs for short periods of time would only create additional problems later on. That same week, New Dem Rep. Ron Kind elaborated in The Hill that the temporary funding model would create “fiscal cliffs” that would end just as Americans were adjusting their lives to the new benefits. Despite members of the NDC arguing for long-term spending since the spring, the wider media ecosystem has only recently begun giving weight to those concerns. In the last few weeks, The New York Times, Huffington Post, and Slate have all run columns in favor of sustainable funding.
Many of these articles were published soon after Sen. Manchin shared his own permanently-funded Build Back Better proposal with the White House shortly before announcing he would not support the current legislation. While Manchin’s concrete counter-offer is a welcome step in the tedious negotiation process, it comes months after the New Dem-aligned Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) released their own sustainable framework in October. The New Democrat Coalition has continuously been ahead of the curve during the reconciliation process.
As a result, the New Dems will be leading in the next stage of negotiations. Leading Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the White House itself have voiced support for the NDC’s approach. In addition, the New Dems have new leverage, as they recently became the largest House Democratic ideological caucus after Representatives Shontel Brown and Nikema Williams joined in early December. Based on their past record and new status, BBB will likely be reworked to the Coalition’s specifications. This means long-term extensions to the child tax credit, Affordable Care Act subsidies, and climate change provisions. This will both advance progressive goals, and make Manchin’s support much more likely. The New Dem-driven reconciliation bill will pass. However, which specific provisions will be included depends on later decisions made by the various parties at the negotiating table.
While Joe Manchin found himself suggesting an alternative structure to the Build Back Better Act that would actually improve the bill, his personal rationale was far removed from the rest of the Democratic Party. His press release explaining why he does not support the version passed by the House complained about inflation and the national debt. These hallmarks of conservative economic theory are right at home in Manchin’s dated worldview. The senator clings to those old fears despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Most recently, Rose Khattar from The Center for American Progress argued that BBB is “expected to do more to cut costs for families than any piece of legislation in more than a generation.” This cost-cutting would make the bill anti-inflationary, which means that it would reduce current inflation. What’s more concerning is Manchin’s opposition to the child tax credit, which is reportedly based on a belief that recipients will spend the money on drugs. Between debunked economics and racist theories about welfare, Joe Manchin’s core beliefs are not likely to shift in the near future. While New Dem-led negotiations may find common ground on long-term spending, Manchin’s opposition to specific programs is still problematic.
Rather than spending more time on fruitless talks, negotiators should negate Sen. Manchin’s power when necessary by looking towards other sources for support. One of President Biden’s top priorities is expanding the child tax credit (CTC). An unlikely potential ally also shares that goal: Utah Senator Mitt Romney. Sen. Romney (R-UT) in February introduced his own plan for CTC expansion, which the Niskanen Center determined would reduce total child poverty by ~33%. Romney reintroduced his Family Security Act on December 20th, and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the administration would be interested in working with him. This is not unprecedented, as White House officials and liberal institutions both praised Romney’s plan when it was first released. However, the Family Security Act is not without issues. It needs to be friendlier to single parents, and it cuts funding from other social programs to remain deficit neutral. Even with those drawbacks in mind, the Romney CTC would still significantly reduce poverty. While Sen. Manchin remains worried about nonexistent welfare abuse, Romney believes that sending people money is good. This makes Sen. Romney a preferable negotiation partner on extending the CTC than Manchin.
Sen. Manchin’s plan also contained large cuts to climate change provisions. His proposal allocated roughly $500 billion to fight climate change, although it is not clear which programs would be funded. Manchin has been rejecting various climate proposals for months. The Progressive Policy Institute devoted significant funding to climate change as part of their alternative Build Back Better framework. The key to their plan was the Clean Electricity Payment Program, which was also regarded as one of President Biden’s signature climate proposals. Manchin rejected CEPP less than two weeks after the alternate framework was released. In anticipation of this, PPI proposed a carbon tax as a backup policy. A carbon tax would directly tax emissions, and is widely supported by economists. It also has support across the aisle: a group of Republican senators were reportedly in talks with the Biden Administration on carbon pricing over the summer. This faction consisted of Senators Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, Mike Braun, and Susan Collins. Of these, Romney and Murkowski have since directly expressed support for a carbon tax. While Manchin continues to chip away at Democratic climate strategies, Senators Romney and Murkowski may provide an avenue to supersede Sen. Manchin’s support.
Beyond the CTC and carbon taxes, separate legislation may create a path forward for many individual programs in BBB. In recent appearances on Fox News Sunday, senators Ben Cardin and Roy Blunt each supported standalone bills. Sen. Cardin (D-MD) stated that introducing certain agenda items as separate bills was currently “being negotiated” by the caucus. Speaking during a separate appearance, Missouri Republican Roy Blunt said he would be open to supporting certain programs in standalone bills. He specifically cited a mental health initiative he co-sponsored with Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). Their Excellence in Mental Health and Addiction Treatment Act of 2021 is currently included in the reconciliation bill, but would be a prime candidate to be separated. When it was first introduced in June, it attracted a bipartisan slate of cosponsors, from Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR) to Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA).
West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin may be blocking President Biden’s agenda, but he is no Mitch McConnell. A new version of The Build Back Better Act will be passed, now that the New Democrat Coalition will lead negotiations in Congress. Manchin is ultimately driven by the spotlight, and the best way to keep him in line is to take the spotlight away. On specific policies that have created friction between Sen. Manchin and the rest of the party, Democrats should turn to Republicans like Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski for temporary support. Bipartisan support for policies like the child tax credit and carbon tax ultimately decreases Manchin’s power and stops folks from doing his bidding.
Alex Moskovitz is a freshman C.L.E.G. major in the School of Public Affairs. He is a staff writer and deputy editor at American Agora.
Image courtesy Biden for President, Creative Commons