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Progressives May Be Making a Huge Error in Trying to Save Their Agenda

Jayapal walking down a hallway with a few other people
Rep. Pramila Jayapal at the Capitol on Friday. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

At this point, it’s clear that Democrats are not going to pass the $3.5 trillion social spending and climate bill they had once hoped for. Thanks to the objections from a handful of implacable centrists—most importantly, Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema—the price tag looks like it will ultimately fall somewhere between $1.5 trillion and $2 trillion, forcing the party to downsize its policy ambitions.

But how to shrink the bill? As Politico reports, Democrats seem split on the matter.

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Progressives “generally want to preserve as many of the programs as possible within the reconciliation package,” even if it means only funding them for a few years, then counting on later congresses to renew them before they sunset—a move that would keep the legislation’s cost down on paper while setting up future showdowns in Washington. Republicans relied on this budget gimmick when they passed their much-maligned tax cut bill under Donald Trump, setting many of the pieces to expire in 2025, and some important voices on the left have suggested Democrats borrow the tactic.

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“We have a preference to keep all these major programs in, and perhaps bring down the number of years,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Sunday on Meet the Press. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez offered a similar take during an appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation. “I think that one of the ideas that’s out there is fully fund what we can fully fund, but maybe instead of doing it for 10 years, you fully fund it for five years,” she said.

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Moderates generally appear to be skeptical of this approach, worrying Republicans would simply allow programs to expire. “For President Biden’s legacy, it’s important to make these longer-term investments and not have short-term cliffs,” Rep. Suzan DelBene, who leads the centrist New Democrat Coalition, said. “We need to make sure people have certainty. Just doing something for a year or two doesn’t have the impact, doesn’t provide the certainty.” Importantly, Axios reports that Manchin is also on board with funding fewer programs for longer.

To some extent, which approach you prefer really boils down to whether you’re a political optimist or pessimist, as well as your level of risk aversion. The underlying assumption among progressives seems to be that many of these programs will be so popular that Republicans won’t dare let them expire if their party retakes power in Washington—that, or Democrats will be able to run and win on renewing them. The moderates generally seem less hopeful, worrying that the GOP will in fact be happy to sit on its hands and let a paid leave or pre-K program vanish. (Manchin’s view is a little different: Ever the budget hawk, he’s suggested that once programs are in place, they’ll become “ingrained,” so Congress should fully finance them from the start.)

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It’s not objectively obvious who’s right in this fight. Democrats probably shouldn’t count on popular policies sweeping them to another congressional majority in a difficult midterm year where they’ll be facing freshly gerrymandered maps. At the same time, once new government benefits are in place, it really can be hard to dislodge them—see the GOP’s failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act after promising to do so for a decade.

On the other hand, think about just how close Republicans seemingly came to repealing Obamacare. And, to borrow a point others have made, think about how much simpler it might have been if all Republicans had to do was sit back and let it disappear. Maybe timing these programs to expire in 2025, right along with the GOP’s tax cuts, would give Democrats negotiating leverage. But it’s also entirely possible that Trump’s party will have a trifecta in Washington by then, allowing them to renew their tax cuts while letting Biden’s programs fall by the wayside. Or, if Biden is still president, perhaps conservatives would just try and damage him by letting the tax cuts and social spending programs expire together. Who knows. The GOP is full of loons and nihilists these days, and planning a legislative strategy partly around the hope that they’ll come to a responsible bargain in a few years’ time seems a little Pollyannaish.

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In the end, I’m guessing Democrats will settle on a combination of these approaches. They may make a paid leave program permanent, but only temporarily extend Biden’s child tax credit, as is currently the plan, anyway. But personally, as a somewhat risk-averse human being, my impulse is to do fewer programs and pay for them to be permanent, so Americans can actually begin planning around them with at least a tiny bit of confidence. LBJ didn’t set Medicare on an egg timer, after all. Imagine how much frailer our safety net might be if he had.

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