Politics

Watching Democrats Negotiate This Bill Has Become a Soul-Crushing Experience

Manchin gestures with both hands as he speaks at an event
Joe Manchin, making everyone’s life miserable. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Jordan Weissmann: Happy Tuesday, Jim. So, after months of slowly attempting to broker a deal over President Joe Biden’s family spending and climate agenda, during which the party has been unable to even reach an agreement on how much money to spend, Democrats are frantically trying to pull together some sort of agreement this week. And let me tell you: As someone who has spent a not insignificant portion of my career covering abstract public policy arguments about things like how to fix our health care system, watching this play out is genuinely making me question my life decisions.

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Jim Newell: Hi, Jordan! Yes, last week Democrats insisted that they needed a deal on the Build Back Better Act by the end of that week. Didn’t happen. Now they’ve said they need a deal in time for Biden’s trip to the U.N. climate summit this week, so he would have something to present. I am skeptical. I think the key to understanding what’s going on here is to break down what Democrats mean when they say, as they constantly do, that they have just another couple of issues to work out. The problem is that those couple of issues are a) policy and b) paying for it. I’m not entirely joking here.

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Maybe we should break down the issues along those lines. On the policy agenda, and specifically the social spending side of things, you wrote last week that Democrats were following a path that led directly to trash legislation. Can you ever so briefly explain that, and have you seen anything this week that changes your thinking?

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Weissmann: Fundamentally, no, nothing has really changed my overall feelings about where Democrats appear to be driving this bill. What’s interesting to me is how the party’s moderates and progressives are both contributing to the wreck.

On policy, the issue is really twofold. Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema aren’t willing to spend enough to enact the sweeping agenda Biden promised progressives. This in turn has has forced progressives to choose between passing a few good programs or lots of undercooked ones. They’ve decisively opted for the latter, pushing for vastly inferior versions of the ideas they envisioned while only funding them for a few years to make the budget math work, all based on the unlikely hope that they will somehow be renewed, even if Republicans take power. It seems to me like they’re squandering a rare opportunity to make some lasting, if narrower, changes to the American welfare state. (I should add that, aside from these big-picture dynamics, Manchin has flat-out opposed major Democratic priorities like fixing the gap in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Like I said, everyone deserves blame here).

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The problem with paying for the bill is even simpler: It’s Kyrsten Sinema. She just doesn’t want to raise tax rates on individuals or corporations or let Medicare negotiate prescription drug prices, so Democrats are now scrounging for whatever left-field idea they can find that will raise some cash.

In short, Sinema and Manchin have put the party in a bind that would make it extremely difficult to enact good policy even if everyone wanted to, but progressives have exacerbated the situation by choosing quantity over quality.

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As all of this has worn on, I’ve occasionally found myself turning away from my laptop and staring blankly into the distance, thinking about all the time people spent discussing topics like “Medicare for All” during the primary. I never thought that Bernie’s 2020 platform was remotely realistic, but the debates made ideas like a robust public option (which Biden ran on!) seem just possibly within reach. Instead, it looks like we’re going to maybe fix up some holes in Obamacare for three years, then potentially let the patches expire. And yes, fundamentally, that’s just the result of how the party failed to win more than a bare majority in the Senate, leaving its agenda to the whims of its most moderate members. But it’s like we spent half a decade debating whether it made more sense to buy a Porsche or a nice Ford, and instead we’re ending up with a used moped. It stings.

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I don’t know. Do you think I’m being too grim here?

Newell: No, I don’t. I think there’s a litmus test here that they’re failing. Can they answer the question of what is the central achievement of this social legislation?

Obamacare was a sprawling health care bill, but the central, marketable achievements were a) expanding health coverage to millions and b) providing protections for preexisting conditions to those who were previously in the wilderness. Republicans did a sprawling tax bill, but organized it around the idea of slashing business rates. Their central achievement was lowering the corporate rate from 35 to 21 percent, and they prioritized it by making it permanent at the expense of other programs they allowed to sunset. Is there anything on the social spending side that Democrats are not allowing to sunset? The two items on which there’s the most party consensus—the expanded child tax credit and fixing Obamacare—are both looking like they’ll last a few years, or even just a year. Paid leave may not even make it. The Medicare expansion is down to a coupon for the dentist. We’re still waiting to see what they can come up with on prescription drug costs.

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I am not sure, though, whether this was a “decision” or just an extension of what the market would bear. They made a lot of promises, to a lot of different groups, and feel like they owe everyone a little something. It is an extremely Democratic Party design.

Weissmann: Choosing to fund more programs, even if it meant doing them poorly, rather than just a handful of marquee initiatives was definitely a strategic “decision”—and I agree it’s motivated by how Democrats fundamentally feel the need to give a “win” to as many of the interest groups in their coalition as possible. But otherwise, it does seem like lawmakers are just frantically trying to negotiate for their pet priorities, without a lot of thinking about the bigger picture.

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Part of what’s disturbed me about this process is the magical thinking it seems to have revealed among some Democrats and the progressive policy establishment.

Take the child care and pre-K section of the bill. That’s the part everyone thinks will make it in.

I’ve been told that they’re really, really hoping to fund it for seven years—like, that’s the reach goal—because some state officials and people in the child care advocacy space think that’s how long it will take those programs to become established, making it harder for anyone, including Republicans, to let them sunset.

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But why do they believe that? After watching 48 GOP senators try to repeal Obamacare, despite the fact that it had been in place for [checks notes] seven years, why does anybody doubt that Republicans would let a child care program they dislike simply lapse, or refuse to renew it without major cuts? Nobody seems to grasp that they’re dealing with nihilists.

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Newell: Let’s cheer ourselves up by discussing “the good shit”: federal revenue collection. As you mentioned, Democrats have been scrambling to find new pay-fors after coming to the conclusion, after several months, that Sinema was not joking when she said she wouldn’t budge on raising corporate or individual tax rates. She has, however, been receptive to a couple of other ideas, like a 15 percent corporate minimum tax, as well as an annual tax on the unrealized capital gains of billionaires. Sinema has, in this fight, a very strong ally in Senate Finance Committee chairman Ron Wyden, who’s been toying with these ideas for years and expects to socialize a proposal in the coming days.

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I don’t know about you, Jordan, but I have a hard time seeing this billionaire’s tax coming together in a meaningful way. The House—and Ways and Means Chairman Richie Neal—is not sold on it, and some Senate moderates, like Mark Warner, have issues too. It’s a bold new frontier to jump into this late in the game, and I see too many members having concerns about its design and ramifications—and its constitutionality—to really make the plunge. If there was really a chance the Treasury would get like $40 billion from Elon Musk next year, wouldn’t, say, Elon Musk be everywhere losing his mind?

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Weissmann: Give Elon time, Jim. Give him time.

But yeah, I think the billionaire tax is a really interesting idea. It’s just that literally nobody has ever released legislative text for a proposal like it before, and the technical implementation side of it is … daunting. (Taxing unrealized capital gains is really easy for things like publicly traded stocks and bonds; it’s a lot harder with something like a private company.) Neal is ticked off because he crafted a perfectly good, very vanilla tax plan that did commonsense things like raise rates on corporations. And it’s been just totally scuttled by the fact that Sinema doesn’t want to raise rates, but will maybe go along with these other, sort of exotic approaches.

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And to be clear, almost nobody else in Washington thinks her position makes sense. If you ask former Republican staffers who worked on the Trump tax cuts, they will tell you that, if someone put a gun to their head and made them write up a plan to raise taxes, they’d do something boring like, you know, increase the corporate tax rate a few points rather than try to rework our whole system of capital taxation.

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That’s not to say I personally dislike the billionaire tax—I’m intrigued! But the point is Sinema hasn’t really staked out a moderate or conservative position here. It’s just a weird position.

So, I guess that’s my long way of saying I get why senior Dems in the House are pissed, but I have no idea who will ultimately cave.

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Newell: I certainly get what she’s saying, that simply raising rates won’t get at the issue of either corporations or persons who pay very little. But yeah, policymakers—and you saw this in the Ways and Means plan—typically shy away from these new streams just because there are too many complications in drafting and they don’t want to be blamed if there’s some side effect that screws up the stock market.

Weissmann: And I don’t entirely blame them! Anyway, all of this is just kind of a downer for those of us who kind of held out hope that somehow, against the odds, Democrats would be disciplined enough to enact coherent, large-scale change with 50 votes in the Senate. lolsob nm.

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Newell: I guess we should caveat: The legislation is not done, and probably isn’t anywhere near to done, despite what they say. Maybe they will change all of these things we’re griping about like a couple of jerks!

Weissmann: Yeah, I should probably stop weeping in my empty coffee mug for now. Anyway, you think there’s any chance they actually get a deal done this week?

Newell: I think, at a certain point, they take what progress they have made and declare that they have reached a Framework for a Deal, or a Deal on a Framework, and ship Joe Biden off to Europe a victor in his own realm. But the framework will still just list “options” as a fill-in for the things they haven’t figured out yet. If Neal is not going to see Wyden’s billionaire tax text until Wednesday, for example, then I don’t think they will have an actual deal on taxes on Wednesday.

They just need to call something, anything, a “deal” so they can convince progressives to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill this week, which, good luck.

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