Back in winter 2021, the media-industrial complex evaluating conservative Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin was devoted to predicting the role he would play in the Biden administration. It was still a time when we weren’t sure what the most conservative Democrat in the caucus—the last major Dem standing in his deep-red state, one who’d voted with Republicans about 50 percent of the time during the Trump years—would do now that his party was in power. Longtime D.C. watchers, West Virginia experts, climate scientists, and Beltway journalists put forth theory after theory after theory. Some thought he’d be Democrat in name only and insisted he would halt the leftward progression of the party. Others predicted that he could maybe be good for the Dems, depending, or was perhaps even a political magician. I myself penned a profile of the senator whose headline—“Joe Manchin Is Not a Fossil”—could also be understood as its thesis statement. Manchin was indeed a conservative with staunch fossil fuel industry ties, I argued, but he wasn’t stuck. This was particularly true when it came to climate change, I thought, because he kept the welfare of West Virginians in mind, as demonstrated by his frequent town halls and engagement with his constituents. They are, after all, uniquely vulnerable to climate effects.
I had reason to think that. Some examples of Manchin’s green bona fides at the time included: consistent funding and development of renewable energy initiatives in his home state, championing legislation to preserve wildlife and regulate clean water standards, voting to impeach a Republican president beloved among West Virginians (twice!), publicly writing and speaking on the need to address climate change, and advocating for raising corporate taxes.
His track record in 2021 even held this up in many ways: He voted for bills to provide funds for clean energy technology as well as energy-efficient building retrofits, to restore natural resources polluted by coal mining, and to reinstate limits on methane leaks from energy manufacturers. As head of the Senate Energy Committee, he’s pushed for curbing emissions from the transportation sector, cutting fossil fuel pollution, reassessing the utility of current oil projects, and developing wind and nuclear energy. Not to mention, he voted to confirm members of Biden’s climate Cabinet, including Deb Haaland and Jennifer Granholm, the latter of whom he publicly appeared with in his home state to tout green energy.
Nevertheless, we’ve been slogging through our perpetual infrastructure week for a while now, and a clearer picture has come into view. In light of his targeting of the strongest climate provision in the reconciliation bill, the Clean Electricity Performance Program, it’s worth thinking about what else we’ve learned about the senator in the interceding months—because there has been significant new reporting on him this year:
• A summer sting operation by Greenpeace had an Exxon Mobil lobbyist reveal that he met with Manchin weekly to try to persuade him to weaken Biden’s climate agenda (and he’s not the only rich guy who gets Manchin regularly on the line).
• An August piece in Harper’s noted that the West Virginia Democratic Party, which the senator played no small role in gutting, remains entirely under Manchin’s influence and control. It also mentions how Manchin leveraged his influence within the Senate to get plush government appointments for people close to him, including his wife.
• A September report from Type Investigations and the Intercept revealed that Manchin is currently invested in multiple coal companies that are run by his son, and that, even though the elder Manchin’s investments are in a blind trust, he has personally made $4.5 million from them during the time he has spent in the Senate (11 years to date).
Those are three highly significant revelations! Particularly about the guy who essentially holds the keys to the climate provisions that the U.S. government will be able to pass this year (and for who knows how long after)!
As I wrote in February, Manchin was never going to be the stalwart champion of Biden’s “FDR-size” presidency, with his attachment to the filibuster and bipartisanship (which looks all the odder in light of his hatred of D.C. and the Senate). Still, especially after he played a not-insignificant role in passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill through the Senate in the first place, I did not think he would demand that budget reconciliation be cut down to nearly a quarter of his own original, larger price tag. I did think he would react negatively to, say, the cancellation of the Keystone pipeline; I did not think he would fully blockade a core climate provision in his own party’s centerpiece legislation, in the time leading up the United Nations’ annual climate conference no less.
The most maddening thing, as several other analysts have noted, is that the provisions of the original multitrillion-dollar bill are broadly popular, including and especially among West Virginians. They would be of mass benefit to all Americans, including and especially West Virginians. Earlier this year, Manchin had relented in his opposition to a third COVID stimulus package with direct checks after pushback from residents in his state. Some of those same West Virginians are still going after him now, even confronting him at his houseboat, and he’s engaged with them. Yet he hasn’t backed down in brutally weakening the reconciliation package.
There’s something else here. It makes a dark bit of sense that Manchin would be choosing this pivotal time—when he holds the most power he’ll ever have—for, well, himself. This is likely the Manch’s last term. In this remaining time, he seems to be simply looking out for his sources of wealth, including the ones that come from his son’s coal incinerators. It wouldn’t be the first time a Manchin family member used conflicts of interest to their advantage. Joe’s wife, Gayle, previously served as head of the West Virginia Board of Education and used her position to try to require the state’s schools to purchase EpiPens. EpiPens are manufactured by the Big Pharma juggernaut Mylan, whose former CEO was Heather Bresch—Manchin’s daughter, who stepped down after it was revealed she helped fix the prices of EpiPens in collusion with Pfizer. Family helping family: It’s a highly lucrative graft. My mistake was thinking that Joe Manchin would use his last years in the Senate to make his constituents’ lives better. Instead, he seems primarily invested in one West Virginian’s life: his own.