On Fox News Sunday yesterday, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) said he could not support the Build Back Better infrastructure bill, a measure that is central to President Joe Biden’s vision for America.
Negotiators have been working on the measure for months. At the end of March, Biden called for the American Jobs Plan, a $2.3 trillion bill designed to support well-paid American jobs by investing in a wide range of projects, both taking care of long-deferred maintenance on roads, bridges, pipes, and our electrical grid, for example, and also investing in education, elder care, and alternative energy to help address the climate crisis.
Republicans refused to get behind such a sweeping package, so to get Republican buy-in to a measure that would spend federal money, rather than cutting taxes, negotiators broke Biden’s initial measure into two bills. One was a $1.2 trillion package that focused on hard infrastructure like rebuilding roads and bridges, and bringing broadband to communities that still don’t have it. About $550 billion of that money comes from new appropriations, and the rest is regular spending that Congress moved into the measure. Some Republicans were willing to support this bill, but it was too small to win the full support of progressive Democrats, who wanted a much bigger package. This bill is now commonly known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill (although its name is actually the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act).
The other measure is the Build Back Better bill, which focuses on human infrastructure like childcare, eldercare, lower drug prices, universal preschool, the Child Tax Credit, and measures to address the effects of climate change. This bill began at $3.5 trillion. Republicans said no across the board to this one. Conservative Democrats Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) also said they could not support it without significant cuts, and so negotiators whittled it down to $1.75 trillion.
To get both measures through required a delicate balance. On the one hand, progressive Democrats refused to agree to the bipartisan bill unless conservative Democrats agreed to pass the larger bill. On the other hand, Republicans refused to have anything at all to do with the larger bill but would not give enough votes to the bipartisan bill to pass it without the help of the progressive Democrats.
So Democratic leadership made a deal that the two bills would move forward together, but then conservative Democrats wanted to move forward with the bipartisan bill and to wait for a score from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to see how much the larger bill would cost. Finally, in November, the Democratic leaders got a firm promise from the conservative Democrats that they would pass a version of the larger bill. On that promise, the progressive Democrats agreed to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which they did, and Biden signed it on November 15.
So when Manchin announced on the Fox News Channel that he would no longer support the Build Back Better bill in any form, the wrath of the betrayed fell on him. Manchin cited concerns about the cost of the bill, but he used the CBO analysis of what the bill would cost if its provisions were all renewed for the next decade, an analysis requested by Senate Republicans, rather than what is actually in the current bill. While long-term concerns are not necessarily illegitimate, concerns about extensions not yet voted into law contrast strikingly with a lack of concern over the 2017 Republican corporate tax cut and 2018 budget, which were projected to cost $5.5 trillion if all aspects were extended for ten years, and which passed nonetheless.
Those who had relied on Manchin’s promise, including the White House, were furious. “If his comments on FOX and written statement indicate an end to that effort, they represent a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position, and a breach of his commitments to the President and the Senator’s colleagues in the House and Senate,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.
The death of the Build Back Better bill would have huge repercussions. First of all, infrastructure spending is popular in general, both because of the projects it would accomplish and because of the jobs it would provide. Second, without the extension provided in the Build Back Better bill, the child tax credit that has lifted so many children out of poverty will expire, and the child tax credit is very popular (not least in West Virginia, where 181,000 families with 305,000 children benefited from the payments).
The president of the West Virginia AFL-CIO, Josh Sword, asked Manchin to get back to the bargaining table, pointing out that the Build Back Better bill would not only lower the cost of health care and child care, but also shore up the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which provides benefits to thousands of coal miners. It also protects workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively, creates jobs for home care workers, expands care for seniors and those disabled, and invests $4 billion in coal communities “to attract manufacturing companies that will provide good-paying, union jobs.”
The reason all this matters so much is that Biden and the Democrats are trying to restructure the nation around ordinary Americans rather than the wealthy. Since 1981, when Ronald Reagan took office after telling Americans, “[i]n this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem,” the prevailing pressure on the American government has been to cut taxes and slash government regulations and investment in order to free up private capital to invest in a growing economy.
But while those who pushed so-called supply-side economics promised it would create widespread prosperity, their system never delivered. Instead, the rate of economic growth did not increase dramatically, while, as the country cut taxes again and again, wealth moved upward. Meanwhile, as deficits and the national debt mounted, Congress cut social welfare programs and investment in infrastructure, and the country has fallen behind other nations.
Republicans insist that investing in the country is socialism that will destroy the economy, but in fact, Congress’s investment in the economic recovery through the American Rescue Plan, passed by the Democrats in March without a single Republican vote, has created the fastest rate of economic growth the country has seen in decades. Growth in the first two quarters of the year, before the Delta variant started to spread, was over 6%. That investment has created more than 6 million jobs since January, the highest rate in history, and new unemployment claims are the lowest they’ve been in more than 50 years.
When Manchin said he would stop this investment by killing the Build Back Better bill, Goldman Sachs immediately predicted 1% less growth in the economy, saying that failure to pass the bill had “negative growth implications.” The bank cited the end of the child tax credit, along with the loss of other spending, as central to its analysis.
The Build Back Better bill, along with the other initiatives of the Biden administration, is not simply the pre-1981 government resurrected. It reworks the old New Deal government that focused on good jobs for men who headed households into a modern vision centered on children and families and the communities that support them.
It is no wonder that the Republicans have refused to deal with the measure at all, and that the Democrats have had to—and likely will continue to have to—devote a lot of time and energy to pass it into law.
Edited at 11:45 on Monday night to remove a paragraph about a tweet from Manchin I said was from tonight, but it was from October. I’m sorry about that.