How Biden Can Rescue Build Back Better
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Tempers flared this week over “Build Back Better,” the Democrats’ stalled tax-and-spending plan, as talks between West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and President Joe Biden appeared to break down. After Manchin told Fox News that, despite numerous revisions intended to accommodate him, he still couldn’t support the measure, the White House said Manchin had reversed himself and insinuated that he wasn’t to be trusted. Now negotiations seem to have resumed, albeit with an added dose of acrimony.
Manchin’s support is indispensable in a 50-50 Senate with Republicans united against the legislation. Anyone who has run a business knows that calling someone a liar isn’t a productive tactic during a difficult negotiation. (Experienced politicians should know that, too.) Yet despite this glitch, agreement remains feasible — and the right kind of package could, even now, be a big win for the administration.
Manchin has certainly tried his colleagues’ patience, finding new things to object to at every stage and saying a lot less about what he’s for. Yet on one thing he’s been both consistent and correct: Ambitious spending bills need to be responsibly financed. According to official estimates, the 10-year cost of Build Back Better has been trimmed over the past few months from more than $3 trillion to about $2 trillion, with the outlay almost entirely covered by higher revenue. But the plan’s designers keep disguising its true fiscal implications. To lower the apparent cost, they terminate many of the new spending commitments inside the planning window, while, despite their denials, plainly intending the outlays to continue. If the programs stayed in place, the 10-year cost would be roughly $5 trillion.
Manchin has objected to this gimmickry all along, saying that spending programs intended to be permanent should be financed on the same basis. He’s right. But this means either raising far more in taxes, which Democrats are reluctant to do, or narrowing the spending priorities and making Build Back Better somewhat less “transformative,” which they’re equally reluctant to do. By refusing to make this choice, Democrats have persuaded themselves that an affordable and honestly accounted plan — one that might still be bold and enormously valuable — would be a let-down.
A measure that cost around $1.8 trillion would still be very big by historical standards. It could pay for the plan’s most vital measures — including more than $550 billion to accelerate the transition to clean energy — while leaving more than $1 trillion for other programs. That would be about enough to pay for the plan’s proposed changes to the child tax credit (an increase of $1,600 for children under six and $1,000 for older kids, with payments expanded to cover families with little or no income) on a permanent basis instead of the single-year basis in the current plan. Or it could pay for smaller increases together with permanent new support for health care, child care and pre-K programs.
Only by the warped standard Democrats have set for themselves could such a package be seen as timid.
Biden needs to move the discussion in this new direction as soon as possible. There’ll still be disagreement, it goes without saying. Forced to choose among competing priorities, Democrats will find themselves quarreling over what matters most. But choosing among competing priorities is what good government is all about. Judging spending and revenue on the same basis, as Manchin advocates, would at least allow honest compromises to be reached. That’s better politics than telling voters that compromises aren’t necessary — then getting angry at the senator from West Virginia when he refuses to go along.
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