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Build Back Better: Next Steps

12/21/21

With Joe Manchin signaling his intention to vote against the Build Back Better bill in its latest rendition, the Democrats need to regroup quickly and coalesce around a Plan B, decoupling the various components of the bill.

I should preface these remarks by stating that while I had supported the legislation and hoped that Manchin and Sinema would come around, I actually shared some of the misgivings about the bill that Manchin had expressed. While I don’t think the bill was too expensive or necessarily inflationary, I think it was badly presented. It was a flawed strategy to create a grab bag of initiatives in one piece of legislation; and, as the graphic above suggests, the general public had (and presumably still has) a poor understanding about the bill’s content. No doubt that if this legislation had passed, it would have been transformational; but its broad scope allowed for too many areas of disagreement, giving not only Manchin and Sinema cover to withhold their support, but possibly ruling out crossover Republican votes, as well.

I agreed with Manchin that the cost representations that the sponsors offered were problematic. I’m thinking specifically about the provision in the bill that limited the time horizon for which the child tax credit provisions would apply as a way to bring down the 10-year price tag. This presentation was transparently cynical. The child tax credit has been widely reported to have substantially reduced the rate of child poverty; and for many (myself included) this provision was a keystone element of the bill. It was dishonest to represent this cut off as a true cost savings.

In fact, the whole idea of calculating costs over 10 years backfired on the Democrats. All 10-year estimates are provisional, at best. Besides the fact that Congress can adjust allocations any time, the dynamic nature of the economy requires that we assign relatively low confidence to virtually any estimate having a 10-year horizon. It’s perfectly understandable to impose sunset provisions in legislation to assure efficacy before permanence is instituted; but, tactically, the sponsors of the bill would likely have had greater success if costs had been estimated, annually. If for no other reason, an annual cost figure would have had much less of a sticker shock than would a 10-year cost figure.

Unlike Manchin, I see climate change as an existential threat that requires immediate action, and I fear that his reservations are tainted by his personal entanglements with the fossil fuel industries. Still, the energy and climate content of the Build Back Better was disappointing due to an over-reliance on tax credits, which I fear too often end up being giveaways to the rich. A prominent example is the proposed $12,000 credit going to people who buy new electric cars and trucks, many of whom would likely buy these vehicles in the absence of the tax credits. My preferred approach would rely on taxing the sources of pollution more aggressively and letting normal market forces, rather than tax credits, provide the financial incentives to move us to a new energy equilibrium. Reliance on a penalty tax, as opposed to a tax credit inducement, would also be more palatable in terms of the impact on the deficit and the national debt.

The Progressive Caucus essentially bet that they would have a better outcome by combining all of their wish list items into a single bill; and, of course, with 20–20 hindsight that ended up being a bad bet. The fall back of necessity is to deal with the components of the bill individually. Obviously, some of the components of the bill won’t make it through with this alternative approach; but by picking literally two pieces, transformational change may still be viable. In my mind, the two essential starting points are (1) making the refundable child tax credit a permanent feature and (2) addressing the climate crisis — ideally with an improved approach that reins in the use of tax credits going to wealthy individuals or businesses.

My sense is that this more focused approach will scare the bejesus out of Republicans. Draft the bills, bring them to the floor for a vote, and let the Republicans vote against them at their peril. If nothing else, failure to pass these popular provisions would lay the blame squarely at the feet of the Republican party, creating an albatross that would be difficult for Republicans to overcome in the coming, mid-term elections. If Congress won’t pass either of these elements, the prospect of passing anything else would lie between slim and none, as would be the prospects for Democrats holding control in Congress after this coming session. Not that I see it as likely, but de-bundling the Build Back Better bill could chip away at the Republican’s lock-step obstructionism, as constituents of Republican legislators register their support for a more focused legislative package; and that outcome might even be more transformational than the passage of the original Build Back Better legislation. My hope for the New Year.

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Perceive More! is a publication that features pieces challenging our understanding of reality and pushes us in wanting to know more.

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Ira Kawaller

Ira Kawaller

Kawaller holds a Ph.D. in economics from Purdue University and has held adjunct professorships at Columbia University and Polytechnic University.

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