A Series of Tantrums
Terry H. Schwadron
Aug. 1, 2022
There are legitimate policy debates to be had, and then there is the petulant foot-stamping that has come to mark our times watching Washington at work.
Whatever else they do in our name, the politicians seem to spend tons more effort on the maneuvering and self-promotion than on finding points of agreement about any of the real-life problems facing us. Even when they do agree — as senators from both parties did last week on a bill incenting U.S.-made computer chips — Republican House members were clamoring to reject a larger spending issue dealing with climate and health that finally had earned the backing of a previously reluctant Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
That startling turnabout by Manchin, a turnabout that maybe was the results of concessions that were possible previously, was itself a breakthrough moment after more than a year of negotiations among Democrats that repeatedly had collapsed. Manchin’s announcement seemed to signal a way for Democrats to force through a single bill under processes that can pass with a simple majority to open investments in alternative energy programs, to lower the cost of prescription drugs and to increase corporate taxes over the next 10 years — the kind of stuff that Joe Biden has long promised but been unable to deliver.
We knew all along that Republicans would oppose the spending bill no matter what its name or timing. But then House Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) made clear that to punish Democrats for thinking about electric cars and lower drug costs, his group would marshal votes against the computer chip bill. Only in Washington political circles does this stuff make sense. And Senate Republicans, huffy at being outflanked, rejected a procedural vote to help veterans receive health benefits that they already had supported in June (they may get another chance this week), and there were promises of other legislative tantrums over the bill to codify same-sex marriage.
We all understand the partisan political dance involved before a pending congressional election. But as usual, there is more practical stuff here at stake, from incenting new jobs, new sources of energy and a rational approach to letting Medicare negotiation drug prices than is reflected in the foot-stamping.
Acting like uncontrollable toddlers is what gives Congress — and government as a whole — such bad results in the public listing of whom to hold in bad odor.
The Manchin Reversal
There was endless speculation, but few facts, about what prompted the Manchin turnabout on what had started life as Biden’s Build Back Better legislation and now had been skinned down to whatever Manchin thinks should survive as an “Inflation Reduction Bill.”
Explanations included personal lobbying, an updated understanding of November election politics and a general scramble from labor, business and politics who cared about the outcome. Somehow, through secret meetings and phone calls, Manchin heard that the country might not have another chance at addressing climate or corporate taxes.
Nevertheless, it remains a big spending bill, with big ideas that match the breadth of issues we face — which is why Republicans oppose it both as a bill about taxes and climate and one that can be seen as a win for Biden and Democrats before elections.
Manchin, who had cited spending bills as bad for inflation, now was suggesting that lower drug costs and more energy sources, are good for fighting inflation — accepting Biden’s arguments. Harping on more inflation to come, Senate Republicans skip over the fact that taxes will pay for much of the investment and that this is as much a jobs bill as it is a climate bill.
On a policy level, Manchin’s change seems to guarantee investments in fossil fuel pipelines and some drilling even as we underwrite important changes for power plants, development of wind and solar power, tax credits for electric car purchases limited by income levels, as Manchin had specified. And Manchin, who had previously supported the drug price provisions included, won promises to apply more of new corporate taxes toward reducing the national debt.
Was that it? Those were the provisions that held this up for a year?
It seems, even in slimmed-down form, still a big set of answers for some of our climate-created problems.
If there was more of a political sweetener in all this for Manchin, we have yet to hear of it. Meanwhile, our rational side might just celebrate that at least one political party wants to acknowledge the issues of health, climate and tax imbalances and get its act together to pass legislation under rules that reflect a bare majority position in the Senate.
Of course, there is no bill yet, just the top-line agreement capturable in a couple of sentences or a one-page fact sheet: The measure would invest $369 billion into energy and climate change programs with the goal of reducing carbon emissions by 40% by 2030. Electric Vehicle tax credits will continue with Manchin’s lower income threshold. Medicare would be empowered to negotiate the prices of certain medications, and it would cap out-of-pocket costs at $2,000 for those enrolled in Medicare drug plans. It would also extend expiring enhanced subsidies for Affordable Care Act coverage for three years.
To pay for the programs, the bill would impose a 15% minimum tax on corporations, which would raise $313 billion over a decade and close certain loopholes for favored treatment of carried incomes. It also provides funds to the IRS to enforce tax collection.
First remains then challenge of landing support of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, (D-Ariz.), who apparently also wanted to be wooed rather than herded.
Then on to the Senate at large as an arena of political gamesmanship over the jostling as the Manchin-approved bill takes shape, and Republicans line up to declare underwriting of non-fossil fuel companies and negotiated drug prices as socialism.
Meanwhile, the House Republican leadership is reversing course on its decision basically to accept the bipartisan Senate bill to provide $52 billion to invest in domestic semiconductor chip production. Suddenly, the same bill, which Republicans were demanding as a rebuke to rising Chinese economic fortunes and to bring chip manufacture home to the U.S., is being seen as a target in seeming reaction to Manchin’s change of heart on this bigger bill.
Top Senate Republicans had previously said that they would not support the chips production bill if Democrats moved forward with the climate, health and tax measures. Outmaneuvered, that opposition plan seems to have fallen to House colleagues. Scalise sent notice calling for the bill to be voted down.
That politics are seen as more important than substance is nothing new, it is just perpetually disappointing and does exactly nothing to resolve any of the issues before us. That the various legislative rules push our Congress members into twisting issues into overly complicated, long and unlinked packages just makes it next to impossible to expect that legislation can prove practical or effective.
If we want a fight over corporate taxes, fine, but mixing it with climate incentives and health supports or an unrelated set of incentives to bring computer chip manufacture back to U.S. shores seems unnecessarily complicating.