The Cost of Doing Nothing
Terry H. Schwadron
Nov. 10, 2021
With White House self-congratulations now done over passing a hard infrastructure bill, Democrats focus — once again without Republicans — on that second, larger, more amorphous social services and climate spending bill that seems difficult more conservative Democratic lawmakers to swallow.
The pronounced issue du jour, particularly for Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WVA, is getting a realistic cost estimate over 10 years and how much is “paid for” by any tax provisions that have escaped Manchin’s own paring knife.
Manchin’s acute sense of pre-paying for spending — which magically does not apply to military spending or anything involving subsidies for fossil fuels — should be met by a “scoring” report from the independent Congressional Budget Office before any vote. So, the agency is now under the gun to produce useful estimates by the week of Nov. 15 — though the review of the complicated proposals may take weeks more.
Since 1974, is has been the job of the CBO to take the proposals of a bill and estimates the effect on taxpayers. The nonpartisan review takes no position on the legislation, but the results could impel those wary about the bill to turn into “no” votes.
Basically, Joe Biden says most of the bill will pay for itself, and Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation estimated last week that the proposed plan would increase revenue by about $1.5 trillion over the next decade as compared with spending $1.75 trillion, which in Washington passes as a near-wash.
If the CBO says the gap is more both because the provisions on tax and spending keep changing and because Washington pols are adept at financial game-playing, it could further threaten passage. It could also be more complicated than a week’s time can resolve.
Aren’t There Costs Without the Bill?
What the CBO does not look at, then, is what impact will result from not passing the legislation.
There is the cost of high prescription drugs, for example, one target of the proposed legislation — not doing anything about it just means the government won’t be negotiating the cost of the Medicare prescriptions for which it pays top dollar. Any other prescription drug costs are paid by you, me, and our insurers, not the government.
Likewise, allowing millions to go without health care access just results in taxpayer-paid visits to hospital emergency rooms.
Not paying tax money against childcare or paid family leave just means that you and I pay for it, as we do now, or that women don’t reenter the workforce, even as Republicans and business owners wring societal hands over how lazy workers are who are not flocking to lower-paid jobs. Without women returning in full to the workplace, economists estimate that there is a substantial drag on national growth and productivity in all the measurements they use.
Not investing public money in climate change means hastening the effects of global warming, which seems just fine to climate change deniers, but is resulting in huge, annual public costs for more extreme floods, fires, hurricanes and the inevitable shutdowns of businesses and dislocations. The ten-year estimates of damage payments would make investing $550 billion to move us away from fossil fuels would make that alternative look a whole lot better as a business-like evaluation than what we are hearing as polemics.
In short, few are really trying to measure the cost of what we have now, which might well prove a better case for public spending than throwing around slogans about “socialism.”
And the Politics
From the outset, the debate we’re seeing unfold in Washington over this huge spending bill has two sources.
First, America elections created a 50–50 Senate in a body that requires 60 votes for passing any substantial bill under its normal rules. And so, those Senate rules restrict use of “budget reconciliation” measures to bypass that Senate filibuster practice, thus creating an ungainly, overstuffed bill that tries to do too much.
In any sane world, these are myriad items that could be voted up or down individually or in groups that make more sense, though given the politics, Republicans would oppose them all.
That, in turn, has made each Democrat in this case a possible point of failure towards a 51-vote majority that includes Vice President Kamala Harris. Enter Joe Manchin, self-styled humane conservative, who likes or dislikes what he pleases, apparently. In another era, a Lyndon B. Johnson would have had Manchin politically kneecapped, but Manchin’s petulance thrives in a more patient Biden-Chuck Schumer era.
Manchin’s insistence on a financial review is a necessary step, of course. Using it as a sword to cut the heart of a transformational social services approach is a foil.
At some point, it would be interesting to hear Manchin — or any Republican leader — explain just how not spending public dollars to resolve the obvious questions of inequality in our society are serving the public good, how wages will rise by magic or childcare and health costs are going to reduce by the goodness of corporate hearts.
Too many studies over the last 40 years of what happens with marketplace-only show that wages remain stagnant even as corporate profit rises. Effects of climate change have only hastened as we open more oil and gas drilling, and delay moves to alternative energy sources. By contrast, we see that extending child tax credits have cut U.S. child poverty in half in a year.
What’s the cost of that?
No wonder Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas are using their public time to critique Big Bird on Sesame Street talking about getting vaccinated.