What Is the Compromise?

Terry H. Schwadron

Oct. 23, 2021

Mostly what we know about the progress of Joe Biden’s big Build Back Better spending proposals is that they are stuck in negotiations, but that there is some light at the end of the legislative tunnel to win a bare majority in Congress for a reduced bill.

We know that two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona have proved, differently, to be a big drag on winning Democratic unanimity needed for approval, that Biden has been spending much of his waking hours of late in seeking compromises, and that the cost of the programs likely will be cut in half to win the day.

In other words, we know from incessant news reports about inching-along negotiations over politics and top-line numbers only that we’re either nearer or farther from any conclusion to these talks, depending on the moment (yesterday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said a deal was close), but not a lot about what it all means for you and me. What’s proved amusing is to hear anchors complain about the nature of the misdirected political discussion while again avoiding discussing the substance of the spending bills.

Biden himself made some frank attempts in speeches this week to sketch what remains as major, singular social-services expansion even with all the cutting and reassembly required by sausage-making. If you’re like me, you may find the endless noodling about what might be in the bill soporific, or you may have tuned out totally until there is something resulting here on which to focus.

Sorting it Out

So, I appreciate it when a news organization, in this case, The Washington Post, take on the task of sorting it all out.

To play this game, you need remember two things:

First, the Senate’s archaic filibuster system is so manipulative that it has meant squashing the substance of lots of seemingly unrelated proposals into one gigantic bill to consider under “budget reconciliation” procedures that can be passed by 51 Democrats along without having to kowtow to 10 Republicans, who are withholding support in any case. And two, Democrats Manchin and Sinema have made clear they do not like the spending package totals, though they each come at the question somewhat differently.

The combined bill sought to underwrite pre-school education and free community college, health improvements from cutting drug prices to expanding Medicare and Medicaid to hearing and vision benefits, and a ton of provisions for affordable housing, climate investments and childcare, as well as repeal of favorable tax legislation for corporations and the wealthy.

The Post talked with congressional aides, lobbyists, and administration officials with knowledge of the negotiations to get a sense of what is in and what is out — subject to the idea that it all could still change.

Ins and Outs

Based on these conversations, here’s where things roughly stand as Biden fully acknowledges that the bill will likely end up costing half his $3.5 trillion original estimate over ten years. Clearly, to get there, one must toss out, cut down or shorten the finances for various programs.

As Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman opined, “And as Democrats craft compromises to arrive at a final version that they can all agree to, it’s getting more and more complex. This is a symptom of the entire American system, but especially of how Democrats go about policymaking. They have become, to their own detriment, the party of kludgeocracy,” adding inelegant kludge upon kludge when Congress won’t just pass a bill straight.

Out: Proposals considered eliminated include those for universal free community college and the central part of Biden’s climate proposals — a clean energy plan to incentivize utility firms to move away from fossil fuels. Also, unable to gain sufficient support is a higher corporate tax rate.

In: Chances seem strongest for inclusion of universal pre-kindergarten classes in all states and a national childcare program, though Manchin keeps talking about limiting such family programs by income or work requirements.

Smaller: Housing, eldercare and Medicare improvements and paid family leave face downsizing, with proposals for each to be cut by a third to a half of their initial proposed amounts, though estimates on how much vary by significant margins. So, we may get dental coverage but not vision added to Medicare, as an example. The proposal to require Medicare to negotiate drug prices faces internal Democratic opposition from three representatives in the House. Continuing and any expansion of child tax credits to help the middle class seem in doubt at the original estimates.

Alternatives: Though Sinema opposes corporate tax hikes (cue the million news stories about her fund-raising efforts from big corporations), there are alternatives emerging for a new tax on billionaires’ accrued wealth or for better enforcement of current Internal Revenue Service rules. An alternative carbon tax seems to be going nowhere, though Biden suggested adding money originally allocated for the Clean Energy Payment Program for new incentives to reduce fossil fuel intensive expenditures.

Irrelevant side issues: Amid serious talk about programs, we’re inundated with useless and who-cares reports about whether Manchin and Sinema might disaffiliate as Democrats (who needs Republican opposition when you have friends like these?), which isn’t going to happen for a variety of practical reasons.

Biden Wants a Win

The bottom line here is that Biden wants a win at any cost. Circumstances of a split — to say nothing of endlessly contested — election are that he was dealt a bad legislative hand to play the cards he wants to lay down for a transformation of the nation’s sustained inequalities.

Biden’s agenda is being pulled apart by a combination of Republican stonewalling, Democratic defections, a general pull to do little or just enough to make some difference as against the hopes of a strong, populist, and popular remaking of how American collects taxes and spends on improving the lot of anyone beyond the corporate and wealthy elite.

Against all this, it keeps ringing in my head that we do no calculation of the cost of doing nothing — not for climate issues, not for immigration, education, science and research, public health, or health access. As Bernie Sanders would say, we’re spending the same $3.5 million or more, whether it is in tax payments for public services or to private medical insurers and hospitals, dentists, and eye doctors, whether in unemployment or continuing imbalance in our classist and racially tinged attitudes towards housing, childcare, and social services in general. We complain loudly about the growing effects of homelessness even as Manchin and others oppose building low-cost housing and vouchers for homeless people.

You would think that Democrats, who campaigned heavily on reversal of tax policies favoring the wealthy, would be united to do so now. They are, except for Sinema. To pay proposed spending we’re now throwing around more complicated schemes for a new minimum tax on corporations, or beef up tax enforcement, a tax on companies issuing stock “buybacks” to company shareholders and, perhaps most surprisingly, a new tax on the assets held by American billionaires.

What hasn’t changed in all this is that Congress already is deadlocked. The obstinance of a few single individuals is making a mockery over thoughtful negotiations towards anything that benefits actual citizens.

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www.terryschwadron.wordpress.com

Journalist, musician, community volunteer