Build Back Better bites the dust, for now at least

President Biden’s signature progressive legislation fails to attract the 50 votes required for passage in the Senate after months of negotiations.  Progressives are furious, but they should’ve seen this coming all along when the bill was built on gimmicks and cheap accounting tricks with no central message or purpose.  Incredibly, it seems they are only promising more of the same.

On Sunday, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin gifted fellow Democrat Joe Biden and the progressive movement a huge lump of coal for Christmas by officially killing any and all hope of passing the Build Back Better social spending spree in anything resembling its current form.  “If I can’t go home and explain it to the people of West Virginia I can’t vote for it,” he said in an interview on Fox News Sunday. “I’ve tried everything humanly possible, I can’t get there. This is a no.”  The announcement, though it shouldn’t have been the least bit surprising, immediately angered progressives far and wide.  Fellow Senator Bernie Sanders accused him of selling out to amorphous special interests.  He insisted to CNN’s Jake Tapper that they should have the vote anyway, and if Senator Manchin “doesn’t have the courage to do the right thing for the working families of West Virginia and America, let him vote no in front of the whole world.”  Fellow progressive and member of the House of Representatives, Ilhan Omar, was even more irate on Twitter.  “Let’s be clear: Manchin’s excuse is bull—-.  The people of West Virginia would directly benefit from childcare, pre-Medicare expansion, and long term care, just like Minnesotans. This is exactly what we warned would happen if we separated Build Back Better from infrastructure,” alluding to the original hare-brained scheme to link the two bills together

The White House itself responded by targeting Senator Manchin directly in its statement.  “I had a productive call with Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Schumer earlier today. I briefed them on the most recent discussions that my staff and I have held with Senator Manchin about Build Back Better. In these discussions, Senator Manchin has reiterated his support for Build Back Better funding at the level of the framework plan I announced in September. I believe that we will bridge our differences and advance the Build Back Better plan, even in the face of fierce Republican opposition.”  In Washington speak, they named names, claiming that Senator Manchin alone killed the bill and therefore, if you want to pass it, put the pressure on him.  For his part, Senator Manchin doesn’t appear to have enjoyed this gambit one bit, especially knowing that other Senators like Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema were also skittish.  He unloaded on the entire process and the attempts to pressure him into complying on Monday.  “They figured, surely to God we can move one person. We can badger and beat up one person.  Surely we get enough protesters to make that person uncomfortable enough.”  “Well, guess what?” He continued, “I’m from West Virginia.  I’m not from where they’re from. And they just beat the living crap out of people and think they’ll be submissive, period.”

Senator Manchin also believes the White House staffer leaked unflattering information about him, including comments that he supposedly claimed money from Build Back Better could be used to buy drugs.  Steve Clemons, editor at large of The Hill, sees the entire episode was a critical mistake.  “I know Manchin. He believes in civility above all things. When George Washington, at age 14, hand-wrote his 110 rules of civility, Rule No. 1 was: ‘Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.’ When I saw Manchin’s name in the presidential statement, I knew he would perceive it as a breach of process, a breach of spirit, a breach of Joe and Joe working this out so that politicians from Scranton and Charleston could find a way to align with those from Brooklyn and San Francisco.”  For the record, Mr. Clemons is definitely a fan of President Joe Biden, describing him as “a brilliant negotiator” who “seduces foreign leaders by working hard to know what they care about” in the same article.  He places the blame on staffers, begging the question as to who is running the show at the White House.  Does President Biden have any idea what is actually going on?

Regardless, almost everyone involved except for maybe Senator Manchin himself is missing the larger point:  How did progressives spend most of this year on a project that ended where it began with the very same no votes from Senator Manchin and potentially others they had at the beginning?  After months upon months of “negotiations,” they have not changed a single mind or come any closer.  The answer, it seems to me, is two fold.  First, they pushed for a bill that was everything to everyone outside the regular order, folding child tax credits with climate change, immigration reforms with universal Pre-K, and everything else on their wish list.  They assumed this would make it harder for Senator Manchin and others to vote against, but instead it made the bill much harder to sell to the American people because it has no coherent purpose or singular benefit.  As I have suggested, focusing on manufacturing and the supply chain would have been a far better course that connected to people’s everyday lives.  Instead, it was whatever they felt was needed in terms of messaging at the moment, hence a bill that is primarily about social spending and climate change was magically transformed into a silver bullet for inflation and supply chain issues that didn’t even exist when it was first written.  Throughout it all, they convinced themselves that each and every element was incredibly popular with the American people based on suspect polls that touted benefits over costs.  At no point did it seem to occur to anyone involved that if that were truly the case, they wouldn’t have needed to continually change the messaging.  The bill would have sold itself.

Second, the entire Build Back Better edifice was built on cheap accounting gimmicks, sleights of hand, and tricks, hiding huge costs and touting new taxes that weren’t even close to covering those costs.  It was a house with no foundation, ready to crumble over at a puff of wind.  Incredibly, this was entirely by design, as in it was written that way, purposefully from the very beginning.  One major development that received little coverage over the past couple of weeks, but was likely critical in Senator Manchin’s final decision, was the extent to which the bill intentionally gamed the Congressional Budget Office’s accounting techniques.  In the ultimate “don’t try this at home,” the legislation was scored close to budget neutral by calculating the spending based on flagrantly artificial terms for the plans set against taxes that ran for the full ten years.  It was as if you balanced your budget looking at three months of expenses versus a year of your salary and determined that you could afford that new car or fancy new house because you only had to pay for it a part of the time.

Thus, the Build Back Better bill, supposedly a ten-year “transformation” of the American economy, included only 1 year of the new child tax credit and Earned Income Tax Credit despite that progressives consider both absolutely critical programs, claiming that they literally cut the child poverty rate in half after a short term program passed as part of the coronavirus relief bill in March.  Of course, their real plan is to extend it every year, forever.  They have no intention of stopping the credits after the pandemic or whatever, but they couldn’t come out and say that because it would blow the entire budget up.  The child tax credit alone was expected to cost more than $1.7 trillion over the full ten years, close to what is touted as the total cost of the bill (with the gimmicks) at $1.75 trillion.  The same is true of other provisions like Universal Pre-K, home healthcare, and Medicare expansions, all of which Democrats say are essential programs, and yet none of them are funded completely.  As the Congressional Budget Office themselves put it, “Because the legislation includes a number of temporary programs with arbitrary sunsets and expirations, ultimate costs could be much higher.”

How much higher?  Earlier this month, Senators Lindsey Graham and Jason Smith requested the CBO rescore the bill with these provisions funded for the full length.  The revised estimate revealed a whopping $3 trillion increase in the deficit over ten years, compared to an original estimate of $367 billion, making it almost ten times as costly as advertised.  According to Senator Graham, his colleague Senator Machine was stunned at this news, somehow believing progressives were negotiating in good faith.  “I talked to him this morning and he was stunned.  I think he felt vindicated in that his concerns were legitimate.”  In response, the Biden Administration and Democrats in Congress continued to obfuscate.  Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released statements claiming the new report was “fake” because there would be other “offsets” (tax increases, presumably).  “Republicans did not include this important fact in their request,” Senator Schumer wrote in a statement.  President Biden himself said, “I welcome a serious conversation about how to pay for the investments we make, but here is what those critics are not telling you. They’re not telling you that I’ve committed to paying for every single program that extended, if any are, in future legislation, whether that’s for a day or a decade.”

The massive discrepancy between what they are promising and what it would actually cost is shocking in and of itself, but there are two other important factors to consider.  First, the whole Build Back Better approach was never sold to the American people as a series of temporary measures requiring additional taxes or massive cuts to other programs to continue in the future.  In general, reports on the contents of the legislation and statements from proponents claimed it was a transformative change to the social contract and touted the provisions as if they were permanent.  CNN for example touts “Universal Pre-K,” “Child Care,” and “Paid family and sick leave” as late as November 19 without even mentioning these are only temporary programs.  Perhaps they knew and hid it, or perhaps they were just snookered by the gimmicks themselves.  Second, progressives in the House of Representatives had struck a deal with more moderate members in early November that the final legislation would be deficit neutral and not add to the debt.  This, after all, is what President Biden had been promising for months, saying repeatedly that Build Back Better doesn’t actually cost anything.

At the time, the deal resulted in the successful passage of the bipartisan infrastructure legislation, while Build Back Better would wait until the Congressional Budget Office could score the final bill so more reticent Democrats could see for themselves that the promises of a cost-free transformational program were fully met.  Before the score was even produced, however, Democrats were claiming none if it mattered anyway.  A White House staffer insisted the CBO lacked the  “experience” to properly score the thing in the first place, saying “There’s wide agreement CBO doesn’t have the experience analyzing revenue amounts gained from cracking down on wealthy tax cheats who are taking advantage of honest taxpayers.”  Pennsylvania Representative Conor Lamb concurred, tweeting, “appreciate the CBO’s advice, but they’ve long undercounted the tax gap.  Without BBB, there will be TRILLIONS in unpaid taxes this decade.  Unpaid by the rich, because it’s more work to go after them & they know it.  I’ll vote to end this with BBB, whether CBO counts it right or not.”

Of course, they were all well aware that the entire bill was built on gimmicks to begin with.  How could they not be when they wrote it?  They just didn’t care and now they are outraged that Senator Manchin has called them out, saying what he has said along:  Give him a real bill with actual costs not exceeding $1.75 trillion and he would consider supporting it.  Instead, progressive firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez railed at Senator Manchin calling it a “farce” without the slightest hint of irony.  “I think what Senator Manchin did yesterday represents such an egregious breach of the trust of the President. And it’s also, you know, this is exactly why it’s an outcome that we had warned about well over a month ago about getting to plan a contingency plan for it,” she said. “We have every right to be furious with Joe Manchin, but it’s really up to leadership in the Democratic Party who, you know, made the decision to get us to this juncture and how we’re going to move forward.”  Representative Ocasio-Cortez continued, “I do not believe that the situation is beyond repair. But it’s going to take a different kind of thinking to get out of it than it did to get into it…It’s really about time that we start to get serious about governing,” she said while falsely claiming she represented more people than Senator Manchin.

The lack of self awareness and denial of the obvious is absolutely stunning:  Representative Ocasio-Cortez and her progressive allies are the ones that “breached” trust by producing a completely fraudulent bill and lying about it, repeatedly.  They are the ones that displayed a complete and total lack of seriousness the entire time, making promises they couldn’t possibly keep, holding other bills hostage, flagrantly gaming the Congressional Budget Office, misleading the American people, and presiding over a Frankenstein bill and process that never made any sense to begin with.  Before pointing fingers, they should be taking a close look at themselves, but perhaps needless to say they are moving right ahead by playing more games.

As such, progressive allies have immediately switched gears to claiming 10,000,000 children are going to slip back into poverty because of Senator Manchin.  “Today’s news is a crushing blow to millions of families relying on the expanded Child Tax Credit to make ends meet,” explained Bethany Robertson, co-director of ParentsTogether, a family advocacy nonprofit.  She insists that Manchin and Republicans “have turned their back on struggling families,” noting that “Families will continue to fight for an extension of the monthly Child Tax Credit and other policies to help them thrive.”  This is rich, and typically dishonest:  The tax credit didn’t even exist until March.  It was temporary at the time.  It remained temporary in the final bill, but somehow these games are the fault of Senator Manchin and those rascally Republicans?  The fault lies with the progressives who refused to be honest from the beginning.  If this provision was so incredibly important, they’ve had over eight months to pass it on a stand-alone basis.  They chose not to.  If any child starves as a result, it’s entirely on them, as is the entire debacle.


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