The Build Back Better Act’s strength is also its weakness. Tackling health care coverage, prescription drug prices, family care, education, housing, poverty, the climate crisis, pandemic preparedness and fair taxation in one bill makes it wondrously comprehensive, and gives every Democratic constituency some hope that their dream policy could finally be enacted.
But that also makes it wrenching to cut anything from the bill while keeping everyone on board. A couple of Democratic senators (and a handful of other party members hiding behind them) demanding stingier social spending, lower taxes on the wealthy and corporations, higher drug prices and more burning of carbon have created an impossible dilemma for the party. Should they still try to address all of the issues they care about, with roughly half the funds required to do the job properly? Or should they choose what stays and what goes, and focus on executing what remains?
To me, the answer is clear: To be successful, not only in this legislation but in revitalizing Joe Biden’s presidency and his party, Mr. Biden must enact permanent, simple, meaningful programs, and connect them to his argument about how government can work again.
For too many years, Congress has tried to resolve longstanding policy issues by erecting complicated systems that an untutored public must navigate. Ordinary people who qualify for benefits — usually because they are in great financial need — are drafted into becoming unpaid bureaucrats, forced to spend time and effort to access what the system owes them. It’s confusing and exasperating, and it has sapped the faith that Americans once had in their government. Simply put, Democrats cannot continue to campaign on solving big problems and then fail to deliver without destroying their political project and alienating voters.
Many progressives believe the best way to reverse this dynamic is to start work on all the problems at once, betting that the public will reward their efforts and keep them in power to finish the job. Some have suggested sunsetting key programs after a few years, turning future elections into a referendum over making them permanent. Once the public gets some real help, they argue, it will be politically impossible for lawmakers to roll these programs back.
But that presumes that the pinched, constrained, unsatisfying policies on offer will feel worth fighting to protect.
Take paid leave, which might be on the precipice of falling out of the bill in negotiations. It would not only be vital but long overdue to allow workers to take time off for the birth of a child or the care of a family member without it harming them financially. But the version of paid leave that passed a House committee is a mess.
The lowest paid workers would receive 85 percent of their pay while on leave. But there is no minimum benefit set at the poverty level, which would force the working poor into the unlikely scenario of sacrificing 15 percent of their income to take extended time off. To use the benefit, workers must learn whether their employer or their state offers paid leave or whether they are eligible for federal assistance, and then apply with the proper entity, turning in some combination of pay stubs, tax information and work history evidence to comply with numerous eligibility requirements. According to Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project, these kinds of obligations to show work history prior to taking time off could leave behind around one-third of new mothers.
Worst of all, the proposal reimburses employers for setting up their own paid leave plans, which usually involves hiring life insurance companies for benefit management. Rather than a fully public plan funded through a small payroll tax, this labyrinthine hybrid system puts paid leave largely in the hands of private insurers, which make profits through denying benefits and avoiding workers who are either more likely to take leave or eligible for more money when they do.
This is a recipe not only for significant public funds siphoned into corporate treasuries but also for endless frustration and hassle, much like our private health insurance system. And all this for just four weeks of paid leave (the length presently being considered), a fraction of what every other industrialized nation offers. It’s not enough to pass something that can merely be called “paid leave” if its primary function is to anger people who want to take time off from work.
Unfortunately, much of the bill now works this way, thanks to demands made by the likes of Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, among others. Means testing in the child care program creates similar bureaucratic hurdles, and a money-saving phase-in of subsidies keeps some middle-class families out of the program for the first three years, and maybe permanently with the rumored income cap. Funding for elder care and housing has been slashed by about half of what was previously proposed. Mr. Manchin wants a cap on the advance-payment Child Tax Credit at $60,000 in family income as well as work requirements. And instead of adding a dental benefit to Medicare, seniors might get an $800 coupon.
These policies aren’t worth selling to a skeptical public. After grinding an expansive agenda into paste, Democrats should not expect voters to re-elect the pastemakers so that they can sculpt the paste into something useful.
Mr. Manchin actually understands how to create policy that the public rallies around. He has put no means-testing restrictions on the universal prekindergarten provision, allowing all families to get two years of early development and instruction for their children. Why? Because he instituted a similar program while he was the governor of West Virginia, and he knows that making it complicated or exclusionary doesn’t sell well.
That model of hassle-free, permanent programs should animate the entire project. All of the hazardous choices in this bill are fixable, but these fixes would make it cost more. And if cost is an insurmountable political barrier to passage, then the only way to rebuild faith in government action is by embracing fewer programs, freeing funds to enact them in the simplest and best ways possible.
Democrats could subsequently run on a record of actually solving problems, rather than gesturing in their direction. If all the programs were functional yet time-limited, there could be an argument for trying to win elections on extending them. But the path Democrats are going down now, hoping to mobilize voters around poorly designed programs that lock out many of the middle-class suburban voters they have just started to attract again, is a much bigger risk.
Even if Congress manages to renew the half-measures it’s currently working on implementing, typically, permanent programs are the only ones that can actually get repaired in Washington. Temporary ones can’t, because the fight is always focused on the program’s survival, not its merits. The Affordable Care Act’s permanence has made it harder to dislodge and easier to rejigger; there’s an effort to do so in this bill, by increasing the act’s subsidies. By contrast, Republicans allowed the 10-year federal assault weapons ban to expire in 2004 and paid no price at the polls. And that wasn’t a program that made citizens traverse dizzying bureaucracy.
What programs should stay? The relatively unsullied pre-K plan is an obvious candidate, and the future of the planet necessitates the boldest possible set of actions that can meaningfully reduce carbon emissions. But the best path is to refashion the agenda of building back better based on what the phrase was intended to signify.
Despite the incomprehensible messaging of the Build Back Better Act, there’s a compelling argument for the idea underlying it. The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted fissures in our society that had festered for decades: the lack of child care when schools shuttered, the lack of shelter during a shelter-in-place order, the lack of health insurance when people lost jobs, the lack of sick leave when workers fell ill with Covid, the lack of at-home care amid tragic outbreaks at nursing homes, the lack of even $400 to cover emergency expenses when disaster struck. Build Back Better represents an effort to never again make citizens so vulnerable, in the next pandemic or in an enduring emergency like the climate crisis.
The Build Back Better Act cannot be enacted as envisioned because of a few corporate Democrats. But Mr. Biden could ensure that what survives actually fills those critical gaps — in family care, in health care, in housing, in cash assistance — not with half-measures but with real relief. That would align the agenda with why voters gave Mr. Biden the presidency in the first place: to get America back to normal, and to make normal better. It would also establish Democrats as worthy of America’s trust.