How Democrats can close the deal on Build Back Better

Opinion by the Washington Post Editorial Board, October 6, 2021.

Democrats last week blew past their deadline to finish two massive bills at the core of President Biden’s agenda — a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and an even larger social spending and climate measure — as party centrists and progressives faced off. But amid seeming chaos there was substantial progress. After Mr. Biden visited Capitol Hill, Democrats came closer to agreeing on a price tag for the social spending bill on which all sides could realistically compromise: somewhere around $2 trillion over 10 years, down from the $3.5 trillion progressives want but higher than the $1.5 trillion Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) would prefer. They also have a new deadline: Oct. 31, when highway funding lapses and the infrastructure bill will be needed to fill the gap.

It follows that between now and the end of the month Democrats must substantially pare down their social spending bill. There are three possible strategies: eliminate some programs altogether; streamline programs and target them to those in need; or game the math. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) suggested Sunday that Democrats would do some gaming. In fact, that’s the one strategy they should avoid.

They should instead focus spending on those who need the help. Rather than providing free community college to all, they could provide more Pell Grants for needy students to use at two- or four-year colleges. Wealthy families could pay something for their children’s pre-kindergarten education. Democrats should expand the child tax credit, a big-ticket proposal that could halve child poverty in the United States, but they could put stricter income limits on the benefit. Higher-income people should not get even more help buying electric cars. Wealthy seniors do not need more Medicare benefits.

Instead of creating a complex and costly web of green subsidies, Democrats could impose a carbon tax that would fight greenhouse emissions and actually raise revenue. If they shore up Obamacare, as they plan to do, there would be no need also to lower the Medicare eligibility age. Some Democrats insist on removing the cap on the federal tax deduction for state and local income taxes. This would be a giveaway to high-income taxpayers; don’t do it.

Embracing more budget gimmicks should also be off the table. We say “more” because the Democrats’ existing plan would cost far more than advertised, if one adjusts for its strange program ramp-up and phaseout dates and other budgeting tricks. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez suggested Sunday that Democrats could approve their programs for five years rather than the usual 10, which could make the bill seem half as expensive. In a few years, the entitlement programs would become untouchable.

Democrats have an opportunity to marry progressive policies to responsible stewardship. Doing so would be good politics as well as good for the country. They should seize the chance.

 Image Credits: Susan Walsh/AP