August 2, 2022
Last Wednesday Senators Manchin and Schumer issued a joint statement declaring they had reached a historic agreement. In their joint statement they said that “after many months of negotiations, we have finalized legislative text that will invest approximately $300 billion in deficit reduction and $369.75 billion in energy security and climate change programs over the next ten years. The investments will be fully paid for by closing tax loopholes on wealthy individuals and corporations.”
President Biden greeted their announcement enthusiastically. “This is the action the American people have been waiting for. This addresses the problems of today – high health care costs and overall inflation – as well as investments in our energy security for the future…If enacted, this legislation will be historic, and I urge the Senate to move on this bill as soon as possible, and for the House to follow as well.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared ready and willing to follow the President’s guidance. She sent a note to the House Democratic Representatives calling the agreement “welcome news for House Democrats, who have fought relentlessly to lower the cost of health care, combat the climate crisis and ensure that the biggest corporations and the wealthiest few pay their fair share. This agreement is a victory for America’s families and for protecting our planet. In light of the discussions of the past year, this agreement is a remarkable achievement— because more must be done on behalf of America’s working families and to save the planet.”
Even Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus lauded this agreement. In an interview aired on CNN’s New Day, she called it a “very, very major step forward. Every single one of the things that’s in this bill is actually a major accomplishment, will help Americans bring costs down, will ensure that we’re protecting the planet for our next generation. And we’ll make sure that people’s health care is covered instead of being cut off in the next, you know, 30 days, essentially when those subsidies expire from the American Rescue Plan…”
Before you schedule your own celebration of a progressive victory remember that just one year ago the headlines were focused on the President and the Democratic Congressional efforts to pass the plan that they had campaigned on in 2020. The price tag placed on that bill was $3.1 trillion, more than 4.5 times larger than this current “deal of the century.”
And the difference between now and then is more than the cost. Along with a major national effort to combat man-caused climate change, a year ago, the Democratic leadership was promising that they would be repairing and expanding our frayed social safety net with investments that included continuing the expanded child tax credits which were in place through the end of 2021 and adding paid leave for all workers. Universal Pre-K would be funded. Medicare benefits would be expanded by lowering the eligibility age and adding optical, hearing, and dental care to the program. And more.
And wealth inequality would be addressed by adding a minimum corporate tax, seriously empowering the IRS to crack down on tax cheats, and increasing the tax rate for high-wealth men and women.
Taken together, the plan 12 months ago was the vision that had motivated many of the voters who pushed the President to victory, gave the Democratic control of the Senate, and kept Democrats in control of the House and was going to be acted upon. 12 months ago, it appeared that the progressive wing of the Democratic party, its base, would finally see its interests honored.
A very frustrating year later that hope is gone. Missing from the plan we are celebrating are almost all of the investments in improving the lives of low- and middle-income households. What is left, assuming that it can pass the Congressional gauntlet, is a ten-year commitment to spend about $37 billion annually on programs designed to combat the climate crisis. This spending and the things it will support are larger and more significant than any national environmental effort we have made to date; but at a moment when we are seeing in the fires, floods, and heat waves that our nation is living through, the indicators of how we have altered our world already, it seems so small. You might remember that we are spending $782 billion on our military. Yes, that is more than ten times the annual investment this historic compromise is going to spend combatting the climate crisis.
This historic agreement also allows Medicare to competitively bid drug costs, a step that should reduce costs for all. It extends ACA (Obamacare) coverage and subsidies for another three years. And it establishes the 15% minimum corporate tax, closes a significant tax loophole that only benefits very wealthy taxpayers, and increases the IRS’s ability to make everyone pay the taxes they are already supposed to be paying.
And last, $300 million of its “cost” does nothing other than reduce our national debt while our safety net remained frayed and broken.
If the “Inflation Reduction Act of 2022” represents so little of the aggressive agenda can make it through the gauntlet that is the Congressional process of making law? And will it be the major accomplishment of President Biden’s first two years in office and of this Congress? The question I am left with, with another critical election just months away, is if it is enough to prevent the regressive Republican Party from taking control once more.
The Democratic party appears to count on support from the coalition that powered it in 2020. The party’s leadership appears to assume, as I see it, that its left flank will vote for Democratic candidates because we fear the consequences of Republican rule. It seems to think that victory depends on drawing votes from the small slice of the electorate that sees themselves as uncommitted. My worry is that this calculus if flawed.
Elections are more than press releases and Facebook ads. They require hard work to motivate voters to actually vote. In 2018, the last non-Presidential Congressional election, nationwide, only 50% of eligible voters turned out. To keep control of congress in a year in which many states have experienced the effect of Republican-driven gerrymandering, it will take enthusiastic supporters to do the work of turning out the vote. I worry that if Donald Trump is not President and the Inflation Reduction is all the Democratic Party has to show when its base asks what their work in 2020 accomplished, enthusiasm and energy will not be there. And I worry that the counted-on progressive voter will stay home out of frustration.
I recognize that a 50-50 Senate and a small Democratic majority in the House Congress make passing progressive legislation difficult if not impossible. But the Democratic Leadership seems to have no interest in addressing the frustration of their base. They act as if their supporters on the left are just annoyances to be derided. Just listen to the words of a senior Presidential advisor reacting to those who wanted the President and the party Leadership to react more forcefully to the ruinous Dobbs decision, “activists who have been consistently out of step with the mainstream of the Democratic Party.”
Pass the Deficit Reduction Act. It is better than nothing. But if all do is celebrate how much we have donned the history we have made we risk losing it all on November 8. Without clearly, strongly recommitting to the base of the party, the election will be run again on a “vote for the lesser of two evils” not on” vote for those you know to represent your interests and will deliver on their promises.” If there is any lesson the Democratic Party can learn from the Republicans it is that their base matters.