Creativity Required

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Legislation is not like model car kits where mere assembly of parts suffices. Rather, legislation is like an erector set where creativity brings results. Democrats, it is time to be creative! 

Creativity will be needed to fashion an agreement on President Joe Biden’s ambitious agenda to expand America’s social safety net that satisfies all wings of the Democratic Party. The president remains optimistic. “I’m telling you we’re going to get this done,” he said. “It doesn’t matter when. It doesn’t matter whether it’s six minutes, six days, or six weeks. We’re going to get it done.” 

Centrist Democrats — particularly West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema — have balked at the $3.5 trillion price tag for the larger reconciliation package, the so-called soft infrastructure bill, which tackles climate change and funds free community college, child care, and other social policy initiatives. There is widespread recognition in the Democratic caucus that a compromise resulting in a lower dollar amount is needed, but the route by which Democrats get to an agreement remains unclear. 

Democrats have several options. One possible way to satisfy Sinema and Manchin and other moderates might be shortening the timeframe. The original package was for $3.5 trillion spent over a decade. Democrats could shorten the years funded for some or all of the programs contained in the bill. Two staunch progressives — Representative Ro Khanna of California and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — indicated that a shorter funding period might be an option. “I think that one of the ideas that’s out there is fully fund what we can fully fund, but maybe instead of doing it for 10 years, you fully fund it for five years,” said Ocasio-Cortez. Khanna agreed: “We can front-load the benefits and have less years.”

Fully funding all the programs for fewer years amounts to a budgetary gimmick, but it would bring down the overall price tag, which might satisfy Democratic centrists. Progressives might buy into such an agreement on the theory that it is difficult to defund an existing program — such as free community college — that is popular with the public. 

Other options are available. The starting date for the various parts of the reconciliation package could be staggered, delaying funding for some programs while fully funding others immediately. Or, Democrats might agree to implement all the parts of the bill while providing less funding across all programs than initially proposed. Finally, Democrats might fully fund fewer programs. The latter seems less palatable as progressives insist on including such controversial parts of the bill as tackling climate change, a major sticking point with Manchin who comes from a major coal-producing state. 

Progressives are in a strong position: They have Biden on their side. The president made it clear last Friday when he traveled to Capitol Hill that he sees both bills — the hard and the soft infrastructure measures — as linked. Moderates in the House have pushed for passage of the smaller roads and bridges proposal before taking up the costlier bill, a timeline opposed by progressives who fear that if the hard infrastructure package passed, moderates would have no incentive to compromise on the larger reconciliation legislation. Moderates, like Representative Abigail Spanberger of Virginia say that “success begets success,” and a win on infrastructure would be a catalyst to act swiftly on other parts of Biden’s agenda.

The problem for Biden and congressional progressives is that Manchin and Sinema have different priorities. Manchin agrees with the Democratic left that funding for the social agenda should come, at least in part, from rolling back the Trump-era tax cuts, which were a boondoggle for the very wealthy. The West Virginian is on board with raising the top individual tax rate and the capital gains rate. Sinema appears to oppose raising tax rates for the very rich. Sinema has indicated that addressing climate change is a top priority for her, while Manchin remains committed to the fossil fuel industry. The presence of so many moving parts makes compromise difficult, but with creativity, not impossible. 

Various polls have shown public support for both infrastructure measures. Funding for roads and bridges is popular, with one poll indicating 83 percent support for hard infrastructure. The nation’s roads and bridges are in such disrepair and public approval for infrastructure improvements is so high that even some Republicans climbed on board and supported the hard infrastructure package in the Senate. Solid majorities of Americans favor many of the parts of the soft infrastructure proposal, with 67 percent supporting spending on preschool programs and 55 percent in favor of expanded child tax credits. Two-thirds of respondents agreed that raising taxes on the rich and corporations was the proper way to pay for these innovations. 

A great number Democrats seem to agree that a deal will be reached. Moderates now understand that the physical infrastructure bill and the broader social investment program are linked and that the hard infrastructure bill cannot be considered alone. Progressives realize that the overall spending amount has to come down to satisfy Manchin and Sinema. Now, the bargaining begins.

Creativity is needed to work out a deal. But, it appears now that all sides have at least an inkling of where the various factions stand. And, Spanberger is right: Success does beget success. Passage of the two infrastructure bills might pave the way for movement on other parts of the president’s agenda, including, most importantly, voting rights legislation aimed at preventing Republicans denying the franchise and stealing future elections. 

Be creative, Democrats! And, get it done!

Posted October 5, 2021



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