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Building Back Sorta Better
Washington this week. Oy.
After months of negotiation and family squabbles - “What will Joe Manchin say?,” “What will the progressives do?” and “Who followed Sinema into the bathroom?” - the Democrats have achieved a $1.85 trillion framework for the Build Back Better bill.
At first it was great. Then it was good. Then it ultimately landed at about half the size the majority of congressional Democratic lawmakers had hoped for. As I think of it now, it’s the Build Back Sorta Better Bill. Bernie’s original plan was $6T, which was then whittled down to $3.5T, and now it’s at $1.85T.
Several things that many of us had been hoping for — paid family and medical leave, a managed plan to phase out fossil fuels, allowing the government to negotiate prescription drug prices (can you believe they ever gave that away?!), free community college, and a wealth tax — have now been nixed, basically because centrist Senators Manchin of West Virginia (mainly bankrolled by Big Coal) and Senator Sinema of Arizona (mainly bankrolled by Big Pharma) stood in the doorway and said “No way.” They went to work, all right; the problem is who they work for. (So much for the Democrats having a majority. We forgot to add to our visualization list, “Democrats who act like Democrats.”)
The Build Back Better Bill is money to be spent over ten years, while Congress just budgeted $780B for one year for the defense budget. That money is necessary, we’re to assume, in order to fund our important defense projects like America’s spectacular misadventures (failures, crimes, I don’t know, you pick a word) in Iraq and Afghanistan (shouldn’t we at least be having a conversation about how they’re spending all that money, given that they’re been spending it so wrongly?) That all means we will spend on the Build Back Better Bill over 10 years just a bit more what we spend on defense over a period of 2 years. Notice how the defense budget gets hardly any discussion at all - practically everyone in both parties just votes for it in lockstep year after year- while a serious effort to put this country back on track was a conversation that played out like a really bad soap opera that lasted way too long.
Given the Democrats’ slim majority in Congress, plus the fact that not a single Republican would vote for the bill, many argue that it was simply impossible to do better than what was unveiled on Thursday. That’s debatable for many reasons, but what I do know is this: many dreams cherished by many people were simply left on the cutting room floor. People who thought maybe they’d be able to afford their medicine; people who don’t understand why we don’t have paid family leave while every other advanced country does; people who had hopes that perhaps they could afford to attend college courses without taking out exorbitant loans; people who don’t understand why billionaires are treated like porcelain dolls while so many are basically told to drop dead. If Manchin is concerned about an “entitlement” mentality, he need only look in the mirror. This bill is a tip of the hat to America’s ultra wealthy and a cup of crumbs for the average American. Nothing says “Nothing will fundamentally change” more than this does.
It’s a sad result for the American people, but it’s important to realize that Senators Manchin and Sinema are not only causes of the radical dwindling down of the bill’s price tag; they are also symptoms of something else. The Democratic leadership for years has been suppressing the candidacies of just the kind of Democrats who would have gone to the floor for a bigger bill - and a higher minimum wage and Medicare4All and the cancellation of the college loan debt and a Green New Deal (for those of you thinking, “Yeah, those are the kinds of candidates I want to see win!” please check out CandidateSummit.com) and supported instead the exact kind of Democrats that Manchin and Sinema have turned out to be.
Yes, the Build Back Better bill has some good things in it; $1.85T is still a lot of money. There are provisions for child care and home care, expanded medical, immigration and housing, clean energy, climate, and more. And let’s not forget that if the Republicans had their way there would be nothing. But the fact that Biden, Pelosi and the rest of them were trying to spin the unveiling as a victory, as so “transformational,” felt off key to me. I think it would have been better had they said, “Yeah, we’re disappointed too.”
For the bill is nothing near the massive infusion of hope and opportunity into the lives of millions of Americans that is so desperately needed. We don’t even try to be an equitable society at this point; some think this pillar of American liberty is too radical an idea. Ayn Rand has replaced the founders as the determiner of the new Americanism. It isn’t even “Let them eat cake” anymore. It’s more like “Fuck ‘em if they don’t like it.”
We’re like a ship that is sinking due to 80 holes in the bottom of it, and there are people in Washington who think plugging 36 of them will be enough. We have been chronically, systemically neglecting the needs of so many people in this country - and of the planet - for so many years, that at this point the need to even begin to level the playing field is enormous.
Ron Klain, President Biden’s Chief of Staff, tweeted that the bill is twice the amount in real money as was spent on the New Deal. Good try, Mr. Klain, but there were only a third the number of Americans living in this country than there are now. And while it’s true that FDR had massive majorities in both houses of Congress (which the Democrats would still have, had they remained more like Roosevelt in his stalwart support for the working people of this country), it’s also true that FDR, just like Biden, faced tremendous resistance from the corporatists of his day. They called him a Socialist!, they said he was ruining capitalism!, all the same things they say about progressives today. The difference, however? Roosevelt didn’t care.
You know how FDR referred to those he viewed as America’s “economic royalists” during his tenure as president? He said, “I welcome their hatred.”
Man, it would be nice to see that kind of spunk today.