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Five progressive policies West Virginians need out of Joe Manchin’s Senate.
Joe Manchin is no Bernie Sanders. But on these five issues, he really ought to be to help solve West Virginia’s biggest challenges.
Sure, Donald Trump was wrongly acquitted for inspiring, organizing, and directing terrorists to attack the seat of our democracy last week. But the best single thing any of us can do to diminish him is to finally occupy the piece of our mental real estate he’s occupied for the past five years with something worth thinking about it—and that is what’s possible under a Biden-Harris Administration.
For his part, President Biden has gotten off to a fast start with bold executive orders on everything from vaccine acceleration to immigration to racial equity. But if the last 12 years have taught us anything about governance in turbulent political times, it’s that government by EO isn’t built to last. His predecessor spent the first few months in office overturning Obama’s EOs. And Biden’s just spent his first few weeks overturning those.
If we’re serious about real, lasting change, it’s got to be done the old-fashioned way: through legislation. To that end, Democrats hold the House and Senate for the first time in a decade. But not all Democrats are created equal. With a razor-thin 50/50 Senate tie broken by Vice-President Harris’s vote, the swingiest Democrat becomes the powerbroker. Lose their vote, and your potential for any sort of legislation’s gone.
So while we may think that Chuck Schumer is the Senate Majority Leader, the swingiest Senator who holds the real power to make or break legislation in the Senate is Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Manchin is a Democrat...but he spells it with a capital R. West Virginia’s former governor, he’s a rare state-wide elected Democrat in beet-red coal country and, early in the Trump era, he boasted about his proximity to the President. “I’ve had more personal time with Trump in two months than I had with Obama in eight years,” he told a Politico reporter.
Consider the first piece of legislation Biden proposed, a $1.9 Trillion dollar COVID-19 relief bill including everything from $1400 checks to billions toward vaccine deployment to aid for school reopening to support for state and local government. Manchin’s take to a Washington Post reporter? “I don’t know where in the hell $2000 came from (referring to the $1400 in addition to the $600 checks passed in the last round of COVID-19 relief legislation). I swear to God I don’t. That’s another $400 Billion.” He’d indicated that he would be willing to support $1400 checks on the condition that they were strictly means-tested to only the neediest (But then...who’s the neediest in an unprecedented national disaster?).
Ultimately, the Senate’s ability to pass legislation will fall on what moves Joe Manchin. Success for progressives has to mean making Joe Manchin a hero for the people in West Virginia through progressive policy. Which begs the question: what do West Virginians need most?
West Virginia is sick.
West Virginia ranks 51 out of 50 states (including American Samoa!) in life expectancy. The Average West Virginian lives 74.8 years—that’s nearly 6 years shorter than the average resident of California.
The decline in America’s life expectancy is being driven by alcoholism, drug overdose, and suicide particularly among low-income, non-college educated white men. West Virginia is the epicenter of that nexus of pathology. It’s extremely rural—it’s largest city, Charleston, is only 48,000 people—and has consistently been among America’s poorest states.
Economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton wrote an insightful book about declining life expectancy in places like West Virginia called “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism.” They detail the carnage wrought by a confluence of corporate capture in our economics and politics. Offshoring and automation of manufacturing jobs has decimated employment opportunities in rural communities. Rather than move to the service sector—an option in more population dense communities—job opportunities have simply vanished. American healthcare has piled on. Not only have hospitals closed by the dozens in rural communities across America, but Pharma force-fed opioids into these communities, killing millions.
Joe Manchin’s home state is the epicenter of this epidemic of deaths of despair. As the center of the opioid epidemic, in 2015, over 33,000 West Virginians died of opioid overdose, leaving it with the highest rate of overdose death in the country. Each one of those overdose deaths represents a life bombarded by the economic and social consequences of vastly bigger forces. Loss of jobs. The failure of an education system. The avalanche of massively addictive, deadly drugs by pharmaceutical corporations hellbent on profits at any price.
And each of these forces represents a set of political decisions made. Massive job losses are driven by corporations either automating jobs or offshoring them while decimating labor rights at home. The failure of our education system emerges from a set of political choices to underinvest in and privatize public education systems. The massive fraud committed by the opioid industry represents a set of political choices to allow pharmaceutical companies to directly lobby doctors and advertise to patients, to spend billions of dollars lobbying for deregulation. Hospital closures, an epidemic in rural America, are a function of political decisions not to invest in public health insurance programs that reimburse services for low-income people in rural communities competitively—let alone to keep our system oriented only to its bottom line profits.
5 ways Manchin can deliver progress for West Virginia.
If we want to pass progressive legislation through this Manchin-dominated U.S. Senate, we’re going to have to directly map the way that Joe Manchin can market his vote to West Virginians. Based on what we know about the pathologies ailing West Virginia, here are five places to push:
1. Pharmaceutical accountability.
Nowhere has Big Pharma’s greed been more deadly than in West Virginia. Holding Big Pharma accountable would be broadly popular in West Virginia. Indeed, Manchin ran against Patrick Morrisey, a Big Pharma lobbyist, in his previous election in 2018, which turned on Morrisey’s connection to the opioid epidemic. Manchin has already sponsored legislation known as “Jessie’s Law” which requires physicians to know a patient’s addiction history before prescribing prescription opioids.
That said, he has his own pharma baggage—his daughter is the CEO of Mylan Pharmaceuticals which has donated nearly $300,000 to his campaigns. Mylan made headlines when they spiked the price of their most famous product, the EpiPen, by 500% over seven years. More recently, they shuttered a factory in Morgantown, costing the community over 1500 jobs.
There are two key progressive policy priorities that would make Manchin a hero in West Virginia. First, and most obviously, is delivering the state from the opioid crisis. That means forcing the corporations that kicked the crisis off to reinvest in West Virginia’s mental health and substance use infrastructure. Second, West Virginians, like all Americans, need to be able to afford their prescription drugs. Biden has made affordability a hallmark of his healthcare policy, pledging to empower the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to negotiate drug prices with Pharma. Manchin should lead here. Holding Big Pharma accountable would allow Manchin to deliver on his campaign themes from 2018, while also distancing himself from the baggage he’s acquired through Mylan.
Manchin is the Senate’s most conservative Democrat, a spending hawk if there ever was one. But it’s not that he’s opposed to spending. To “Inside West Virginia,” he said: "The most important thing? Do infrastructure. Spend $2, $3, $4 trillion over a 10-year period on infrastructure...A lot of people have lost their jobs and those jobs aren't coming back. They need a place to work.”
Indeed, infrastructure is unique because it can’t be off-shored. Infrastructure projects are necessarily local—and could be an excellent source of high-quality jobs that West Virginians need right now. There’s something else about infrastructure—it’s tangible. If you build a road or a bridge it’s there for a long time, and politicians want nothing more than to have lasting records of what they deliver for constituents.
3. Labor rights.
If nothing else, Joe Manchin owes his job to the working people of West Virginia. Consistent and reliable labor support—particularly from labor unions whose members broke for Trump in 2016 and 2020—is the key reason there remains a Democratic Senator from West Virginia (Which Trump won by 40 points!).
In West Virginia, where wage labor accounts for such a large proportion of the economy, union rights are profoundly important—and under attack. And he has a history of defending them: in response to a bill that would make West Virginia a Right to Work state, he said: “The proponents of ‘right-to-work’ legislation are not able to show us the companies that will relocate to our great state if this legislation passes. Instead of engaging in divisive political fights, we should work together to bring successful companies to West Virginia.”
The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act was just reintroduced—it allows the National Labor Relations Board to fine employers who bust unions and offers their workers the right to sue them. It’s a critical step to empowering unions like the ones who delivered Manchin another Senate term in 2018. This could pass Senator Manchin’s Senate—and he should be a leader in passing it.
4. Public education.
Manchin knows, firsthand, the value of a public education. He attended West Virginia University, the state’s flagship public university after graduating from public schools in the small West Virginia town of Farmington. And he believes that public school should be public. He voted against confirming Trump’s education Secretary Betsy DeVos for that reason. In an op/ed for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, he wrote:
A strong education is the building block for success for every child and the foundation for our country’s long-term economic strength. We need to do more at every level to ensure that all of our children receive a high-quality, well-rounded education that prepares them for college and a career. This includes choosing the right person to lead our Department of Education, and Betsy DeVos does not make the grade in West Virginia.
Manchin was right. DeVos’s Education Department was sued a record 455 times and generally tried to privatize public schools, disinvest in secondary education, and dismantle equity-oriented policies.
High quality public education is critical to building a West Virginia that can compete in an increasingly information-driven economy. But in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, public schools are struggling. West Virginia needs an education hero—and Joe Manchin can be that hero. That means supporting teachers and paying them a strong wage, rebuilding decrepit school buildings and infrastructure like playgrounds, busses, and other facilities, and investing in ancillary school services, like school nurses and social workers, and more nutritious school meals. This should be a priority for the people of West Virginia, whose future depends on building human capital in the state. It should also be a priority for Joe Manchin’s Senate.
Not only does the nature of the health insurance industry, itself, exclude low-income people from health insurance—but the cost of insurance is such an anchor on American industry that it helps accelerate the automation and offshoring that have hollowed out jobs in these communities.
Now, I know that we’re probably not going to get Manchin to be a hero for Medicare for All anytime soon—though if he truly cared about what ails his state, he would be. Few states would benefit as much as his considering the poverty, high rate of uninsurance, and the constellation of diseases West Virginians face. But, he could at least lead on Joe Biden’s public option. Though it’s nowhere as comprehensive as Medicare for All, the public option Biden ran on (I know because I helped write the platform) includes generous subsidies for low-income Americans, guaranteeing zero premiums or deductibles for people earning less than 200% of the federal poverty line (which would be $52,000 for a family of four). Given West Virginia’s median family income is a mere $46,711, that would mean more than 50% of West Virginians would get free healthcare through the federal government.
Though Manchin may never become the Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren we wish he might, there are clear opportunities to work together to accomplish progressive goals. However, all of these goals are contingent on democracy doing its work. And right now, the filibuster is probably the biggest impediment to the work of democracy. So, even beyond his choices to champion any of the policies above, Manchin has one choice that is most important of all—to progressive legislation and to our opportunity to deliver policies that advance the wellbeing of the people of West Virginia: abolishing the filibuster. Without it, Manchin might as well tell the people he serves that he chose the customs of Washington over them.