It’s about policies, not a price tag.
Rather than the price tag of a “$3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package,” we should force moderates to debate what’s in it.
As Congress returns from August recess, they’re getting to the business of hashing out the particulars of the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package. Inside it are some of the most important legislative goals Democrats have run on for decades: climate action, reducing prescription drug prices, expanding the childhood tax credit, paid family leave, expanded home- and community-based care services, plugging holes in Medicare, and more.
The vast majority of these reforms — from Pharma to paid leave — enjoy broad bipartisan support in poll after poll. And yet moderate Democrats have been balking from the jump. A few weeks back, a motley crew of House moderates threatened to bolt over the choreography of the bill’s passage in the House vis-à-vis the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Just last week, three moderate friends of Pharma threatened to tank the effort to force prescription drug manufacturers to negotiate prices with Medicare. There’s been the usual grousing from moderate in chief Senator Joe Manchin and his protégé Senator Kyrsten Sinema. Most recently, Manchin announced from none other than the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal (sort of a tell regarding to whom he’s really trying to signal), that he just couldn’t get behind a price tag of $3.5 trillion. His number was more like $1.5 trillion.
Manchin’s op-ed was followed by the requisite merry-go-round on the Sunday morning news shows generating yet another unhelpful round of coverage questioning what the Democrats could even get done.
However, lost in the discussion was what, exactly, Manchin wants to cut from the bill. Climate? Pharma? Universal pre-K? Implicit here is that the way we talk about public policy tends to focus on how much it costs or how it’s going to pass, de-emphasizing the problems we want to solve in the first place. By debating a “$3.5 trillion-dollar budget reconciliation package,” rather than the “climate, jobs, and justice package,” or whatever other substance-driven name we give it, we’re allowing Manchin and company to get away with forcing a debate over cost and process rather than policies and their consequences.
Think about it this way: What if I asked you if you wanted a $200,000 mortgage or a $25,000 auto loan? We can debate price tags all day, but without knowing the difference in the quality of a house or car a given price-point affords, the debate is misplaced at best. Now you might argue that what Manchin is doing is simply setting a budget, like you might if you were house or car shopping. The problem, though, is that we have the money. It’s just in the pockets of billionaires and corporations that have been playing games with the tax code to avoid paying it in taxes. And what Manchin and his acolytes aren’t telling us is that they’d rather keep letting their donors off the hook than force them to pay their fair share for critical investments in healthcare, green energy, or public education.
And we’re all falling for the trap. Progressives are pushing back by arguing that the higher price tag is inherently better. Rather than play into an argument about a price point, we need to refocus the conversation on the trade-off between achieving public policy goals that would benefit millions of Americans, or keeping billions of dollars in the hands of a few billionaires and corporations.
This package has the capacity to fundamentally remake America’s future through investments in education, clean energy, healthcare, and family leave. But that’s not the only way it could reshape America. Young people, progressives, and communities of color are watching to see if Democrats can finally deliver on their promises. Success here will motivate these critical voting groups to continue to show up at the polls, promising to build on their gains. Failure may mean apathy in the coming midterms.
And, given the state of Donald Trump’s Republican party, apathy could cost us our democracy itself.