Joe Manchin’s friends aren’t listening to him

The Senator has spoken plenty. They just don't want to hear him.
Joe Manchin’s friends aren’t listening to him
Photo by Third Way.

Yesterday, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) once again threw cold water on President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan, a fiscal agenda that includes priorities in health, childcare, and climate. “I cannot vote to move forward on this mammoth piece of legislation,” the Senator said in a statement.

Like many Manchin cold-water statements, this is not definitive. Legislation can be modified until it gets a Senate majority. But if Democrats are serious about getting Manchin’s vote, they are going to need to start listening to him.

Manchin has a concrete objection to the bill’s structure

Manchin has had a concrete position on the bill’s structure for quite some time⁠—that its revenues should run concurrently with its spending. That position has simply been ignored by Democratic leadership, who have pushed a bill that is extraordinarily front-loaded and laden with expiring programs.

This is a well-known budget trick I call the frontload gambit. The idea: if you set up a bunch of expiring provisions and use up your budget space as fast as possible, you can hope for them to be extended by a future Congress.

At the behest of House progressives, the current version of the Build Back Better bill this budgeting trick aggressively. Expansions to the child tax credit end after one year, improvements to the Affordable Care Act after four years, and subsidies for childcare after six.

The problem is that this trick isn’t particularly subtle. Anyone who doesn’t notice it is deliberately choosing not to notice it. But Manchin cares about it, and he sees it right there in the CBO score.

The plan, as written, increases deficits in early years, and pays for them only after programs at least nominally expire. This is, in fact, the very outcome that deficit hawks dislike: you run up deficits, and then you have to pay for it later. If you write this into your bill, you haven’t addressed their concerns⁠—if anything, you’ve made the outcome they dislike explicit.

For their part, progressives aren’t really trying to hide their true motives. Indeed, many acknowledge that it would be disastrous to start a new preschool or day care program and then shut it down a few years later. They are gambling that these programs will prove popular enough that Congress will extend them before their scheduled expiration date.

Manchin has been consistent

A common theme in Democratic criticism of Manchin has been that Manchin is inconsistent. Last week, a frustrated Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said of Manchin, “I don't know where he is today or where he'll be tomorrow.” Similarly, his colleague Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) said that “at this point, it’s kind of a moving target when it comes to Joe.”

Yesterday, the White House picked up the theme: “Just as Senator Manchin reversed his position on Build Back Better this morning, we will continue to press him to see if he will reverse his position yet again.”

The narrative of an inconsistent Manchin is at odds with the record. Manchin has been consistent. Here was Joe Manchin yesterday on Fox:

Pick what your prized priorities are … and you fund them for ten years, and you make sure that you deliver the services for ten years.

And here he was on October 21st:

The thing that I'm very much committed to is if we're going to tell the people we're paying for something and the revenue is a ten-year revenue, then the program should be for ten years. If it was important enough for us to have new revenue, adjust our tax code, then the program should last for that. If not, you're not being genuine and saying: Well, we're gonna pay for it with ten years of revenue, but we're only gonna have a program for one or two or three or four years.

In other words, Manchin has been saying the same thing for months. The October statement was a response to a House Progressive push for a front-loaded scheme. I also wrote about this, just a few hours before Manchin’s statement.

All in all, the stakes of this policy fight were pretty clear and pretty concrete at the time. Democratic leadership simply chose to ignore Manchin and go with the House Progressive approach. The November bill depicted in the chart above does the exact opposite of Manchin’s October prescriptions. If Democrats want Manchin’s vote, they will need to rethink that.

A few programs done well is the better policy approach

There are plenty of reasons to be peeved with Manchin. His skepticism of the transition to clean energy seems retrograde, and his long-run debt concerns are overrated. But on this point, he obviously has the better end of the argument.

First, now is not a particularly good time to have a frontloaded fiscal impulse. As I wrote back in October, the economy is in a short run bottleneck but there is ample borrowing capacity in the longer run. Adding a surge of spending now and pulling back later is perhaps the exact opposite of what should be done.

Second, programs that are fully paid for can be made permanent under the Senate’s reconciliation procedure. Given the likelihood that Republicans will take over one or both houses of Congress soon, it would be better for Democrats to lock in some gains.

Third, it would become a lot easier to explain. The broad, scattershot approach has made it difficult to focus in on a few popular changes and make the bill a referendum on those.

And finally, it would provide a good excuse to cut some programs that aren’t ready for primetime⁠—like the poorly-conceived childcare proposal⁠—and focus on shoring up the more solid ones.

There is still time to get legislation done

In the classic film The Princess Bride, the adventuring companions Fezzik and Inigo believe their companion Westley is dead, and bring him to Miracle Max, who reassures them: “your friend here is only mostly dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.”

Build Back Better is only mostly dead. There is time left in this Congress for signature legislation; the Affordable Care Act, for example, wasn’t passed until March of Obama’s second year in office. But Joe Manchin, by virtue of being a moderate from a very right-leaning state who is relatively happy with the status quo, has always had the most leverage in the Democratic coalition. If anyone would have an easy time walking away, it would be him.

Manchin has spent much of the last year with microphones thrust in his direction. But paradoxically, he has struggled to be heard. He has expressed the same ideas for quite some time. Democratic leaders should try to start hearing him.

This is my first post since November. One month ago, my daughter was born. It has been wonderful getting to know her and learn how to be a father. I am now getting the hang of it and ready to start resuming normal activities again. Thank you for your support, and I hope you enjoyed Tim's posts in my absence.

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