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Transforming the government on the fly

the word transformative appears five times in the White House announcement of a $1.75 trillion framework for tackling climate change and strengthening the social safety net. The word historical appears 12 more times. But if Democrats are really reforming the US government with President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, they’re doing it on the spot.

The recent hectic days of negotiating the plan have been confusing for seasoned veterans of the Capitol Hill sausage factory, not to mention the hundreds of Congressional Democrats who must vote in favor of the proposal and the millions of people whose lives it will improve. A brand new billionaire tax? One day and out the next. Paid family leave? First 12 weeks, then four weeks, then completely gone. Expanding Medicare and Medicaid? That depends on what Senator Joe Manchin ate for breakfast. Biden and Democratic leaders detailed their agenda proposals months ago, but now they seem to be taking a plane apart in the minutes before takeoff and then frantically putting it back together.

Last-minute closed-door haggling is a Washington hallmark and unique to both the Democratic Party and Biden. The president’s disappearing thin majorities in Congress and the complex rules of Senate procedure make his task all the more difficult. But it’s no one’s idea of ​​good governance, and the hasty compromise raises the risk that Biden’s supposedly transformative legislation will have a much shorter legacy than his supporters would like and its hefty price tag suggests.

First, some perspective: On the morning of November 7, 2020, when Biden landed enough electoral votes to win the White House, a progressive Democrat would probably have been ecstatic to learn that within a year the president would be on the cusp of an election. to enact law. three major bills totaling more than $4 trillion in new spending on childcare, climate change, health care and housing. Biden had run to the right of most of his Democratic rivals in the primaries, and the prospect of a Senate majority held off two long Georgia wins. As I wrote last month, the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and even a limited package of social and climate spending, along with the $1.9 trillion US bailout plan that Congress enacted in the spring, easily reduces the size and scope of Performance President Barack Obama assured himself with much wider Democratic margins on Capitol Hill during his first two years in office. In his typical hyperbole, Biden went even further this morning, telling House Democrats in a private meeting that the two bills now before Congress were more important than the combined achievements of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, according to a person known. with his comments.

But when Biden announced the deal he’d struck with West Virginia senators Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, progressives barely celebrated. While Biden and Chairman Nancy Pelosi leaned on them to finally pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by the Senate months ago, progressives still mourned the fallen centers of the more ambitious half of the party’s agenda. A clean electricity mandate to combat climate change, paid family and sick leave, a plan to lower the price of prescription drugs and a free community college all succumbed to Manchin and Sinema’s austerity demands.

More troubling to Democrats, most of what the public has heard about the bill has focused on the parts left out. In 2010, Pelosi gave Republicans a political gift when she said of the emerging Affordable Care Act, “We need to pass the bill so you can see what’s in it.” The speaker’s obtuse comment was less of a congressional cloak-and-dagger defense than it was a statement that is equally true today: Democrats must enact their legislation so they can sell the public its remaining benefits. “The conversation will quickly shift from what’s in and out to what it’s doing,” said Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic strategist who helps market the Build Back Better plan.

In this case, that policy is formidable. Before flying to a major climate conference in Europe, Biden could see the growing prospects of the largest US investment ever — $555 billion, or about a third of the entire bill — in clean energy, funding to set up pre-kindergarten programs for 3 years. and 4-year-olds across the country, an expansion of the expanded child tax credit he and Congress created this spring, and a broad expansion of health care programs and grants. Unlike a decade ago, when the Obamacare public had soured by the time Democrats passed the bill, polls show voters broadly support elements of Biden’s agenda (even if a majority disapproves of the president himself). The White House was eager to wrap up negotiations before Biden left so that the president could tell the world that the US would help lead the fight against climate change, that its embattled democracy could function. But Biden can’t quite claim that he closed the deal.

As the president described the agreement he had reached, Democrats across the ideological spectrum were still scrambling to save their favored policies from the scrap heap. Progressives like Washington State Representative Pramila Jayapal pledged to torpedo another vote on the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill until the second, broader bill was passed. And Manchin and Sinema offered no guarantee that they would vote for the final deal — a promise the progressives seemed minimal to see before agreeing to move forward.

Biden begged the House Democrats to give him their trust and their votes. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the majority of the House and Senate and my presidency will be determined by what happens next week,” the president said during his meeting at the Capitol. He might have spent a little more time convincing progressives, or getting commitments from Manchin and Sinema, or working out the details of his hastily completed framework. But Biden’s plane was waiting and he had to catch a flight.