Media coverage of the debate over "Build Back Better," President Joe Biden's $1.75 trillion social policy and climate plan currently stalled in Congress, has focused so much on legislative strategy and the political drama between Biden and Sen. Joe Manchin that the most crucial element -- what the package would actually do -- has gotten lost in the noise.
In a nutshell, it would bring America in line with most of the advanced world in terms of policies that make life better for families with children, while confronting the existential threat to humanity posed by global warming. Among provisions in the bill already passed by the House are family-leave benefits, extension of the child care tax credit, universal pre-K, tax incentives for electric vehicles and solar panels, rental assistance, drug price reduction and Medicare and Medicaid expansion.
But that cornucopia of strong progressive goals in the bill is, as it turns out, its weakness. The numerous unrelated ornaments hung on this Christmas tree of a measure threaten to tip it over. This newspaper has strongly supported core elements of the legislation, especially the family-friendly and climate-friendly initiatives. But it has become clear that loading Santa down with these disparate policy issues together in an attempt to get them all down the chimney at once has actually hindered delivery of these crucial gifts to America.
That is, again, a strategic issue, and we will come back to it. But first, it's worth reviewing just what's at stake.
Families and children: The package would provide four weeks of paid leave for workers who are sick, who are caring for family members who are sick, or who are new parents. America today is one of the few advanced countries in the world that doesn't provide paid family and sick leave.
The package would continue the enhanced child tax credit of $250 to $300 per child that was included in this year's pandemic relief plan and is set to expire next week. It would limit child care costs for families with kids under 6 to no more than 7% of income for low- and middle-income earners, subsidizing care for about 20 million kids. It would expand free pre-Kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds. It would expand free school meals to almost 9 million kids who don't currently qualify and provide summer food benefits to another 29 million.
Health care: The measure would continue the current enhanced benefits under the Affordable Care Act, which will otherwise expire at the end of next year, affecting medical insurance coverage of more than 3 million Americans. It would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, bringing down prescription costs. It would add hearing-aid coverage to Medicare, improve home care services under Medicaid, and limit insulin costs for diabetics to $35 per month.
Environment and climate: The legislation would invest hundreds of billions in clean-energy initiatives. It would provide up to $12,500 to families for electric-vehicle purchases, with other incentives for purchasing home solar panels. It would pay utility companies to increase their renewable energy supply -- and fine those that don't. It would provide financial incentives for the manufacture of wind turbines and would create a Civilian Climate Corps to put 300,000 people to work restoring forests.
Other provisions: Under Biden's proposal, billions of new dollars would be steered toward low-income housing, rental assistance and down-payment assistance, Pell grant expansion for college students, community violence programs and more.
The Democrat-controlled House passed its version of the package last month, but it's hung up in the Senate, where Democrats have a whisper-thin majority and can't afford to lose even one Democratic vote. The situation has (not for the first time) put enormous power in the hands of Manchin, the West Virginia centrist Democrat, who was negotiating with the Biden administration to trim back what he viewed as an overly expansive bill. The negotiations fell apart this week, possibly dooming the entire measure.
As frustrating as it is that one senator can hold that much power over a measure that the majority party wants, that's the reality of America's political system. Those who support the initiatives could more constructively direct their ire at the self-defeating way the bill has been marketed.
The price tag has moved around but has generally been described as near $2 trillion. However, that's a deceptively high number because it's spread over a decade, and it's paid for (or mostly paid for, depending on who is doing the analyzing) by tax hikes on corporations and the wealthy. Even the Congressional Budget Office, whose numbers are more pessimistic than Biden's, puts the real addition to the deficit at less than $370 billion total over 10 years.
Yet that "$2 trillion" phrase keepings popping up as the central focus of debate, offering a fat target to Republican opponents -- which is galling, given that the GOP's 2017 tax cuts for the wealthy actually did load almost $2 trillion onto the deficit, and without making life better for most Americans.
In addition, tying so many different issues together inevitably makes it easier for opponents to justify their opposition. Lawmakers who might hesitate to vote against child tax credits alone, for example, are able to find cover if they can tell their constituents they were voting against what they claim is wasteful spending on climate-change mitigation.
To the extent that any of Biden's Build Back Better agenda is still salvageable, it may be best salvaged in smaller, more politically digestible pieces. That would present smaller price tags as targets and would force opponents to debate each idea on its merits. The merits are many.