- Make an aggressively pro-government argument, that it’s Washington’s job to help us through the crisis and keep helping to bring the country to where we want it to be
- Begin with big, bold proposals to do just that
- Give Republicans the chance to join in, but assume they’ll say no
Let’s examine them in turn.
Advocating for government. In Biden’s speech announcing the plan, he told the story of a California woman who died of covid-19, then described the desperate state of the country — up to 4,000 dying every day, millions unemployed and facing eviction, businesses disappeared. He described the future he wants to bring about:
Imagine the future Made in America in all of America and all by Americans. We will use taxpayer dollars to rebuild America. [...]Imagine historic investments in Research & Development to sharpen America’s innovative edge in markets where global leadership is up for grabs, markets like battery technology, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and clean energy. [...]Imagine confronting the climate crisis with American jobs and ingenuity leading the world…
Biden painted this picture of a dynamic and prosperous future made possible by government spending. He might not quite be Lyndon Johnson — at least not yet — but he’s unapologetic in his belief that government can and should enable us to solve the problems we face.
Since Ronald Reagan was president, we’ve been shackled by a fundamentally conservative perspective on government, a set of default assumptions saying that we should try to reduce government’s size and reach whenever we can, deficit spending is a moral abomination and government solutions are inherently inferior to letting the private sector do what it will. If Biden spends four or eight years assaulting those ideas in both word and deed, he’ll have done his party and the country a great service.
Going big. Biden’s plan is comprehensive and ambitious, with provision after provision that would deliver assistance to individuals, businesses, and state and local governments. It includes $1,400 in direct payments (to add to the $600 checks from the bill Congress passed in December), money for expanded coronavirus testing, billions for vaccine distribution, funds to help schools reopen, extended unemployment benefits, rental assistance, extra money for food stamps and hiring health-care workers. It even includes expanded family leave, child care assistance, an increase in the Child Tax Credit and a long-overdue rise in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
In other words, while the plan targets money to lots of specific areas of need, it also seems to be guided by the general principle that we should do as much as we possibly can. This isn’t the situation we saw in 2009, when the Obama administration immediately began negotiating with itself and chose to hold the Recovery Act below arbitrary dollar amounts.
Not only that, Biden says that this is the rescue package and he’ll be proposing an additional recovery package in February when he addresses Congress.
Confronting Republicans without delusions. The line from Biden’s team and congressional Democrats is that they hope Republicans will work with them to pass this package. But Democrats aren’t naive enough to count on it. In fact, they probably couldn’t get 10 Republican votes to overcome a filibuster in the Senate for the most visible proposal, the $1,400 checks, if they made that a stand-alone bill.
Recall that before the Georgia Senate runoffs, Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue came out for giving everyone $2,000, and a few of their Republican colleagues joined them. But last week, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said, “The Senate is not going to be bullied into rushing out more borrowed money into the hands of Democrats’ rich friends who don’t need the help.”
The point is not the substance of McConnell’s bogus objection (the money doesn’t actually go to rich people; it phases out starting at $75,000 of income), it’s that he treats the idea like something he’d rather die than approve. He’ll get his caucus in line to oppose it.
Here’s where that leaves Biden and the Democrats: They’ll make a show of asking Republicans for their support, then when they’re rejected, they’ll say, “We tried, but now Republicans leave us with no choice but to pass this bill through reconciliation,” which requires only a majority.
Passing it through reconciliation isn’t a sure thing — they’d still have to keep conservative Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) from defecting (perhaps he’d be interested in the creation of a gorgeous new Manchin Center for Public Affairs at the University of West Virginia). But it’s the only realistic way to pass the bill.
As a formula for legislating, the approach Biden is taking has its risks and its limits. But those are inevitable, given Democrats’ razor-thin majorities in both houses. For now, it looks like the best approach he could take to actually accomplish what he got elected to do.
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