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Opinion Democrats, don’t knuckle under to corporations on the reconciliation bill

The U.S. Capitol in December. (Jonathan Newton /The Washington Post)

The infrastructure bill that passed the Senate and awaits action in the House was in some ways a model of bipartisanship, supported by some Republicans as well as all the chamber’s Democrats, and given a boost from traditionally Republican business groups. That wasn’t a surprise; big corporations need infrastructure to do business. If the government pays for better roads, a more resilient electrical grid and wider availability of broadband, it’ll probably help the bottom line.

But what happens when the government suggests addressing Americans’ needs and asks those corporations to help pay for it? This is what happens:

A torrent of political groups representing some of the country’s most influential corporations — including ExxonMobil, Pfizer, and the Walt Disney Company — is laying the groundwork for a massive lobbying blitz to stop Congress from enacting significant swaths of President Biden’s $3.5 trillion economic agenda.
The emerging opposition appears to be vast, spanning drug manufacturers, big banks, tech titans, major retailers and oil-and-gas giants. In recent weeks, top Washington organizations representing these and other industries have started strategizing behind the scenes, seeking to battle back key elements in Democrats proposed overhaul to federal health care, education and safety net programs.

This campaign will have lots of behind-the-scenes pressure: Together, these companies employ a group of lobbyists that are approximately equal in number to China’s People’s Liberation Army — as well as online and TV ads coming to a screen near you.

So Democrats should now ask themselves: What are we doing here? As in, why did we decide to run for Congress? Because there are some moments that test your resolve, in which you have to ask what the purpose of public service is, and whether it’s more than just staying in your job for as long as possible.

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There are disagreements among Democrats about what should be in the final bill, and it’s almost certain that these corporations will have some success in stripping away some provisions they find threatening. There’s an increase in the corporate tax rate (though under every proposal, it would still be less than before the 2017 Republican tax cut). There’s money to boost Internal Revenue Service enforcement of existing tax laws, which the people who run corporations don’t like; an overstretched, overworked IRS that can’t manage to audit the super-rich is just how CEOs like things.

Perhaps most threatening is the proposal to allow Medicare to negotiate prices for prescription drugs, as they are currently barred by law from doing. Democrats insist that change would pay for much of the trillions of dollars in new and beefed-up social programs this bill creates.

So when the ads start running, Democrats who don’t hold safe seats are going to get nervous. That’s when it’ll be time for a gut check.

Here’s the truth: Democrats are probably going to lose one or both houses in the 2022 midterm elections; the House most likely, and perhaps the Senate, as well. So why not take that as a given, and legislate as though you didn’t have to worry about the politics?

Like the samurai who tells himself he’s already dead and thus goes into battle without fear, a member of Congress who thinks his party will probably lose the majority can be liberated to stop caring about what ExxonMobil thinks.

That doesn’t mean they’ll all come to the same answer; there are real ideological differences within the Democratic caucus in both chambers. But at the very least, they shouldn’t be frightened of supporting this bill because a bunch of lobbyists told them it would be bad for corporations.

Even if you were consumed by the politics — and, of course, they will be — the real risk isn’t getting corporations mad. The real risk is in not passing the bill.

Think about it this way: There is one path by which moderate Democrats kill the reconciliation bill after being pressured by some nasty corporate-sponsored ads, and another path by which the reconciliation bill passes despite those ads. By which of those paths do Democrats have a better chance of holding on to the majority?

Are there that many voters who will say, “I’m really mad there was a change to the stepped-up basis rule of the capital gains tax!”? And do their numbers exceed those who will see Democratic rule as pointless and ineffectual if this bill fails, given that Democrats aren’t going to pass much else?

After all, with the filibuster intact, they’ll only have next year’s reconciliation bill before the midterms to show voters they can actually deliver. Saying “We might have created universal pre-K, climate change mitigation, dental coverage in Medicare, and paid family leave, but I said ‘No!’ because I wouldn’t stand for an increase in the top tax rate” won’t be much of a winning message in swing districts.

It’s never a good idea to bet against corporations getting their way in Congress, so by the time this bill reaches its final vote, it could look much friendlier to big business than it does now. But if most of its spending provisions remain intact — and are designed so that people start seeing the benefits as soon as possible — it will still be vital to any chance Democrats have of keeping power after 2022. That’s what they can’t forget.