One of Congress’s main jobs — perhaps its most important — is to decide how to spend the government’s money. And there’s quite a lot of it; in 2022 we’ll be spending around $6 trillion.
Everything wrong with how we think of spending money can be seen in the current negotiations over the social infrastructure bill Democrats hope to pass through reconciliation. But to put this in its proper context, let’s consider another, much bigger bill.
On Thursday, by a vote of 316 to 113, the House passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which will fund our military operations to the tune of $768 billion in the coming year. The nay votes were mostly conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, presumably dissenting for opposite reasons.
If you’ve been following the reconciliation debate — in which people have been absolutely obsessed with the supposedly terrifying number of $3.5 trillion — you might have thought the defense bill would produce enormous breast-beating about out-of-control spending and debt. After all, that $3.5 trillion is over 10 years, or $350 billion a year, less than half of what we’re going to spend on the military.
But that’s not what happened. Apart from a brief to-do over whether the bill would include funding for Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, the defense bill moved through the process efficiently and with little controversy.
There were no painful negotiations, no ultimatums, no desperate threats. President Biden did not have to beg and plead to secure anyone’s vote. And you sure didn’t see centrist members of Congress expressing deep concern about its size, claiming it was irresponsible to add so much to the national debt — although we’ll easily be spending $8 or $9 trillion on the military over the same 10-year period.
Yet all that has happened on the social infrastructure bill. The bill’s final spending total — whatever it turns out to be — has been imbued with a bizarre talismanic power, as though it represents something meaningful above and beyond what it’s actually buying.
Consider Sen. Joe Manchin III’s (D-W.Va.) description of a White House meeting President Biden held with centrists to try to work out what’s holding back their support:
“He just basically said find a number you’re comfortable with,” Manchin said, adding that Biden’s message was to “please just work on it. Give me a number.”Manchin told reporters that he didn’t give Biden a number he could get behind and that Biden didn’t give him a hard deadline for when moderates needed to turn over that number.
The appropriate question about this incident is: Why on earth should they care? What does it matter if the number is $3.5 trillion, or $3.4 trillion, or $3.6 trillion?
Not only do the centrists not know their preferred number, they don’t seem to have many real opinions about what should actually be in the bill. They may object to an item here or there if you press them, but clearly their perspective starts from the conviction that $3.5 trillion is too big; they’ll fill in the details later.
But that’s completely backward. To negotiate a bill such as this is, you ought to begin by deciding what you want to do, then figure out how much it will cost.
It’s not that cost is completely irrelevant, or that there are some things we’d like to do but won’t because they’re too expensive. But we have plenty of money to work with, and the defense bill proves it.
If we decided the reconciliation bill’s paid family leave and universal pre-K and free community college and aggressive moves to promote clean energy were as important as all the guns and bombs and planes and ships in the defense bill, we’d treat it in the same way, by just buying everything without worrying about the price, because we think it’s worthwhile.
This isn’t the first time Democrats have convinced themselves that there was something magical about a particular budget number: In 2009, during internal debates about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Affordable Care Act, Obama White House advisers decided that crossing the threshold of a trillion dollars for either bill would make support melt away. As Michael Grunwald put it, “A trillion was a psychological Rubicon.”
The trillion dollar number became like “Candyman” — intone the word too many times and a monster would come to destroy you. Voters would recoil in disgust, lawmakers would cower in terror and the bill would die. So they reduced the size of the recovery bill, even knowing it was too small to give the economy the boost it needed.
Today, the centrists seem to believe that $3.5 trillion — if you’re spending it on Americans’ actual needs, and not, say, a shiny new fighter jet — will have the same effect as $1 trillion did in 2009.
But you know who doesn’t care about numbers? Republicans. When they want to pass a gigantic tax cut for the wealthy and corporations, they just do it, no matter what it costs.
You know who else doesn’t care? The public. They don’t have strong feelings about whether the social infrastructure bill should add up to $3.5 trillion or $2.5 trillion (here’s a poll showing that changing the dollar figure has no effect on opinion). They’re more interested in what government is doing for them.
Which is exactly as it should be. If only Democrats in Washington had enough sense to see things the same way.