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Opinion If Democrats must scale down their ambitions, here’s what they should prioritize

President Biden speaks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) after a Capitol Hill meeting on the party's infrastructure priorities on Oct. 1. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

If President Biden really wants to “Build Back Better,” he should prioritize investments in the future. As opposed to continuing the spending patterns, and wealth transfers, of the past.

Democrats must trim their enormous safety-net-and-climate agenda so that it fits into a package the party’s moderate members might support. That means slicing their existing bill at least in half, maybe more.

They face grueling choices.

They could shrink every program, squeezing in more projects and (theoretically) appeasing more constituencies. They could dump some initiatives altogether and keep only their topmost priorities. My view, as I wrote last week, is that they should prioritize doing fewer things well, rather than doing a lot of things halfway.

After all, a grab-bag of partly funded programs is harder to coherently “message” to voters than a few clear top-line takeaways. More important: It’s harder to execute successfully.

Many programs won’t scale down without huge losses in quality or durability. Money allocated to programs executed on the cheap might be wasted altogether.

Democrats are also transforming multiple, complicated parts of the safety net simultaneously — child care and paid leave and health care and workforce training and housing (and so on). Any one of these alone would be difficult to get off the ground. Getting the structure right will be challenging, and there is almost zero public debate right now about the substantive design choices and trade-offs involved in these initiatives.

Instead, most of the discussion fixates on the top-line cost across all programs. (Contrast the months-long debate over every nitty-gritty provision of the Affordable Care Act.)

More money dedicated to a specific program doesn’t guarantee successful execution. But shortchanging a complex program’s funding compounds the risk that implementation will go badly. Success is more likely if Democrats choose their priorities, and focus on getting those priorities carefully designed and adequately funded.

Some Democrats, including some White House staffers, disagree.

They argue that it’s better to plant many seeds and see what blossoms. Or they note that Biden promised an expansive set of new initiatives and must deliver, at least a little, on all of them. (It’s not clear why he needs to deliver on extraneous things lawmakers have added, such as Medicare expansion or repeal of the cap on state and local tax deductions.)

Some Democrats argue that it’s easy for pundits to declare that the bill should be whittled down and harder to pinpoint what those few priorities should be. Anyone in the “just do three-to-five-things” camp, a senior administration official told me, is obligated to say what those “three to five things are and explain which things they’re throwing overboard.”

Fair enough.

There are a lot of admirable ideas in the Democrats’ agenda. In a world with unlimited resources (or, at least, more pliable senators from West Virginia and Arizona), they might all be worth doing. But given the constraints, Democrats should prioritize the several policies that represent investments in the future.

Specifically: climate change and kids.

“Building Back Better” almost by definition requires investing in a lower-carbon future, to literally keep the planet habitable. We have a sense of which policies are likely to be most effective. Those policies may not be the exact array of climate programs that Democrats currently offer. (A carbon tax would be more effective at reducing emissions than pretty much anything Democrats are seriously considering, and it would have the added benefit of raising money.)

Their other priorities must include investing in children, particularly low-income children, such as through universal, high-quality pre-K; and a generous child tax credit that aims its firepower at families with low or zero earnings, so that more children are lifted out of poverty. Reducing child poverty is both a humanitarian and economic concern. Investing in children suffering from poverty helps them grow up to become more productive adults, who earn more money, have better health and need fewer services.

Current federal budgets already have plenty of redistribution from young to old. The federal government spends six times as much per capita on older Americans as it does on children, according to the Urban Institute’s 2020 “Kids’ Share” report. This is driven by the growing size of entitlement programs (the benefits of which current beneficiaries did not, in fact, fully pay for, despite common misconceptions otherwise).

The elderly have many compelling, unmet needs; I am not suggesting otherwise. But children have far higher poverty and near-poverty rates. Their needs right now are greater, and the societal costs of not addressing them will last longer. Given competing priorities, I’d rather see an additional dollar spent on educating or feeding an impoverished 3-year-old than giving, say, Bill Gates free designer eyeglasses, no premium required, as Democrats’ current Medicare expansion plan would do.

Many times Biden has said, “Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” His party has tried to wriggle out of the moral implications of that statement by pretending its budget can accommodate every desirable program. Now Democrats must prove what they actually value most.