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Opinion Joe Manchin may soon do us all a little-noticed favor

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Until now, the story has been that Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) has been the executioner of President Biden’s Build Back Better bill, bringing his ax down on one liberal priority after another. He helped kill climate change provisions, paid leave and the billionaire tax, at a minimum.

But now it appears at least possible that Manchin might be coming around to supporting one of the most important features of the bill. If so, it will be a big deal, for the Democratic Party and for the country, in all kinds of ways.

We’re talking about the expanded child tax credit, or CTC. The framework for the package that the White House unveiled includes a one-year extension of the CTC in its current form, which sends $300 monthly payments to most American families. It’s fully refundable, so families with incomes too low to pay federal income taxes get it, and it only starts phasing out at incomes of over $150,000 for married couples.

Even better, the version in the Biden framework makes the extension to lower-income families permanent. It’s the expansion at the higher end that is set to last a year.

There are no public indications that Manchin opposes this right now. Notably, only a couple of weeks ago Manchin let it be known that he wanted to gut the CTC, by restricting it to family incomes below $60,000 and imposing some kind of work requirement.

But now none of that is in the Biden framework, and it’s hard to imagine that the White House would have included this version if Manchin hadn’t assented in some way. His office isn’t answering questions about this, but notably, he hasn’t been shy about expressing opposition in the past.

If this holds, that will be a big victory.

It’s true that it would have been better to extend the entire policy longer than a year. But if Manchin does agree to one year, it will provide a big opportunity for it to take hold with the public.

It’s important to remember that the expanded CTC has been with us for only a few months. What’s more, when it was expanded earlier this year as part of the covid-19 rescue package, it represented a revolutionary policy change.

By giving money to people every month and allowing even the poorest families to participate, it lifted millions of families out of poverty, allowing them to afford basic necessities including food, shelter and utilities. It’s also a change in thinking in how such benefits could be distributed — direct, fast and without a cumbersome bureaucracy making them hard to access.

What’s more, this could vindicate the somewhat risky strategy of putting in place a temporary benefit while hoping it will be extended later on. When Democrats put this in the rescue bill, they hoped that creating this enhanced credit as part of our pandemic response would lead people to see its value, allowing it to live on after this public health crisis is behind us.

Now, if things go well, the expanded CTC has a shot at becoming accepted as a major policy that makes a concrete and ongoing difference in people’s lives — and is associated with the Democratic Party.

This could “do a ton to help people see how progressive economic policies help them personally and strengthen the economy,” Lindsay Owens, director of the Groundwork Collaborative and the Fighting Chance for Families campaign for the CTC, told us. She added this could lead to "recipients giving Democrats credit for improving their lives.”

There’s another layer here as well. In opposing the expanded CTC and other policies, Manchin insisted we must avoid becoming an “entitlement society.” In this framing, a policy such as the CTC is just another welfare handout that saps the will to work.

But this shouldn’t be how the CTC is seen. It’s an empowering policy. It removes obstacles to family flourishing. And as a Niskanen Center study found, by giving lower-income families money, it gives a disproportionate boost in purchasing power to rural and less populous regions, helping fuel opportunity and demand, perhaps mitigating the stagnation sometimes associated with those areas.

Now, if the policy is extended for a year for poor and middle-class alike, and without the work requirement, we can perhaps drive home that this is empowering, not initiative-sapping, and leave that throwback anti-welfare stereotype behind.

“Dropping the work requirement debate and letting the CTC be extended as is, even if only for one year, is a huge step forward," Niskanen policy director Samuel Hammond told us. “It means we get to run the experiment in a more normal economy.”

“If negative effects on work fail to manifest in a year and a half from now,” Hammond said, “the case for then making the CTC expansion permanent with be airtight.”

It’s always possible, of course, that Manchin will suddenly revert to his old position. But he might be on the verge of agreeing, if temporarily, to this revolutionary policy change. If so, it could prove to be a very big deal indeed.