The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats have insulted, cajoled and begged Manchin. Now they should listen to him.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill, Nov. 02. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The White House and congressional Democrats have tried everything to get a commitment from Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) to what is now a $1.75 trillion Build Back Better (BBB) climate and social policy bill. They have cajoled him, they have flattered him, they have leaned on him.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tried going over Manchin’s head, addressing West Virginia voters directly, via an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

So far, nothing’s worked. On Monday, Manchin demanded a House vote on a $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan, which he helped write and which has already passed the Senate with a large bipartisan majority. Holding this so-called BIF plan hostage until he accepts the BBB framework President Biden unveiled last week, he said, “is not going to work.”

Maybe they should try listening to him.

Manchin’s remarks made sense, both politically and policy-wise. The essential political argument for BBB is that its individual components — such as universal pre-K or a Civilian Climate Corps — receive strong support in polls. Manchin stands accused of blocking a “popular” bill.

Obviously, a lot of what gives Manchin pause are clean-energy provisions, which people in his coal-producing, heavily pro-Trump state dislike even after he got the toughest ones removed. Equally clearly, the BBB proposal tackles long-neglected social needs — albeit a list shortened at Manchin’s behest — which most Democrats pledged to address in their 2020 campaigns.

Yet in citing “historic inflation” as a reason to balk at the spending plan, Manchin showed that he, not House progressives, has his finger on the pulse of the American people — as of November 2021. A Pew Research Center poll in September found that 63 percent are “very concerned” about rising prices, far more than worry about other issues such as jobs or evictions.

Maybe various components of BBB poll well in the abstract, but a new ABC News/Ipsos poll shows the public has little idea what’s in the latest iteration. What they do know is not attractive: Only 25 percent think it will help “people like them.” Fewer than half of Democrats — just 47 percent — said the bill would help people like them.

The White House has conceded the public’s shifting priorities — backhandedly — by touting the bill’s inflation-fighting potential. In response to Manchin, press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday: “Seventeen Nobel Prize-winning economists have said [the bill] will reduce inflation,” though their endorsement letter’s exact words were that BBB would “ease longer-term inflationary pressures,” by boosting productivity.

Which brings us to policy. As between the Federal Reserve’s actions and deficit spending, the former probably has much more impact on inflation. And BBB would have no effect, in theory, if it were fully offset by tax increases, as Biden has claimed it already is.

Yet Manchin is right when he says BBB in its current form isn’t fully paid for, due to budgetary “shell games” that “make the real cost of the so-called $1.75 trillion bill estimated to be almost twice that amount … if you extended it permanently.”

His reluctance to sign off — before the Congressional Budget Office has even “scored” its deficit impact — is therefore reasonable. Former Obama White House economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers argued that $1.9 trillion in deficit spending under the pandemic recovery bill adopted in March, in combination with easy Fed policy, would overheat the economy, feeding a price surge. Current trends seem to vindicate his view.

Sanders fired back that the $1.2 trillion BIF isn’t fully paid for, either. This is true. Yet the impact on productivity of borrowing to invest in roads, bridges and ports is better understood than that of the social programs in the BBB plan. Certainly, Sanders’s top priority — Medicare expansion for retirees — is current consumption, not investment.

In any case, Manchin says he is open to higher tax rates, including increased corporate taxes; he comes to the fiscal responsibility discussion with cleaner hands, so to speak, than his fellow BBB-hesitant Senate Democrat, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who rejected almost any higher rates on individuals or businesses.

A Manchin-friendly approach would have Democrats pass the infrastructure bill and send it on to Biden for a big bipartisan signing ceremony, followed by further talks. The goal would be a gimmick-free, paid-for, 10-year, $1.5 trillion plan focused on perhaps two clearly defined programs that benefit low- and middle-income people — with a higher corporate tax but no state and local tax (SALT) relief for the upper-middle class or $7,500 credits for Tesla buyers.

No doubt such a package would alienate some other Democrats — from Sinema, to suburban House members demanding SALT relief, to ultra-progressives such as Cori Bush (D-Mo.), who denounced Manchin’s position on Monday as “anti-Black, anti-child, anti-woman and anti-immigrant.”

If by some miracle it did pass, though, the party could spend 2022 cutting ribbons and bragging about modest but real progress on fiscal responsibility, national unity and economic equality. Actually, it wouldn’t be bragging: It would be true.