The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Democrats should thank the moderates in their party

The U.S. Capitol on Aug. 3, 2020. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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Democrats owe a debt of thanks to the House moderates among their ranks who last week stood in the way of the 11th-hour rush to pass President Biden’s Build Back Better initiative along with the smaller $1.2-trillion infrastructure bill that the president is now preparing to sign.

The condition the moderates set is that the larger social-spending package — which has been negotiated down to roughly $2 trillion — first receive an acceptable “score” from the Congressional Budget Office. Their definition of what they must see is an estimate that shows it will not add to the deficit.

That report may be weeks away, and my hunch is that there may be some flexibility in the moderates’ position if the numbers come in close to what they are demanding.

But where they are absolutely right is in demanding to have as much information as possible before they vote. As much as voters want to see action out of Washington, they also want to be reassured that any expansion of government is being done with care, with the potential consequences being weighed along with the benefits. That was one of the lessons that Democrats should have taken from the drubbing they got in last week’s elections.

Here is where the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office comes in. Created by Congress itself in 1974, the little-understood agency does so much more than crunch numbers. And while it cannot see the future — it did not, for instance, foresee the Supreme Court ruling that states could not be forced to expand their Medicaid programs under the Affordable Care Act — the CBO’s analysis represents the gold standard of government work. A CBO estimate is also required for anything the Senate takes up under the budget procedures that would allow it to pass the social-spending legislation on Democratic votes alone.

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“The best CBO estimates offer a wide range of insights into the effects of legislation,” says Douglas Elmendorf, who headed the agency from 2009 to 2015 — a span that included the passage of both the ACA and the Dodd-Frank financial reform — and who is now dean of Harvard University’s Kennedy School. “Congress ought to understand the budgetary effect of legislation they are creating.”

Progressives are understandably nervous about what the CBO will find under the hood of the bill. Some of the revenue estimates, such as the White House projection that enhanced tax enforcement could bring in $400 billion over a decade, are sketchy. And the spending numbers include unrealistic assumptions, including that, if enacted, sure-to-be-popular programs such as an expanded child tax credit and an enhanced earned-income tax credit would be allowed to expire after a few years. The CBO analysis should confront these uncertainties directly.

But past experience also suggests that the CBO may also deflate some of the more histrionic claims that opponents are making. During the debate over the ACA, for instance, the CBO refuted Republican claims that the measure would either lead to a surge of employers dropping coverage of their workers or blow a huge new hole in the deficit.

And when a new Republican majority tried to blow up the ACA in 2017, the CBO helped bring a halt to their drive by pointing out the repeal would mean an additional 23 million people would lose their coverage by 2026.

At a time when intraparty tensions remain high, progressives worry that more moderate lawmakers will use the CBO analysis as a pretext to force a further scaling back of the legislation for which they have already made major concessions. “What if the CBO score is not to their liking?” Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) told The Post. “What if the lobbying efforts that have been taking place over the last several months continue and someone decides they no longer want to support the BBB at the current level — if at all?”

Largely unspoken is a belief on the part of liberals that time is running out, which is underscored by last week’s electoral disaster for Democrats. They believe they must move quickly and aggressively because they are likely to lose their thin majorities in the House and possibly the Senate next year. In the House, those who will be wiped out are not the liberals — almost all of them come from safe districts — but the moderates who will be defending seats in swing districts. But in the event of an electoral wipeout, the liberals who remain in the House will be impotent against a GOP majority.

A political imperative for speed, however, is not an excuse for carelessness. Americans have a right to expect that their leaders have taken every foreseeable contingency into account before they undertake major new initiatives. And they should be wary of any effort to bypass the referees.