The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Joe Manchin and Republicans are wrecking our most important debates

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) on Capitol Hill, on Dec. 8. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In a political system full of pathologies, here’s one we don’t often consider: Even when we decide to spend a bunch of money to meet the country’s pressing needs, the debate we have about exactly how to go about it is so distorted that it becomes almost impossible to make good decisions.

It’s a particular kind of distortion, one that obscures and distracts from the substantive choices we have to make, so that the original point of the enterprise becomes almost an afterthought.

Consider the Build Back Better bill, whose fate still lies with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). Manchin now reportedly wants to either cut or eliminate the expanded child tax credit — one of the most effective antipoverty measures in history — because he thinks it’s too expensive.

Manchin is also arguing with President Biden about the fact that many of the programs in the bill phase in or phase out over the course of 10 years, which Manchin considers problematic budget gimmickry.

On that point he isn’t wrong, strictly speaking; it is gimmickry, of a type that has been used by both parties. But do you know who’s most responsible for that feature of this bill? That’s right: Joe Manchin.

Biden and congressional Democrats have spent months courting and pleading with Manchin, over matters that have had almost nothing to do with the things the bill is supposed to accomplish. Again and again, Manchin has declared that whatever the total cost of a given version of the bill was, it was too much. You don’t like $3.5 trillion? How about 2.5? Or 2.1? Would 1.75 be okay?

Because of the focus on total cost, the inevitable paring and shaping of the bill hasn’t been driven by the country’s most important needs and how best to meet them, but by what would satisfy Manchin’s arbitrary arithmetic demands.

And now he’s consumed with whether one provision or another should phase out after five years or last for 10. So we’ve spent all this time not debating the things the bill does, because apparently for Manchin that’s barely relevant.

In the end, Manchin will probably vote for the bill, but the substantively impoverished debate has created its own set of problems even if it passes. Had we spent six months debating details of, for instance, universal pre-K — what its benefits are and how to implement it — when Democrats did pass a bill to make it happen, the public would understand what had just happened.

Which means voters would be more likely to credit Democrats for the program, and then in the future be able to judge whether it was a success. But now they have only the vaguest idea about what might occur, and when it does they won’t connect it to the political process that produced it. All they know is that there was a bunch of wrangling over a bill with a lot of big numbers in it.

Even worse is the way Republican politicians are united in their determination not to allow us to have a substantive debate.

The New York Times reports on how many GOP governors joined their compatriots in Washington in blasting the American Rescue Plan that passed in March with zero Republican votes — then those same governors took the money it included for their own states. They used that money to fund whatever projects they found worthwhile, and are happily taking credit for them.

This is hypocritical, of course. But hypocrisy isn’t the real problem here.

Republicans would like us to just talk about whether any government spending that helps people is “socialism” — even if they take the money for their own states — so we end up having an abstract and superficial debate, rather than one focused on specifics like pandemic relief, infrastructure or Build Back Better. Those governors had preferences for what sort of spending they favored — which were revealed when they quietly took the money — but their constituents never heard them make a real case for one set of priorities over another.

That means the money is less likely to be spent wisely and less likely to reflect the public’s own preferences. If we had a real debate showing what people in a particular state cared about — say, replacing old water pipes and updating school buildings — not only would the money have probably gone to those projects, there would be accountability for politicians who did or didn’t deliver.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask for debates over government spending to be a model of careful deliberation. But it’s not impossible: There have been moments in our history when voters were presented with competing options for government action, decided which they preferred and got what they asked for. Popular proposals have been enacted (such as the creation of Medicare) and unpopular ones have been rejected (such as George W. Bush’s attempt to partially privatize Social Security).

Though Build Back Better is still more likely than not to become law, this is clearly not going to be one of those moments. Even after Manchin is done hacking away at it, it will still do tremendous good for the public. But chances are that voters will barely realize it.