The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A simple question about Build Back Better: What’s in it for West Virginia?

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) in D.C. on Dec. 17. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Here’s a quick review of American politics 101: Congressional districts elect one member of the House of Representatives each; states elect two senators each. House members represent their districts; senators, their states.

In those governmental units, groups that speak out, often based on economic interests, get the most attention from politicians. Otherwise, the latter may have trouble getting reelected.

Elementary as they are, the above concepts bear repeating because at the moment quite a few people in Washington, Democrats especially, have completely forgotten them.

Or so it would seem, judging by the fury being vented at Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) after he said he will not support the $2.4 trillion Build Back Better bill. Manchin stands accused by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) of a “lack of integrity.” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said Manchin “doesn’t have the courage to do the right thing.”

What Manchin is actually guilty of — if anything — is representing his state, including, to some extent, its special interests.

Karen Tumulty: Manchin’s position on Build Back Better reflects the reality of West Virginia politics

There’s nothing particularly admirable about this, but there’s absolutely nothing unusual about it either. The only surprise in this situation is that people are surprised — or claiming to be.

There would have to be a lot in BBB for his home state to overcome Manchin’s ostensible concerns about inflation and such. There’s not: To the contrary, it’s hard to imagine a bill that would have been more difficult for any senator from West Virginia, Democrat or Republican, to support.

It’s quite clear what’s in BBB for New York, California and New Jersey. The most expensive item in the House-passed version is $275 billion worth of restored federal deductions for state and local taxes (SALT). This is valuable to high-tax blue states, especially their upper-middle-class suburban residents, which explains why representatives from those districts, per American politics 101, made it a dealbreaker in the House.

West Virginia has a middling state and local tax burden — 26th largest in the country, according to the Tax Foundation.

The SALT break helps mainly well-off taxpayers for whom it is profitable to itemize deductions. West Virginia, as one of the poorest states, has the lowest share of itemizers of any state, 17.3 percent, according to the Tax Foundation. That finding is based on data from 2016 — before the 2017 tax bill raised the standard deduction, further reducing the number of itemizers.

Greg Sargent: The hidden, ugly truth behind Joe Manchin’s stance on BBB’s climate provisions

There’s also a provision in the bill for Michigan: a tax break for purchases of electric cars, which substantially favors vehicles built by members of the United Auto Workers. This creates a de facto penalty for the Toyota plant in Buffalo, W.Va., which is nonunion.

The electric-car subsidy is part of BBB’s $550 billion in tax incentives and spending to promote alternative energy and otherwise fight climate change.

There is no denying climate change. There is also no denying that decarbonization presents a disproportionate economic challenge for West Virginia. It’s one of six states (along with Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Wyoming) that account for a combined 55 percent of the primary energy production in the United States. The vast majority of West Virginia’s share comes from coal and natural gas — industries that also fund the state’s government with tens of millions of dollars in taxes each year.

Yes, coal employs only 11,000 West Virginians, 3 percent of all jobs in the state. Those are some of the best-paying jobs still available, however, with an average salary of $55,630 per year in a state whose median household income is just under $47,000. Not to mention intangibles such as local tradition and working-class pride.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: The coverage of Build Back Better’s failure is focused on the wrong culprits

Natural gas is a growing business in West Virginia, and a potential source of high-paying jobs once coal dies out — as seems inevitable, partly because lower-carbon gas would replace it. Yet BBB is not exactly pro-gas, either: It includes a stiff fee on methane emissions and $6 billion to convert gas appliances to electric alternatives.

The point here is not to endorse Manchin’s “no” on BBB. It’s true, as Manchin’s critics assert, that West Virginians could benefit from letting Medicare bargain for lower drug costs, or from an expanded child tax credit, and that Manchin’s objections could doom those.

What matters politically, though, is that these benefits are not uniquely advantageous for his state — whereas other provisions are particularly disadvantageous, or could plausibly be portrayed as such by Manchin’s opponents. That was still true even after the White House removed a $150 billion clean-electricity provision at Manchin’s request.

At times, Manchin’s motivations for resisting BBB have been portrayed as a “mystery.” The real mystery is why the White House and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) bet their political future on getting Manchin to vote for a bill such as this one.

Read a letter to the editor responding to this column.

When Manchin, defending his position, says, “If I can’t go home and explain it to the people of West Virginia, I can’t vote for it,” he’s not lying. He’s practicing American politics 101. Who knows what the other Democrats are doing.

Loading...