“Americans don’t know what’s in the Build Back Better plan because the corporate media doesn’t discuss it,” Sanders wrote on Twitter. “Let’s stop the beltway gossip and start talking about lowering prescription drug costs, expanding Medicare, childcare and housing — and combatting climate change.”
It is true that the media — at least cable news programs — have dedicated more conversation to the price of the bill than to its components. Over the past six months, there have been far more mentions of “trillion” in conversations about legislation on cable news than of “prescription” (a reference to proposed prescription-drug price changes) or “clean energy.”
But this shouldn’t really be surprising. The legislation went from a large package centered on infrastructure to two bills, one including the infrastructure components and one containing … everything else. The administration went from having an umbrella descriptor for the investments it wanted to make to a vague phrase aimed at branding it.
Think about the first major legislation that Biden signed into law: a large package of legislation centered on coronavirus relief. It included checks for Americans and a tax credit for parents, along with a lot of other things. But the point was obvious, as was the shorthand. It was presented as addressing the pandemic, even if the manner in which that happened was expansive. It was popular and passed easily.
When Biden first announced his infrastructure bill, it seemed to me that he had learned an important lesson. Have a popular top line and attach a number of other components and you improve the odds of passage. It’s easy to describe: This is infrastructure. Yes, his definition of “infrastructure” was again expansive, looping in things that aren’t usually associated with infrastructure, such as promoting clean energy. But this, too, was defensible, given the ways in which climate change will affect (and, this summer, was affecting) the country’s transit systems.
Then Biden made a political bet. He’d run on the idea of being able to bring Republicans to the table to negotiate legislation, and he did so, working with moderate Democrats and Republican senators to break the infrastructure package into two pieces. The first was mostly traditional investments in bridges and roads; the second was the leftovers, now unable to hang on to “infrastructure’s” coattails. Biden insisted that the two were a package deal, but that meant defending both together on Capitol Hill and in the media.
CBS News’s poll shows that the major components of the leftovers bill have strong support. That said, there’s no independent descriptor besides Biden’s “Build Back Better” branding that quickly explains what it contains. One can easily convey what the coronavirus relief bill was focused on and what the bipartisan infrastructure bill is, but what’s the throughline to the other bill? Even in his tweet, Sanders just lists a bunch of components, in part to illustrate what it contains but also because there’s not really anything that allows it to gel.
Or, there wasn’t, until Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) raised objections to the bill’s price tag. That focus on cost was vague and generally detached from the legislation’s components; neither senator has indicated which specific components they want to see stripped out. But this centered the conversation on cost. The Democratic Party’s internal debate over how to get the cost down, a debate that has included discussions of how different programs might be funded or removed, has continued to reinforce that this is the defining point of debate.
Congress passed a huge military spending bill last month on a bipartisan basis that evoked little opposition, a reminder that it is happy to spend money when it wants to. And by centering the discussion on cost, it is absolutely the case that the public isn’t likely to understand what the legislation contains. Most Americans have little time and interest in understanding what legislation does, which is a central reason that politicians try to come up with umbrella descriptors that offer a shorthand. The separated-out “Build Back Better” framing lost to “$3.5 trillion.” Perhaps “infrastructure-plus” or something similar wouldn’t have.
In the CBS News poll, those who had heard about key components of the bill, such as paid family leave, were more likely to approve of it. But it’s not clear whether their support stemmed from hearing about those components or whether their support for Biden’s agenda prompted them to learn about what this proposal contains.
The bill isn’t doomed. It seems likely to be slimmed down, and the White House and Democrats will have a new chance to define what it is and what it does. Newspapers, which have lots of time and space to go into detail, will continue to explain the particulars of the policy and the “beltway gossip” that’s spurring political decision-making.
But if Biden and his party can’t figure out how to effectively tell Americans what this revamped bill is about, the politics will not get much easier.