Today’s Edition: “Elect more liberals.”

October 1, 2021

         As I write on Thursday evening, it is possible that Speaker Pelosi will schedule a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. If the vote takes place, it will be late on Thursday evening or early on Friday morning. [Update: per news alerts in my inbox, there will be no vote on Thursday.] The breakthrough moment on Thursday was the revelation that Senator Manchin entered into a written “memorandum of understanding” with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer months ago regarding the reconciliation package. The memo stated that Manchin would support the reconciliation package at the $1.5 trillion level. Speaker Pelosi is attempting to leverage that revelation to persuade the Progressive caucus in the House to vote in favor of the infrastructure bill. Whether she will succeed remains uncertain. Those are the facts. The rest is speculation and commentary.

          Before offering my speculation and commentary, I want to address the tenor of emails I received in response to yesterday’s newsletter, “A fine mess.” Many readers described a sense of hopelessness caused by the dysfunction of the Democratic caucus in Congress. One reader said the future looked “bleak.” Others were downright angry at Biden, Schumer, Pelosi, the Progressive caucus, the “centrists,” Manchin, and Sinema (and me). I was distressed to hear from two readers who believed that their hard work over the last four years was for naught. Several said that yesterday’s newsletter lacked my usual optimism.

          As always, I strive to be realistic in describing what is happening. There was not much in Wednesday’s developments to inspire confidence. But that doesn’t mean my optimism has diminished. We don’t know how this current saga will end, but I am confident that we can endure and prevail despite a complete loss on both bills. I believe that over time, portions of the infrastructure bill and reconciliation package will pass. But if they don’t, that fact does not negate the gains of the last twelve months. Remember that time only eleven months ago when we defeated Trump? And remember how we flipped the Senate in January of this year? Recall Biden’s success in vaccinating hundreds of millions of Americans and the two watershed bills he passed in the first months of his tenure—bills that saved the economy and sustained tens of millions of Americans? Those victories were the fruit of your hard work—and don’t ever forget it.

          Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Biden fails to pass either the infrastructure or reconciliation bills. Do we give up? Is that all it takes to ruin the Democratic Party? Are we incapable of suffering losses while maintaining faith that we will win in the end? When John Lewis was savagely beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, did he say to himself, “We are defeated. The struggle for civil rights for Black Americans is over”? He did not. He marched again two weeks later—and continued the struggle for the next fifty-five years of his life. His seeming “defeat” on Bloody Sunday counted for something—in defeat, he changed America.

         In the same way, a defeat of both bills will change America—for the better. As Manchin said on Thursday, if Democrats want a bigger reconciliation package, they should “elect more liberals.” In that, Manchin is 100% correct! A loss will drive home the fact that we must elect more liberals if we expect the Democratic Party to be able to improve the lives of working Americans who serve as the backbone of our nation and our economy.

          But we should not need the defeat of both bills to instill a great urgency in our quest to expand control of Congress. The most frequent email I received in response to yesterday’s newsletter was that I shouldn’t be talking about the infrastructure or reconciliation packages but should instead be hammering on the need to pass the “Freedom to Vote” legislation backed by Senator Manchin. I suspect the frequency of that message was caused by the fact that Professor Heather Cox Richardson made that point in her newsletter yesterday, “Letters from an American.” As Professor Richardson noted, the Freedom to Vote Act is subject to the filibuster and Manchin has persuaded exactly ZERO Republicans to support the Act.

          Here’s my point about the Freedom to Vote Act: The chances of its passage are vanishingly small. That is an outrage and should be enough to motivate us to capture a half-dozen more seats in the Senate. And if the reconciliation and infrastructure bills are defeated, that should motivate us even more. We cannot allow one defeat to define us. John Lewis suffered hundreds of defeats and disappointments in his career, but the accumulated heft of his victories outweighed the defeats—by a lot.

          The future is not bleak. It is what we make it through sustained effort, discipline, and fortitude. I hope both bills pass this week. If they don’t, I will not be wringing my hands in worry. I will be focused on our next battle. You should do the same.

Speculation and Commentary.

          The P.G.-rated version of my reaction to the revelation that Manchin committed months ago to support the reconciliation package at $1.5 trillion was, “Huh?” That was a material fact that everyone should have known months ago. In the interim, Manchin actively misrepresented his position by saying he had not “considered the numbers” in the reconciliation package. Presumably Schumer was sworn to secrecy but used body language in an attempt to communicate that information to Progressives—who apparently mistook Schumer’s gesticulations for indigestion.

          Democrats should pass the infrastructure bill and the reconciliation package at $1.5 million (or whatever secret number Manchin hasn’t communicated). That is the right result. It is a bitter disappointment and an outrage, but the right result. But Manchin has added qualifications to his position that will likely kill any chance of an agreement at $1.5 million—or any number. He said he wants all benefits that are granted in the package to be "means-tested" to prevent America from becoming an “entitlement-based society”—a statement that is insulting and ugly on many levels. He also has demanded that the reconciliation package include the Hyde Amendment—which prohibits the use of any funds for abortion services. These are poison pills to prevent Manchin from having to honor his $1.5 trillion commitment.

          A surprisingly common refrain from readers who support the centrist position of “infrastructure only” is that Biden’s proposal will “radically reshape our society” (or some variation thereof).  That phrasing (courtesy of Joe Manchin) has insinuated itself into popular commentary opposing the reconciliation package—including in the NYTimes. Let’s take a look at the main provisions of the reconciliation package and see which provisions will “radically reshape our society.” The reconciliation package will:

  • Add dental and vision coverage to Medicare

  • Allow the federal government (instead of insurance companies) to negotiate drug prices for Medicare recipients

  • Offer two years of free tuition to community college

  • Increase the amount of federal financial aid for students attending four-year colleges

  • Invest in the construction or rehabilitation of 2 million homes

  • Increase the Child Tax Credit

  • Increase the Earned Income Credit from $543 to $1,502

  • Reduce insurance premiums for low-income Americans

  • Expand free school meals

  • Rehabilitate infrastructure in aging school buildings

  • Invest in workforce training to respond to the changing job market

  • Extend and increase the tax credit for electric vehicles

  • Extend and increase the tax credit for clean energy

  • Establish clean energy standards

  • Create a Civilian Climate Corps

          With the exception of the creation of Civilian Climate Corps, the above items merely expand (or reduce) existing benefits or costs. Those revisions to existing programs will not “radically reshape our society.” They will help working Americans to build better lives for their families in a safer, cleaner environment.

          Opponents complain about clean energy credits, but do not complain about subsidies to oil and coal companies. Opponents complain about child tax credits and earned income credits but do not object to corporations writing-off obscene stock grants to CEOs. Opponents complain about free meals for school children but do not object to corporations writing-off $1,000 lunches when executives entertain clients at fancy restaurants. You get the drift. Pick a provision of the reconciliation package and you can find a similar but more expensive benefit granted to corporations in the current tax code. Joe Biden is investing in the American people rather than corporations. If that is “radically reshaping our society,” we need more of it, not less.

          Finally, Senator Manchin’s effort to draw a line in the sand at a particular dollar amount is silly. It is designed to be a talking point easily repeated on Fox News. The cost of the reconciliation package is funded by re-capturing the tax cuts gifted by Trump to corporations and the super-wealthy. (A small portion is predicted to be paid for by increased tax revenue from increased economic activity.) If paying for new programs by providing for new tax revenue is “too liberal,” then we need more of it, not less.

Concluding Thoughts.

          If we are lucky, the drama will continue through the weekend. It means that Biden, Pelosi, and Schumer have not given up on passing both bills. Good for them. It may continue to be painful and infuriating to watch, but we don’t have to focus on every news alert. I summarized the developments of Thursday in six sentences in the introduction to this newsletter. If the frantic pace of the wild developments is too much to stomach (another common refrain today), then check-in once a day. Otherwise, try to take a break over the weekend. Whatever happens, we have elections to win in 2022 and 2024. Let’s get to work—after a well-deserved weekend!

          Talk to you Monday!

Post-script: The status of the fire threatening our cabin remains unchanged. It is waxing and waning with the weather, slowly backing down towards the Mineral King Road, which is the firebreak of last resort. CalFire is hard at work to ensure that the fire does not jump the MK Road.