By JOHN CASSIDY
The New Yorker
Last month, I wrote a column that was headlined, “Is Joe Manchin About to Play the Role of Democratic Spoiler Again?” In retrospect, a better headline might have been “Will Lucy Pull Away the Football from Chuck Again?”
Of course, Manchin did. In a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the senator from West Virginia delivered a crippling blow to what was left of Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, saying he wouldn’t support any new legislation to tackle green energy or reverse the Trump-GOP tax cuts.
This stunt scuttled months of efforts on the part of Schumer and other Democrats to rescue something from the original Biden plan, which Manchin deep-sixed this past December. Then, in a step earlier this year that again raised hopes, Manchin indicated he would support a narrower bill that included tax credits for green energy and higher taxes on the rich. But without warning, Manchin reversed his position again, with his spokesman citing high inflation as the reason.
Manchin told Schumer he is still willing to vote for a Democratic bill to limit prescription-drug costs and extend subsidies to people who buy health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. Democrats should go ahead and pass such a bill quickly, before Manchin changes his mind again. If they don’t, Big Pharma will continue to gouge Medicare, and millions of purchasers of Obamacare policies will receive notices of higher premiums going into the midterms.
DEAD AS PYTHON’S PARROT
Passing the two health-care reform bills would be the right thing to do. But Biden’s broader Build Back Better plan – which amounted to an ambitious effort to expand the social safety net and tackle glaring market failures, particularly regarding climate change – now seems as dead as Monty Python’s parrot.
In assessing how things have come to this sorry pass, legitimate questions can be raised about the White House’s political strategy. At $1.9 trillion, was the February, 2021, stimulus bill too big? Not in an economic sense, although that, too, is a legitimate question, but in terms of soaking up political capital in an evenly divided Senate. As the momentum for an expansive Build Back Better bill slowed during the course of 2021, why didn’t the Biden Administration change course earlier, and prioritize certain elements of the package? As early as last summer, Manchin proposed limiting new spending to $1.5 trillion.
But focusing on Biden’s tactics obscures one central and overwhelming fact. For the past 18 months, he has effectively been leading a minority government, with Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema acting as enthusiastic wreckers of his progressive proposals. Although the Senate is nominally divided 50-50, the real tally is 50, 48 and two. The “Manchinema Party” holds the balance of power, and it has used this position to sabotage the policy agenda that Biden was elected on.
Manchin, in particular, has reveled in his role as tormentor of progressives and defender of fossil fuels. Time and again, he has suggested he might agree to a certain set of policies, only to derail their passage. Last year, he insisted on the elimination of a central element of Biden’s plan to slash carbon emissions: a set of financial incentives for power utilities to convert most of the nation’s electricity grid to clean energy over the next 10 years.
After the White House reluctantly agreed to strip out this proposal, which would have particularly affected coal-burning power plants, Manchin could have declared victory. Instead, he switched his attention to other bits of the package that he didn’t like, including a range of tax incentives for green energy.
In the recent negotiations on a slimmed-down spending bill, Manchin outdid himself in mendacity. Back in March, he floated a package that would reduce the cost of prescription drugs, reverse some of the Trump tax cuts, and use the proceeds for deficit reduction and green-energy programs. “The revenue producing would be taxes and drugs,” Manchin told Politico. “The spending is going to be climate.”
As negotiations got going, according to a Capitol Hill source, Manchin indicated his agreement to a climate and energy package worth $375 billion over 10 years, but he continued to object to two specific proposals: tax credits for the purchase of electric vehicles and direct payments to green-energy producers.
In the interest of reaching an agreement, Schumer ultimately withdrew these two elements – a concession that enraged environmental groups – but even that wasn’t enough for Manchin. So he scuttled the entire climate-change package.
Why? Manchin’s reference to inflation made no sense. In devoting only half of the money that would have been raised from tax increases for new spending, and keeping the rest for deficit reduction, the proposal that Democrats were working on would have had a deflationary impact in budget terms. The obvious answer is that Manchin, yet again, is protecting the fossil-fuel industry, which has donated heavily to his campaigns and still plays a big role in West Virginia’s economy. But there are unanswered questions here as well.
Thanks to Manchin’s earlier lobbying, the parts of Build Back Better that would have affected the coal industry most directly had already been eliminated. If he’d followed through on his support for a narrower green-energy package, Manchin could probably have used his leverage to extract concessions on expanding oil and gas drilling, something he has been calling for recently.
“He could have asked for anything!” said Jesse Jenkins, a Princeton energy expert who has modeled the climate impact of the Build Back Better proposals. “Instead he has nothing now, and he’ll be a nobody after November. His constituents have nothing. We all have nothing. So utterly SENSELESS!”
Yes. Senseless for Biden, the Democrats, the environment, and even for Manchin, who, yet again, has forfeited the opportunity to make a more positive contribution. What a woeful legacy he will leave behind him.