Build Back Better or boondoggle? Why Biden’s bill is so divisive.

Al Drago/Reuters
Speaker Nancy Pelosi holds the final tally as the U.S. House of Representatives voted along party lines to pass President Joe Biden's $1.7 trillion Build Back Better Act on Nov. 19, 2021.

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After months of negotiations, House Democrats narrowly passed the largest spending bill in history Friday morning. President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act is twice as big in real dollars as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, according to the White House. Democrats are proud of that. Republicans are horrified. 

The bill – which faces an uncertain fate in the Senate – promises historic investments in climate initiatives, health care, universal pre-K, and child care subsidies. It also brings changes in taxation and enforcement that Democrats say will address inequities and enable more citizens to flourish. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the reforms will cost $1.7 trillion, all but $160 billion of which will be offset by tax revenues and other measures.

Why We Wrote This

The stark partisan divide over the bill reflects fundamentally different views about the role of government in Americans’ lives, particularly amid a pandemic.

“We have spent $6 trillion in three Middle East wars,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, a New York Democrat. Congress is finally committing to “nation building at home – in America and for Americans.”

Republicans excoriated the bill for spending too much and predicted it would drive up prices for everyday Americans. 

“What should the role of government be in each of our daily lives, and what economic system best provides for opportunity and the well-being of the American people?” said GOP Rep. Lloyd Smucker of Pennsylvania. “This is ... a move toward socialism.”

After months of negotiations and a record-long GOP speech that went until 5 a.m., House Democrats narrowly passed the largest spending bill in history this morning.

President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act is twice as big in real dollars as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, according to the White House. Democrats are proud of that. Republicans are horrified. 

Democrats say the bill – which still faces an uncertain fate in the Senate – promises historic investments in climate initiatives, health care, universal pre-K, and child care subsidies. It also brings changes in taxation and enforcement that they say will address inequities and enable more citizens to flourish. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates the reforms will cost $1.7 trillion, all but $160 billion of which it expects to be offset by tax revenues and other measures.

Why We Wrote This

The stark partisan divide over the bill reflects fundamentally different views about the role of government in Americans’ lives, particularly amid a pandemic.

“Over the past two decades, we have spent $6 trillion in three Middle East wars,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, a New York Democrat, during a House debate Thursday. Now, he continued, Congress was finally committing to “nation building at home – in America and for Americans.”

Republicans excoriated the bill for disincentivizing work, saddling future generations with debt, and driving up prices for everyday Americans. They accused Democrats of exploiting the pandemic to expand government overreach with a deceptively named bill, which they say will amount to an “economic surrender” to China by raising the cost of doing business in America and pushing jobs overseas. They also challenge the nonpartisan estimate of the bill’s cost, saying its sweeping social reforms could add significantly to the national debt – particularly if temporary programs like child care subsidies are extended. 

“I hope the American people are watching closely today, because there is a fundamental question being debated – and that is, what should the role of government be in each of our daily lives, and what economic system best provides for opportunity and the well-being of the American people?” said GOP Rep. Lloyd Smucker of Pennsylvania. “This is a move toward an entirely different economic system – it’s a move toward socialism. We know that doesn’t work.”

In the end, every Democrat except Rep. Jared Golden of Maine voted for the bill. All Republicans voted against it, save one who did not cast a vote.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota (left) is embraced by Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, as reporters ask them for comment, Nov. 19, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington, after House passage of President Joe Biden's Build Back Better bill. After months of debate, Democrats pushed their expansive social and environmental bill through a sharply divided House on Friday. Its prospects in the Senate remain uncertain.

The stark partisan divide over the bill reflects fundamentally different views about the role of government in Americans’ lives, particularly amid a pandemic. What Democrats hail as a historic effort to lift people up, Republicans see as an irresponsible unspooling of red tape that will exacerbate the worker shortage and ultimately harm everyone from entrepreneurs to parents to corporations, whom they see as the engines of American prosperity. 

But beyond the political soundbites, there are complicated questions about how the bill’s 2,135 pages of programs would affect the economy and voters’ pocketbooks.

For bean counters and critics, devil’s in the details

For example, the massive investment in child care subsidies aim to ensure low- and middle-income families don’t pay more than 7% of their income in child care costs. But those subsidies, together with a plan to pay child care workers a fairer wage, could dramatically drive up prices for families who are just above the qualifying income threshold, saddling them with up to $13,000 more in costs, according to an estimate by the left-leaning People’s Policy Project. 

Democrats say they’ve addressed those concerns by raising the threshold to include those making up to 250% of their state’s median income, and argue that the subsidies – together with universal pre-K and an extension of the enhanced child tax credit – will help ease labor shortages that have contributed to supply chain delays and higher costs for consumers.

“Investment in child care and universal pre-K actually can help us loosen supply chain issues by releasing and unlocking a labor force that right now is staying at home even if they would prefer to work,” says Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who cites those provisions along with an expansion of Medicare as among the most transformational for her constituents. 

Then there’s the half-trillion dollars in climate initiatives, which Democrats say are urgently needed and will more than pay for themselves when factoring in the cost of inaction. Republicans argue those measures will further drive up gas prices, already more than 60% higher than a year ago, as well as the cost of heating fuel, already projected to be 30% more expensive this winter.

GOP Rep. Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota, who lives within 25 miles of his state’s largest ethanol plant and its largest wind farm, notes that the bill does nothing to address litigation and permitting, which could make it difficult to build the new energy infrastructure envisioned by the bill. It could also shutter small businesses, which would devastate communities in his state, he says. 

“If you think it’s hard to put an oil pipeline in eastern Montana, try putting a high-voltage transmission line on the East Coast when the minute you put the first shovel in the ground you devalue every property in that suburb by 40%,” says Representative Armstrong.

But Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado, whose district is currently battling wildfires, says the climate investments, particularly for wildfire prevention and mitigation, can’t come soon enough. 

“The climate investments are going to be transformational for my community,” he says. 

Republicans have also taken issue with a provision that would invest $110 billion to ease visa and work authorizations for immigrants amid a spike in illegal immigration and record opioid overdoses fueled by an 800% increase in fentanyl trafficking over the U.S.-Mexico border. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, an immigrant rights advocate who now chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said the “humane” reforms would protect “Dreamers,” temporary protected status recipients, and essential workers, and ease the immigration backlog.

Another area of particular contention is a provision to raise the 2017 deduction limit of $10,000 for state and local taxes (SALT), which would mainly help individuals with six-figure incomes in blue states like California, New York, and New Jersey. Under the new provision, which may get cut in the Senate version of the bill, earners would once again be able to deduct those local and state taxes from their federal taxes owed.

Many progressives, including Representative Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have said it’s hypocritical for Democrats to give a tax break to wealthy individuals as part of a bill that’s designed to address systemic inequities. But Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, says it’s not just the wealthy who are hit. High costs of living in his district mean that a household made up of a police officer and a teacher could be earning $200,000. With New Jersey property taxes the highest of any state, his constituents pay an average of $15,000.

Republicans pilloried the deduction, which they say rewards high taxation policies to the detriment of other Americans. 

“All the time in this chamber people say, ‘It’s for the children,’ or ‘It’s for the kids.’ What hogwash,” said Rep. Jason Smith of Missouri, lead Republican on the House Budget Committee. He points out that the $360 monthly child tax credit will only last for a year, while the SALT deduction, which is estimated to cost nearly 50% more, will remain in effect for a decade.

The Committee for a Responsible Budget predicted the bill would cost $2.4 trillion, adding $750 billion to the deficit over the next five years, and $160 billion over 10 years. But the group cautioned that if temporary provisions like the expanded child tax credit were made permanent, the total cost would likely more than double to nearly $5 trillion – driving up the deficit.

Democrats said Republicans abandoned any claim to fiscal responsibility when they passed the massive 2017 tax cut package under President Donald Trump. The CBO estimated the package will add $1.5 trillion to the debt over a decade, with wealthy individuals seeing the greatest reduction in taxes.

“Republican criticism as it relates to so-called fiscal responsibility has zero credibility,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who chairs the Democratic caucus in the House. “We’re going to lift up everyday Americans and create a better pathway to the American dream.” 

“Nobody elected Biden to be FDR” 

Democratic leaders had promised a vote Thursday night, but in the final period of debate GOP Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy threw those plans into disarray when he started speaking at 8:38 p.m. and continued for 8 1/2 hours – surpassing by 25 minutes the previous record for longest House speech, by Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Leader McCarthy railed on Democrats for spending trillions under “one-party rule” and failing to learn the lessons of the recent Virginia election, instead doubling down on programs that he said most voters don’t want and the country can’t afford. 

Democrats countered his speech with polling showing that large majorities support various provisions, from lowering the cost of prescription drugs to creating clean energy jobs. But those surveys also noted that many respondents were relatively unfamiliar with the bill. 

At one point, Mr. McCarthy quoted Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia as saying, “Nobody elected Biden to be FDR.” In the chamber, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez piped up, “I did!”

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