More on BIF Envy and Dem Culs-De-Sac #3

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October 19, 2021 5:57 p.m.

TPM Reader JB strikes back!

I noted a couple of your correspondents at TPM objected to the idea that Democrats in the House and Senate drive themselves into a legislative cul-de-sac with respect to the infrastructure bill, either because they doubt the reality of the cul-de-sac or because they didn’t think Democrats had a choice.

They did have a choice, and it centered around process.  Use of the reconciliation procedure for the bulk of President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda was a given, with all Republicans in the House and Senate united in opposition to action on anything except building more roads and a few other elements of physical infrastructure and most Republicans opposed even to these.  This did not mean that Democrats had to use an entirely closed process, with hardly any public hearings or committee votes on legislative language or amendments.

The closed process must have seemed like a shortcut through committees by the White House and party leadership on the Hill.  In practice, though, it had the following negative outcomes:

*  The closed process reduced pressure on Democratic holdouts like Manchin and Sinema.  They didn’t have to defend their views in public — and if there was little understanding as to what their red lines were, the closed process meant there was little public awareness of the policy ideas they objected to either.

*  The closed process removed pressure on Republican Representatives and Senators completely.  They have therefore been united around the theme of party unity, paying no price at all for their opposition to popular policy ideas (or for the peculiar ideas some of them were bound to have disclosed during public hearings).

*  The closed process delayed writing the reconciliation bill language.  The White House and Democratic leaders sought to negotiate within the House and Senate Democratic caucus first, and nail down legislative language after consensus had been achieved.  The sheer size and complexity of the reconciliation bill made this delay unwise; it also contributed to the lack of public understanding as to what Democrats were seeking to do.

*  The closed process made it impossible to create a public record addressing some of the dubious arguments Manchin and other donor-Democrats are making now against key administrative priorities.  This applies to means testing community college tuition assistance and the child tax credit; CEPP and other climate change provisions; virtually all the proposed changes in tax policy; and whether the government can negotiate the price of prescription drugs.

There’s nothing magic about legislative process.  Sen. Manchin is still a West Virginian who made all his money from coal; he believes strongly that wealthy corporations deserve sympathy while poor people must prove their worthiness to receive public benefits.  Sen. Sinema is still whatever Sen. Sinema is.  And, frankly, most of the power centers on the Hill and in the administration revolve around elderly people, who preferred a closed process because it seemed to give them maximum control with minimum effort.  Many commentators, I fear, underrate the importance of this last circumstance.

What I’m saying is that Democrats could have done everything right in terms of process and still found themselves stalemated by a couple of Democrats promoting Republican positions.  It’s possible.  But — public pressure is harder to resist than private pressure.  Giving political media a public process to track is one way to address the demoralizing daily drumbeat of “stalemate and gridlock” stories.  And public ignorance of popular policy ideas Democrats support and Republicans oppose is bad for Democrats, while public understanding is better.

In closing….I’ll forgo dwelling on how Democrats made the same mistakes on voting rights legislation that they have on reconciliation.  They were never going to get voting rights legislation enacted without changes to the Senate filibuster, but using the closed process means they won’t get a campaign issue either.  The point is that trying to do everything behind closed doors, with such narrow partisan margins in each House, was bound to create a situation in which one or two Democratic legislators could gum up the whole works without ever needing to explain why.  And so it has.

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