Every Member of Congress has a solemn duty to vote for what they believe is best for the country and the American people, not their party. Respectfully, as I have said for months, I can’t support $3.5 trillion more in spending when we have already spent $5.4 trillion since last March. At some point, all of us, regardless of party must ask the simple question – how much is enough?
What I have made clear to the President and Democratic leaders is that spending trillions more on new and expanded government programs, when we can’t even pay for the essential social programs, like Social Security and Medicare, is the definition of fiscal insanity. Suggesting that spending trillions more will not have an impact on inflation ignores the everyday reality that America’s families continue pay an unavoidable inflation tax. Proposing a historic expansion of social programs while ignoring the fact we are not in a recession and that millions of jobs remain open will only feed a dysfunction that could weaken our economic recovery. This is the shared reality we all now face, and it is this reality that must shape the future decisions that we, as elected leaders, must make.
Since the beginning of this reconciliation debate, I have been consistent in my belief that any expansion of social programs must be targeted to those in need, not expanded beyond what is fiscally possible. Our tax code should be reformed to fix the flaws of the 2017 tax bill and ensure everyone pays their fair share but it should not weaken our global competitiveness or the ability of millions of small businesses to compete with the Amazons of the world. Overall, the amount we spend now must be balanced with what we need and can afford – not designed to reengineer the social and economic fabric of this nation or vengefully tax for the sake of wishful spending.
In August, I recommended we take a strategic pause to provide time to develop the right policies and to continue to monitor how the pandemic and economic factors are affecting our nation’s fiscal situation before we spend more. Throughout September, I have made it clear to all those who would listen the need to means test any new social programs so that we are helping those who need it the most, not spend for the sake of spending.
While I am hopeful that common ground can be found that would result in another historic investment in our nation, I cannot – and will not – support trillions in spending or an all or nothing approach that ignores the brutal fiscal reality our nation faces. There is a better way and I believe we can find it if we are willing to continue to negotiate in good faith.
If there is one final lesson that will continue to guide me in this difficult debate ahead it is this: America is a great nation but great nations throughout history have been weakened by careless spending and bad policies. Now, more than ever, we must work together to avoid these fatal mistakes so that we may fulfill our greatest responsibility as elected leaders and pass on a better America to the next generation.”
I remember talking to a friend of mine in the cautiously giddy days following Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff’s victories in Georgia. I remember being both pleased and concerned. Pleased at the prospect that the Democrats might be able to pass some of their agenda, and that Biden might not be doomed to 2 years of Republican obstruction. Concerned, though, at the knowledge that his success hinged on persuading a group of so-called “moderates”. I remember telling my friend, “Get ready to learn more about Joe Manchin than you ever wanted to.” I ended up being more right than I ever could have anticipated.
I republished Senator Manchin’s statement about the infrastructure bill and “Build Back Better” agenda above. It is worth reading in its entirety, if only to realize how wrong, fractally wrong, it is. Manchin complains about the “fiscal insanity” of spending “$3.5 trillion” on social programs. Everyone who cites this figure knows that the annual cost of the proposed legislation is one-tenth of that, or less than half the size of the annual defense budget, but, in this country, fiscal discipline is reserved for the poor and the needy, not the rich and well-connected. Manchin cites the “inflation tax” that will arise from this supposedly unconscionable expansion of public spending programs. There is little evidence that government spending will drive such inflation, or that the burst of inflation that we’re observing now is anything but transitory. Even if one accepts that inflation is eroding the spending power of the middle class, the child tax credit, lower childcare costs, free years of community college, lower prescription drug prices, and other elements of the Build Back Better plan will more than offset the few-percent rise in prices most Americans might observe. Manchin also understands, I’m sure, that means testing saves hardly any money, particularly when it comes to programs, like free community college, that the rich have no interest in taking advantage of; that the risks America faces now are from doing too little, not too much; and that the bill is fully funded (even though it needn’t be) by raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy. Perhaps the worst part of the statement is his insinuation that providing childcare, education, and other benefits will hurt the economic recovery and cause “millions of jobs” to remain unfilled, when, in fact, there is overwhelming evidence against the idea that overly generous benefits are keeping workers at home.
I feel somewhat pathetic even trying to fact check Manchin’s statement, in the feeble way I attempted above, because I know none of this is about the facts. There is no tax or fiscal expert that Biden could find to sit down with moderate Democrats and assuage their concerns. The problem is not in the realm of economics or mathematics or history or tax law. It is in the realm of theater.
These people are preening, self-indulgent assholes who enjoy being at the center of attention. In fact, my sense is that these desires, more so than any corruption or corporate bribery, are the primary drivers of their behavior. It is true that Kyrsten Sinema hosted a fundraiser with 5 corporate political action committees (PACs) just today, where she collected checks up to $5800 from corporate donors. It is also true that Joe Manchin’s daughter was directly involved in a schema to keep the price of EpiPens high (prices that might be deflated by the Build Back Better bill), and that Joe Manchin’s son runs a coal company founded by his father, one that has no interest in a Green New Deal. (When asked about this conflict of interest, Manchin pissily told the reporter to “change the subject”.) I have no doubt that some element of venality is at play. But my feeling — although it is only a feeling — is that Manchin would be behaving the same way without the family connections, and the Sinema would be just as obstinate even without the $5800 checks. (And, if I’m wrong, how embarrassing is it that our Senators can be bought for such paltry amounts?)
Joe Manchin loves being invited on every Sunday talk show and CNN news segment to talk about his central role in the latest development in the negotiations. He enjoys being viewed as the person on whose opinion the bill’s fate rests. He enjoys paring back liberal ambition and being praised for it by the beltway media and “nonpartisan” experts. He likes having clowns to the left of him and jokers to the right. He enjoys pretending he is Goldilocks, searching for the bill that is not too stingy to the poor but, even more importantly, not too generous. He enjoys portraying himself as a figure of rectitude, standing up for fiscal discipline and against “careless spending” and “vengeful tax[ation]” when no one else in his party will. And so on. The fact that he stands to make money for his family in doing so is certainly relevant, but not central. The same is true for Sinema. She played at being John McCain, the maverick from Arizona, when she aped his thumbs-down gesture on the Senate floor. (Of course, he was a Republican saving the signature act of the other party, and she was a Democrat tanking her own party’s.) Josh Marshall — who, by the way, has been far more bullish on this entire legislative process than reality warranted — published a letter from a reader speculating that Sinema was angling to become an independent. “She believes she has to win independents to win here and so she’s doing what she thinks independents want her to do,” the reader wrote. And how better to be an independent than shitting on the hippies?
I have been reluctant to write about this topic because the outlook is deeply bleak, and that fact has been obvious for some time. Infrastructure week will never end; the climate package will not pass; the rich will not be taxed at the rate they deserve. We won’t get nice things, and we will be punished for ever wanting them. The system is set up this way. Some have said that it is set up to fail, but that isn’t quite accurate. It is set up for liberal Democrats to fail. It is set up for people who care about the general welfare of the populace to fail. It is set up for Biden to fail. But it undoubtedly serves the interests of many, including Manchin himself, who, even if he later loses reelection, will without question find himself a sinecure at a think tank or a cushy job as a corporate lobbyist (or both!).
I think the worst part, bar none, of our political process is how it magnifies people who provide nothing of value, and who leech away my attention and sanity. No one ever listens to these senators and learns anything new about politics or policy. No one hears them and is impressed by the depth of their convictions, or the care they express towards their constituents. No one considers them master compromisers in the style of Henry Clay (as one might expect a moderate to be), or great orators like Daniel Webster. Indeed, were the Senate not so precariously balanced, no one would care about them at all. They are below average Senators from below average states whose importance is a consequence of our sclerotic and broken system of government. And as the Biden agenda slowly slides towards a whimpering conclusion, barring some miracle, they have only grown more significant. Their every whim is catered to, every vacillation reported on, every outfit captured on camera, every statement turned into a news cycle, every inconsistency chided by the impotent left and ignored by the mainstream media. This is hell, isn’t it? My country is failing to address every single challenge it faces and yet the people who are responsible are getting everything they ever wanted.