Hey! Just wanted to take a moment to praise the House Progressive Caucus tonight.
Earlier this year, I stirred up some controversy here by proposing that Congressional progressives should vote down the Covid relief bill that wound up passing in early March in order to reset the dynamics of that debate such that the minimum wage hike originally contained therein (of great personal importance to me, as someone living on $9.39 an hour) might be reinserted in the final bill, protesting that unless such a bold step were taken, the minimum wage increase would be dead and forgotten. Well what wound up happening is what usually happens when it comes to these economic policy debates: the right wing Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema got every concession they asked for and the progressives just got rolled, and the minimum wage increase President Biden and the Democrats promised on the campaign trail was forgotten at my expense because Senator Manchin is invested in companies that pay their workers well below $15 an hour and it's his personal return on investment that really matters here. The nation has since continued to struggle with the reality of price growth exceeding wage growth each and every month this year. Maybe, just maybe, a higher minimum wage might've helped remedy that situation for the poorest 30 million or so Americans while also minimizing the labor shortage that developed (the underlying reason why prices have risen so unusually quickly) by giving people more of a reason to go back to work amidst these new, riskier conditions. Just saying.
Anyway, same thing is what happened to the public option originally envisioned in the Affordable Care Act back in 2009-10 and lots of other debates held primarily amongst Democrats in situations like these before it. When it comes to economic policy, right wing Democrats always get whatever they want in these situations and left wing Democrats reliably capitulate on everything and just go along to get along. After all, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. A narrow Democratic majority is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain. It pays then, frankly, to be the weakest link! That's how you get political leverage! Yesterday (or the day before, depending on when you're reading this, as it's just past 11 PM my time right now) the House progressives did something genuinely groundbreaking in this connection: they decided to do something different and become the weakest link, and in so doing, gained the upper hand in the ongoing budget debate. It's a big deal!
Let's start with how we got here.
After the Covid relief bill passed, President Biden's next major legislative priority was passing a slate of public works programs and economic reforms, a far more advanced version of which was once known as the Green New Deal and the much watered-down Biden version of which was known as "building back better" because politics. A logical problem with this next step emerged immediately though when President Biden cynically split the "building back better" goals into two separate bills rather than a single budget bill. One only does that, frankly, if there's one set of proposals they're prepared to sacrifice. This set the tone. So the problem here began with none other President Biden himself and everything else stems from this original act of cynicism.
Subsequently ordering his priorities, Biden proposed that the Congress take up the infrastructure bill to repair the nation's crumbling roads and bridges and improve its broadband internet access and so forth immediately and that the family programs bill encompassing such goals as paid family leave, child allowances, more universal child care, universal preschool education, substantial expansions of both Medicare and Medicaid, free community college, climate change initiatives, etc., could be taken up after the aforementioned infrastructure bill had been passed into law. This made it clear which propositions were of greater importance to the administration: the ones, quite frankly, that would mainly benefit men. (I mean unless you figure a raft of new, manual labor-intensive jobs in manufacturing and construction would mostly go to women, that is.) The stuff that mainly benefits women, as the main caregivers of our society and also as most providers of such services as health care and education, on the other hand, was secondary and non-essential. What followed was months of debate with Republicans over the terms solely of that first, infrastructure bill yielding a final version that was barely one-third of its original scale and devoid of any tax increases on wealthier people. Passage of this proposition to spend an average of just $120 billion a year for ten years repairing about 10% of the nation's $10 trillion worth of disrepair was hailed as an important victory even though, especially after adjusting for inflation, it's tantamount to but a fraction the level of investment passed under Obama in the form of the Recovery Act; a scale so small relative to that of the problem that most Americans frankly wouldn't even notice the difference.
Enter the progressives.
Intervening in this situation, the House Progressive Caucus refused to accept the division of the "building back better" program into two parts and insisted instead that the family bill must pass both chambers of Congress before this sorry excuse of an infrastructure bill or else the latter wouldn't get their votes. Right wing Democrats in both chambers of Congress objected, in fact objecting to the whole idea of the family bill, and insisted that ONLY the infrastructure bill should pass at all. House Speaker Pelosi, being capable of doing math as to which group was larger, sided with the progressives, thus forcing President Biden himself -- not known for taking the lead much in general -- to effectively abandon his original two-stage approach. This implied agreement held until this week.
The trade-off made to right wing Democrats was a deadline of September 27th by which a floor vote in the House of Representatives on the infrastructure bill was promised. Implied in this logic was that, in the interim, the details of the family bill would be hashed out between the factions, allowing both propositions to pass simultaneously in late September. No such debate occurred. Right wing Democrats instead stonewalled on the family bill in the hopes that Speaker Pelosi would abandon her commitment to it. And indeed they got their wish this week, as Pelosi agreed to hold her promised floor vote on the infrastructure package despite zero progress having been made on the family bill in the interim. A promise kept to the party's tiny right wing and a promise broken to its larger left wing. Shocker. Be shocked! The presumption was that the Progressive Caucus would just do the same thing it did during the Covid relief bill debate; the same thing they always do in the end: capitulate. Go along to get along. Not make waves. They finally decided to do something different this time though!
The House progressives yesterday did something revolutionary by actually holding firm on their pledge for once and thus successfully blocked a vote on the infrastructure bill in order to preserve the leverage they needed to ensure that something other than JUST that "bi-partisan" bill actually gets passed in the end. I place the much-touted term 'bi-partisan' in quotation marks here because, in reality, barely a dozen House Republicans planned to vote in favor of the infrastructure bill while, by contrast, some 60 progressive Representatives planned to vote against it if it came to the floor, and this difference proved sufficient for House Speaker Pelosi to abandon her plans to bring the bill to the floor at this time, separately from the much-larger family bill. It goes to show that, far from enjoying "bi-partisan" support, the infrastructure bill hardly even enjoys single-party support as a standalone bill! And lo and behold that today, the very next day, the dynamics of this whole debate have shifted fundamentally: President Biden met with Congress today and insisted that some version of the family bill must pass and Senator Manchin has produced a dollar amount ($1.5 trillion) he's willing to vote for when it comes to the family bill while Senator Sinema also claimed she'd produced a similar proposed price tag to the White House. Together, these developments provide the basis for further negotiations that are likely to yield compromises on everyone's part, but ultimately the passage of some version of both bills, NOT just one! We were headed down a track to see just one bill get passed before yesterday. Now we are on a track to see both get passed, as the right wing Democrats have finally been forced to start negotiating in good faith concerning the family bill for the first time rather than dishonestly, transparently toward the aim of sinking it entirely as before.
Anyone who knows me knows that I'm not always on the side of the progressives. They are, however, the clear heroes of this story and the only characters whose position has made any sense or had any moral standing in my eyes throughout this whole ridiculous episode. Their position on this program has NOT been unreasonable at all. The progressives have NOT insisted on their own program -- not on the passage of the Bernie Sanders presidential platform of Medicare for all, tuition-free college across the board, etc. etc. -- but rather on the passage of the program the public voted for last year: the one Biden ran on, calling for an expansion of the Affordable Care Act, tuition-free community college, etc. They have asked the president and the Democratic Congress simply to do as they promised to do last year, nothing more. It's NOT too much to ask! What's more, the progressives have been willing to make compromises and come down on their preferred levels of expenditure by quite a lot. The $3.5 trillion family plan (actually just $350 billion a year of investment on average since it's spread out over a decade) was originally envisioned as a $6 trillion investment, and the progressives have already voiced a willingness to go lower still on this. It's granted that as much is a simple necessity, given that that right wing 4% of the Democratic caucus must vote for the final bill to pass after all. But whereas I dislike Senator Manchin's ideas for how to do so, like imposing means testing for a bunch of these programs that are supposed to be universal, I'm encouraged by an alternative proposal suggested today by progressive Representative Jamie Raskin:
"Maybe not everything can be funded for ten years; maybe it's going to be a lesser period of time. At least we'll be able to develop these programs and make a commitment to the American people. Then we'll be able to make a judgment after four years or five years about the programs and whether they are working."
The fact is that once people get a taste of a new public benefit, they tend to like it and not want it subsequently eliminated. This is the smart thinking behind Raskin's position. That's the sort of vision that I hope prevails in the end because these are the sorts of new programs and reforms that the public will definitely notice and like. In fact, the public already does like them. For as beholden to their properties and wealthy campaign donors as Senators Manchin and Sinema clearly are, they might do well to note that both the infrastructure and family bills poll better than they do even in their less-than-blue states. Their political careers hence might be helped by foregoing their loyalties to the Business Roundtable for a change and instead concerning themselves with what real people in this country want and need.
Last edited by Jaicee - on 02 October 2021