It’s 2020. While the coronavirus raged and a new surge emerged during the holidays, there were long lines for testing and a president who seemed to completely disregard human life.
Joe Biden was getting ready to be the next president, riding in on an anti-Trump sentiment and desire for change. He promised to get coronavirus under control, to erase student debt, and to provide a $15 minimum wage, parental leave, humane immigration reform, cheaper prescription drugs, new public housing, and more. He would be the next FDR, some touted.
Fast-forward to today. Twenty-one months since the pandemic began, the coronavirus is raging and there are hours-long lines for testing. Biden issued a statement essentially condemning the unvaccinated to a “winter of severe illness and death,” exhibiting a callous disregard for human life. The $15 minimum wage was scrapped months ago. Biden will resume payment on student loans in February 2022. In the last few months, his signature legislation, Build Back Better, has been whittled away.
Now, Joe Manchin, the senator from West Virginia, has tanked what remained of the gutted Build Back Better bill. He said, “I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. … I’ve tried everything humanly possible. I can’t get there. This is a no.” To add insult to injury, he did it on the Republican Party’s press, the ultraright wing Fox News.
The centerpiece of Biden’s promises has been tanked. The Biden administration responded by saying Manchin’s interview on Fox News was “a breach of his commitments,” which sounds like an awfully naive statement from someone in Congress for almost 50 years.
Some Democrats hope to resurrect Build Back Better in 2022 and bring it to a vote. But without even bigger changes to the bill and with Manchin’s no vote, it’s hard to see how it would pass.
What Is Build Back Better?
Build Back Better was part of an infrastructure plan proposed by Biden at his inauguration, almost a year ago. Two infrastructure bills were created. One was a $1.2 trillion “roads and bridges” infrastructure plan that passed the Senate with 11 Republican votes during Biden’s “honeymoon period.” The more ambitious “human infrastructure” bill, which included the bulk of Biden’s electoral promises, became the Build Back Better bill, which the Democrats planned on passing through budget reconciliation.
The Progressive Caucus of the Democratic Party refused to vote on the infrastructure bill for months, knowing that the right-wing holdouts of the Democratic Party, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, would tank Build Back Better if it was decoupled from infrastructure. But after a big Democratic loss in Virginia, plummeting approval ratings for the president, all but six House Democrats caved and passed the infrastructure bill with a promise that Build Back Better would be close behind.
After that, there were months of chipping away at Build Back Better. While Bernie Sanders wanted a $6 trillion bill, the initial proposal put forward by Democrats was $3.5 trillion. The past months have essentially centered around Manchin and Democrats cutting down the bill to his liking.
In its original form, Build Back Better included some important reforms alongside corporate handouts. These included free community college, 12 weeks of paid family leave, and the inclusion of vision and dental in Medicare. An earlier version of the bill mandated that 80 percent of the electric grid be powered by renewable energy by 2030, and that energy firms that fail to meet targets would be penalized. In the initial form, the Democrats claimed that the billionaires would pay for the bill, although the taxes on the wealthy were quickly and quietly eroded. From the beginning, it included providing tax cuts to “green” corporations, as well as providing tax money to big corporations for infrastructure development.
This newest version of the bill, priced at $1.75 trillion, included a $300 monthly payment to most families with children and $3.4 million to improve Medicare benefits and regulate drug prices. It also included the corporate handouts for “green” capital and no punitive measures for the world’s largest emitters. BBB included billions of dollars for battery-charging stations, and even for “boosting the competitiveness of existing industries, like steel, cement, and aluminum.” The bill’s funding for climate change — about $555 billion over 10 years — didn’t even represent 1 percent of the per year amount that the International Renewable Energy Agency deems necessary for achieving a complete transition away from fossil fuels. Even the billionaire tax was watered down to a tax increase that didn’t even undo the Trump tax cut to billionaires.
“Fiscal Responsibility” Is a Lie
Manchin’s reason for voting down the Build Back Better is supposedly “fiscal responsibility” — claiming to worry about the U.S. debt and inflation. He claimed he couldn’t explain the bill to his constituents, so he just couldn’t get behind it.
But the truth is that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans care about too much spending. After all, they just voted for a $768 billion military spending package. Manchin himself has voted to increase military spending 11 times since he was elected in 2010. What these politicians really object to is spending too much money on the working class and poor.
Manchin is entirely bought off by billionaire donors, including some that usually back the GOP. According to the Guardian, he took $1.5 million from forces opposed to Build Back Better. Manchin himself is a coal baron who drives a Maserati and spends his down time on luxury yachts while representing one of the poorest states in the country. While he says he is worried about explaining his vote to his constituents, this has nothing to do with the people of West Virginia.
Manchin privately told colleagues that he opposed the child tax credit because parents might spend that money on drugs. He also floated work requirements in order to get the child tax credit, although he later dropped that demand. While the Democrats clutch their pearls and claim this is terrible, we should remember that Bill Clinton’s welfare-to-work program tied welfare benefits to work requirements. This has been in the Democratic Party playbook for some time.
Don’t Trust the Democrats
Much media attention has centered on Manchin’s betrayals and the fact that he is an obstacle to the Biden administration’s plans. But when it comes to this bill, it’s clear that Biden and the Democratic Party establishment just weren’t trying. Certainly not in comparison to the cohesiveness, energy, and enthusiasm they put into, say, defeating Bernie Sanders in the primary or diverting the Black Lives Matter movement to the polls. You didn’t see Barack Obama or Michelle Obama, some of the most popular politicians in the country, campaigning for this bill. You hardly even saw Biden trying to force through this bill.
The truth is that as soon as Build Back Better was decoupled from the infrastructure bill, we knew that Manchin may not pass this bill at all, despite Biden’s promises to the contrary. And that was a political risk that Biden and the Democrats were more than willing to take when Biden’s poll numbers started to plummet — after all, they weren’t all that wedded to paid family leave or any other progressive promise.
Over the last few months, Sanders and other progressives provided left cover for the watered-down bill, even claiming that it was “transformative” after all the transformative stuff was taken out. As Jacobin correctly states, “Remember when a few protesters paddled up to Manchin’s yacht to beg him to support the Build Back Better bill? That represented more pressure than the entire national Democratic Party machine and its Washington advocacy groups were willing to aim at the West Virginia senator.”
This is not a sign that the Democratic Party is inept. While there may be different wings of the party that want slightly different things, in the end, their main goal is capitalist stability and capitalist profits. That’s why the Build Back Better bill that exists kept all the corporate handouts and little of the progressive promises the Biden administration made. And that is why they are incredibly adept at co-opting social movements but suddenly grow two left feet when it comes to passing any small reform that might help the working class, like paid family leave or a 15 dollar minimum wage.
The Undemocratic System Is Guilty
While it is true that Manchin acts in the interests of big business, the laser focus on his role in tanking the bill obfuscates a crucial question: Why is one conservative senator able to dictate social spending in the United States for the next 10 years in the first place? Why have numerous measures that a majority of people living in the United States have supported for years, like the $15 minimum wage, been cut to appease a single corporate shill trying to protect capitalists’ destruction of the planet?
This is one of the many ways that the US political system has its own built-in “emergency brakes” to ensure that capitalist interests are prioritized above the pressing needs of most people living in the United States. The Senate is an undemocratic institution that gives undue power to the most conservative elements in the U.S. political apparatus and puts the lives of working and oppressed people on the chopping block. West Virginia has the same Senate representation as California, even though it has only 5 percent of the Golden State’s population.
But it’s not just Manchin. As much as Biden and the Democratic Party urge the millions of people in the United States feeling the economic aftershocks of the pandemic to simply have faith in the democratic process, there is nothing democratic about a system in which 100 senators decide what is best for the other 330 million people who live in the United States.
Most people in the United States support some of the most progressive elements in the original Build Back Better Plan. A $15 minimum wage has over 62 percent support nationwide. Over 56 percent of people support canceling student debt. Over 52 percent support child tax credits. And these are just the official polls that track support for the wholly inadequate proposals being presented by the government in this bill; many people would likely support more sweeping iterations of these proposals that would help working and poor people feeling years of cuts to wages and social programs, attacks on working conditions, and layoffs.
But working people don’t get to vote on any of these measures. They merely get to vote on a couple of politicians who will make a show of negotiating in their interests and ultimately water down any legislation to be palatable to capitalist interests. Moreover, voting laws in the United States prevent a significant portion of people — oftentimes the most vulnerable — from even participating in this process at all.
U.S. “democracy” gives politicians more space to advance the interests of big business, not to let the majority participate in the process. As Biden and the Democratic Party’s waffling on the question of the filibuster and executive orders shows, they pick and choose when to expand democracy and when to constrain it. The only thing that can shift the balance of forces is the millions of working people whose lives are at stake. We have to intervene to fight for our interests!
Fight for the Urgent Changes We Need
Some Democrats are already saying that the solution is to “vote harder” in 2022 in the midterms and in 2024 in the presidential race. But this is exactly what the Democrats do every single time: they make big promises so as to co-opt movements. Then they feign ineptitude, spend months tied up in congressional debates, slowly lower the bar of “progress,” lean on the most undemocratic aspects of the system, and then fumble the passage of the reform bill or pass a shadow of what the original proposal was, if something passes at all. People wanted universal healthcare and got Obamacare. People wanted free university, an end to student debt, Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage … and instead, got nothing.
While DSA member Jamaal Bowman says “Biden is trustworthy, Manchin absolutely is not”, that’s precisely the opposite lesson we should take from this. Biden’s whole presidency of broken promises highlights that he cannot be trusted. Whether under Democrats or under Republicans, the working class and oppressed get screwed. They aren’t looking out for us, no matter what promises they make. As many workers around the country go on strike and sometimes win, it’s clear that the way forward is to fight. And this fight shouldn’t be for the Build Back Better plan, full of it’s corporate handouts, but for the real changes we need: free public healthcare, a living wage, free abortion on demand and more. Nothing will be handed to us. The only thing that can make deep and real changes in society and it’s the only thing that ever has.