Say what you like about congressional quarrels and eternally scattered Democrats; the last few weeks have shown that they deserve to be recognized as a party of ideas.
And not just a few ideas; many, many ideas – perhaps too much for one piece of legislation: a universal pre-kindergarten, federal subsidized childcare, clean energy tax breaks, even a civilian climate corps paid with a newly invented tax for millionaires.
Good thing they had so many ideas available; in the 50-50 Senate, where any member could block any proposal, they needed a full bag of backups.
Sen. Kyrsten Cinema Arizona won’t agree to raise tax rates for the rich? Okay, let’s try a tax on the tax-free capital gains of 700 billionaires.
Sen. Joe Manchin III from West Virginia doesn’t like it? OK, let’s settle for a “patriotic tax” aimed only at millionaires.
This does not sound like the legislation is supposed to happen. The world’s largest advisory body has turned into the world’s smallest advisory body, with senators browsing the closets for ideas that the advanced and moderate can live with.
The product is what fans call “Frankenbill,” an awkward creation sewn together from the remnants of this and that. (The term refers to a Gothic monster, not a former Minnesota senator.)
It’s not about beauty. The version, unveiled by President Biden on Thursday, abruptly dropped some of his most cherished campaign promises: lower prescription drug prices, free community school, paid family leave.
And of course it’s not over yet.
But it is undoubtedly great; $ 1.85 trillion more than 10 years is only half of what Biden demanded, but still huge. And is undoubtedly ambitious; it includes the largest package of climate change spending in history and significant extensions of federal support for childcare and early education.
One problem with passing legislation in a hurry is that authors can be allowed to repent in their spare time. No matter which version of this law survives, it will include provisions that few voters have heard of. This will make the GOP easier to attack these programs, especially if they run into startup problems. Does anyone remember the disastrous launch of Obamacare in 2013?
To be honest, Democratic leaders believed they didn’t have much choice. Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has made it clear he doesn’t want to help Biden; his 49 fellow GOP senators remained impressively united as party no.
So the Democrats needed every last 50 of their votes – and that meant everything Manchin and Sinema said went.
After all, the bill isn’t as bad as it sounds, as a 19th-century humorist once said of Wagner’s music.
Despite the appearance of slapping together in a few weeks of cold negotiations, parts of the law have been lying on the shelves of Democrats for years, waiting for the moment when they can be written into the law.
“There’s not much new here,” Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution told me. “It’s a lot about expanding existing programs. And tax breaks are pretty simple. The government can’t screw up too much. “
This is the brand of Biden, who did not run for president as a candidate for new ideas. (This was Senator Elizabeth Warren.) Biden ran as a candidate for old ideas; he promised to end the work of the Obama administration. That’s most of what he’s doing now, only to a greater extent than many voters expected.
The provisions for universal pre-kindergarten education and federal subsidized childcare are far greater than anything the federal government has tried in these areas before. Implementing these programs, which depend on partnerships with willing state governments, may not be easy. And like the other programs in the bill, they are expected to expire after several years – in these cases only six.
So there will be a drama ahead of us as to which programs succeed and which fail, and which can survive Republican attempts to repeal them – just as Obamacare faced repeated threats before the GOP reluctantly agreed to its permanence.
Biden, who likes to compare his presidency to the transformative era of Franklin D. Roosevelt, can take comfort in this: some New Deal FDR programs didn’t work, and some didn’t survive the 1930s.
“The state requires bold, persistent experimentation,” Roosevelt said in 1932. “Common sense is to take a method and test it. If he fails, openly admit it and try another. “
The question for Democrats is whether Americans now want bold ideas. The FDR began its experimentation at the bottom of the Depression, and voters rewarded his party decades later.
Whether they will react similarly this time, Democrats will learn in 12 months in the 2022 congressional election.