By Robert Reich
The next ten days may well offer the last opportunity to enact Biden’s agenda, because once Congress returns from Christmas break it’s the new year — which is a danger zone for new legislation. Even when Democrats control all three branches — as they do now and did during first two years of Obama and Clinton — the second year is perilous because of the overwhelming gravitational pull of the midterm elections (I have a searing memory of Bill Clinton unable to summon a Democratic majority in 1994 for his healthcare bill).
But Senator Joe Manchin, the putative Democrat from West Virginia, refuses to vote on Biden’s sweeping “Build Back Better” climate and social spending package before Christmas — which puts BBB into the 2022 danger zone. (Arizona’s Senator Kyrsten Sinema will go along with whatever Manchin decides.)
What’s Manchin’s reason? I once thought he was trying to protect West Virginia’s coal mining industry and he worried that Build Back Better’s climate provisions would hasten its demise. But West Virginia’s coal industry employs only around 13,000 workers — less than 2 percent of the state’s work force. Not even Manchin’s personal financial interests in coal would be much diminished if BBB’s climate measures were enacted.
Manchin’s resistance becomes even more puzzling when you realize that West Virginia’s biggest industry by far is health care, which employs more than 100,000 people (including many middle-class jobs). Build Back Better would make it easier for many West Virginians to get health care.
West Virginians do not have particularly good health. Of all the data I’ve come across about West Virginia, what strikes me most is that a quarter of West Virginians 65 and older have no natural teeth. That’s the highest rate of tooth loss of any state in America. Why is this? Because West Virginians can’t afford dental care. So they skip regular cleanings and exams, which are crucial for preventing infections and tooth loss.
Medicare does not cover dental care. Biden and progressives, led by Sen. Bernie Sanders, tried to add dental benefits to the Build Back Better Act. But guess who opposes adding dental and other benefits for Medicare beneficiaries? West Virginia’s own senior senator, Joe Manchin. He says adding a dental benefit will cost the federal government too much. Too much? Even when it comes to the health of his own constituents? By the way, this is the same Joe Manchin who has had no qualms about spending tens of billions more on the military.
In recent weeks Manchin has added another twist to his opposition to Build Back Better, raising concerns that it will worsen inflation. I’m not convinced we need to worry about inflation at all (even though a government report out Friday showed that prices have grown nearly 7 percent in the past year, the biggest one-year surge since the early 1980s). But even if you think inflation is a problem, Build Back Better won’t worsen it. Study after study confirm that it’s unlikely to have any effect on inflation. If anything, it will cut American’s out-of-pocket costs for childcare, healthcare, housing, eldercare, and energy. And because BBB would be paid for with tax increases on large corporations, its inflationary impact would be zero at worst.
Manchin is riding a wave of negativity about the economy (and is contributing to it with all his worrying statements about inflation). Roughly 70 percent of Americans now rate the economy as bad (with nearly half of Americans and political independents blaming Biden for inflation, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC poll). The negativity is also making it difficult for Biden to get his agenda enacted before the holidays.
Yet apart from inflation, the U.S. economy hasn’t performed this well in years. It’s created more than 6 million jobs since Biden took office, a rate higher than any in history. New claims for unemployment insurance dropped to 184,000 last week, the lowest level in more than 52 years. Economic growth is surging far faster than most analysts predicted before this year. And a record 13 million Americans quit their jobs between August and October, a signaling unprecedented confidence in their ability to get better ones.
Even as Americans rate overall economy poorly, they rate their personal finances as good. In an Associated Press poll, 64 percent describe their personal finances as good while only 35 percent describe the national economy as good. Why the split view? Probably because most people don’t separate their assessment of the “economy” from their view of the state of America as a whole, which — given that 60 percent of Republican voters continue to believe the 2020 election was stolen, Americans continue to be stressed about Covid (average blood pressure has risen), and fatal drug overdoses have soared — is sour. (A report last week from the surgeon general found that depression, anxiety, impulsive behavior and attempted suicides had all risen among children and adolescents.)
Working-class and poor Americans have had an especially hard time of it. They also will be hardest hit when the Supreme Court, as expected, reverses Roe vs. Wade and allows states to ban abortions. That’s because the working class and poor typically don’t have the resources to travel to other states where abortions are legal. Since Sept. 1, when Texas’s law banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy went into effect, hundreds of Texans have traveled out of state to obtain an abortion — but those who can’t afford to do so have remained pregnant against their will. (On Friday, the Supreme Court’s Republican majority decided not to block the law, which gives private citizens the right to sue abortion providers or anyone who helps someone terminate a pregnancy after six weeks.)
At some point soon, Americans will need a federal law that codifies the right to an abortion. Democrats appear ready to enact it. Who’s likely to stand in the way? Joe Manchin.
Which takes us back to the Manchin paradox. If nothing else explains Manchin’s delaying tactics on Build Back Better, what’s the real explanation? I think it’s Manchin’s campaign donors. According to campaign-finance tracking by Accountable.US, as of September Manchin had received more than $1.5 million from corporations that are opposed to the Build Back Better bill (Sinema got nearly $1 million). That’s a big chunk of change for a senator from West Virginia, and it’s only likely to get larger over coming weeks as Manchin delays a vote.
Joe Manchin illustrates that the real division in American politics is no longer left versus right, conservative versus liberal, even Democrat versus Republican. The real division is democracy versus the moneyed interests.
What do you think?