Amid the chaos, Biden is likely to pass his legislative agenda
During the past frantic week, the Democratic Party has lived down to humorist Will Rogers’ shrewd characterization of its reputation for sowing chaos. As Rogers dryly noted: “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”
Over the past seven days, as the self-imposed congressional deadline for passing President Joe Biden’s mightily ambitious domestic agenda came and went, it became almost too easy to make sport of the Democrats’ travails.
The Senate has managed to pass the $1.1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, dealing with improving the country’s highway system, roads, bridges, ports, electrical grid and expanding high-speed broadband into rural areas. Given that everyone in the US knows that, since the glory days of Dwight Eisenhower, federal spending on infrastructure has shamefully lagged, Democrats in the Senate even managed to secure significant Republican support for the measure — a state of play almost unheard of in poisonously divided Washington.
It was at this point that chaos ensued. The far more leftish House of Representatives, increasingly dominated by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, refused to commit to voting for the Senate infrastructure bill until the upper chamber passed some version of the much larger $3.5 trillion progressive “wish list” bill, the second major piece of the Biden legislative program. This unwieldy mishmash contains many of the progressives’ long-dreamed-of priorities, including free pre-school, free community college, expanded Medicare benefits, paid family and medical leave, and massive green energy initiatives.
This huge increase in the federal government’s role in people’s lives — akin to the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson — would be paid for (partly, with the rest adding to the swelling federal deficit) by increases in corporate taxes and on personal taxes for those making more than $400,000 a year. Seeing this as a once-in-a-generation chance to get their agenda enacted — and all too aware that the odds favor the Republicans retaking the House in the 2022 midterm elections — progressives demanded the more moderate Senate pass the larger bill before they considered the infrastructure bill as a tactic to maximize their political leverage.
However, under intense pressure, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called for a separate vote on the infrastructure bill this past week. It is here that the wheels really came off the Democratic Party wagon. For House progressives refused to budge, saying they would vote down the infrastructure bill — beloved by moderates such as Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — unless the two bills were again considered in tandem and the Senate moved forward with passage of the larger wish list bill. A sheepish Pelosi was forced to retreat, canceling the promised vote on the infrastructure bill — a vote that she was bound to lose without progressive support.
Up raced President Biden to Capitol Hill to salvage his agenda. In the end, a compromise was struck. Moderates were forced to accept the fact that the president had sided with progressives in re-tying the fate of the two bills together. However, progressives have had to accept that the $3.5 trillion headline price tag for the wish list bill — an amount Manchin has called “fiscal insanity” — is destined to be sharply cut.
It was at this point that the political post-mortems began in much of the press, having suddenly discovered what we have commented on for the past year: That there is an ideological canyon between the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party, and it is growing. In addition, more thoughtful political observers have made the salient historical point that — unlike Roosevelt and Johnson, who passed their huge legislative programs at a time of overwhelming Democratic control of Congress — Biden is trying to enact a highly ambitious agenda while dealing with a 50-50 Senate and only a miniscule 220-212 Democratic advantage in the House. The tight political numbers have always been at odds with the vaulting ambitions of Biden’s agenda.
The two sides of the Democratic Party, for all that they are genuinely heartily sick of dealing with one another, are not that far apart.
John C. Hulsman
But, for all this, is it far too soon to bury Biden’s presidency. For, beneath all the chaos, the outline of a deal salvaging both bills was seen this past week, if we have but eyes to see. Manchin stated that his desired top-line spending on the wish list bill was $1.5 trillion. On the same day, Biden told House progressives they would have to settle for less than they wanted, speculating that a bill amounting to $1.9 trillion to $2.3 trillion could pass. In other words, the two sides, for all that they are genuinely heartily sick of dealing with one another, are not that far apart on the price tag.
Further, Manchin has said he is willing to compromise on the top-line price tag under Biden’s guidance, as is the House Progressive Caucus. Yes, as is often said, legislating is like sausage-making; much as we may all like the taste, we do not want to see how it’s made. While this has surely been the case this past week, the larger political risk point is that Biden has forced the warring moderates and progressives in his own party to compromise. The chances of him passing most of his domestic agenda have, for all the noise, ratcheted dramatically upward.
- John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also a senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via johnhulsman.substack.com.