The Democrats’ Legislation and The Ghost of Christmas Future: 2 Potential Paths

President Biden and his administration are on the precipice of two potential futures: In one future, he successfully pushes through some form of legislation to address both an infrastructure bill and a broad suite of welfare-style programs along with measures to tackle the perceived threat of climate change, known as the Build Back Better Act. In doing so, he shores up his popularity and bolsters his fellow Democrats’ bids for Congress in the mid-term elections.
In the other, he fails to do so, and his ability to be reelected, as well as the future of the Democratic party in the midterm elections, are also in great peril. Moreover, according to the Associated Press (AP), “his [legislation efforts] has been jeopardized by fractures among Democrats, imperiling the fate of promised sweeping new efforts.” 

Much of the problem is of course the sweeping nature and associated costs of the proposals from the Biden Administration. At stake is spending that will range between $2.5–$5 dollars, depending on the final forms of the legislation packages.

So ambitious are the bills, they conjure the Ghost of Christmas Past, a ghost that floated these words:”We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of controversy.”

Those words, uttered by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in an attempt to push through The Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s key legislation, may haunt the Democrats as they argue for a level of spending that eclipses every preceding administration. And the scope of the proposed legislation is so wide it has been hard to communicate the details to the American public. As ABC News points out, “Even if they get where they want to go, they still might be explaining what their bills don’t do as opposed to what they are designed to accomplish.” 

Although the infrastructure bill is supported by Republicans, Pelosi made what appears to be a political blunder by tying its fate to the much more controversial Build Back Better Act. In doing so, Pelosi incurred the wrath of more moderate Democrats, such as Sen. Krysten Sinema (D-AZ), who said, “The failure of the U.S. House to hold a vote on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is inexcusable and deeply disappointing for communities across our country. Denying Americans millions of good-paying jobs, safer roads, cleaner water, more reliable electricity and better broadband only hurts everyday families.” 

Amidst Democratic infighting, President Biden is struggling to push through his infrastructure and generous welfare package. Source: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), has also voiced concerns with the levels of spending President Biden and the Democrat Congress has proposed. Moreover, the West Virginia senator has intimated doubts about using the reconciliation process to pass the bills, a procedure requiring only 51 votes in the Senate, rather than the ⅔ required in traditional legislation.

When pressed about using this approach to push the bill through, he stated, “I’m not even close to the thought on that. We’re just trying to find an infrastructure bill we can all agree on.” However, without Sinema’s and Manchin’s support, the Democrats lack enough votes to implement reconciliation, so these senators’ support is crucial. 

Right now there are two modifying approaches in the making. The first approach is proffered by President Biden, who has proposed “trimming down the length of the programs to cut costs,” so that “a future Congress can vote later to extend programs that the American people will find popular,” according to the AP. The other approach, favored by Speaker Pelosi, seeks to whittle down the agenda items but extend the time period they would be in effect. 

Either way, the American people, even those in favor of the bills, are not quite sure what’s in the proposed legislation. The bills, taken together, are broadly encompassing, affecting nearly every facet of American life. 

Perhaps that’s the crux of it all, because it begs the question: How is it possible to spend that much money and create a host of new programs, along with significant changes to the tax code, without making some highly impactful changes to American life? Despite Biden’s appeal to the political center of America, the President appears to increasingly be held hostage by the more progressive elements in his own party. So grand is Biden’s vision, he has become conflated with Bernie Sanders, the standard-bearer and darling of the far left. A recent Wall Street Journal article summed it up this way: “Democrats are trying to pass a Bernie Sanders agenda on a Joe Biden mandate.” 

So even if you take issue with the term “radical,” you cannot argue about the vast scope of the legislative agenda. As Bernard Goldberg writes in The Hill, “President Biden wants to make the federal government a lot bigger than it is, to make more and more Americans dependent on the largesse of government, to provide ‘free’ entitlements to millions of Americans and make sure they know Washington will take care of them from cradle to grave.”

To that end, Vox writes that the bills are “a great many things — fighting poverty, combating climate change, expanding health care benefits, helping with child-raising expenses, offering universal pre-K and free community college, housing policy, tax policy, and more.” To be fair, Vox also states, “It’s a big and significant bill, but not really a radical one.” Of course, “radical” is a loaded word, and as such, is highly subjective.

Still, one has to wonder why legislation has to be so long, complex, and comprehensive. The answer may be the highly partisan nature of politics these days in the United States. As Sarah Binder, professor of political science at Georgetown University, puts it, “Laws are long — and probably longer today than in the past, because the difficulty of legislating pushes lawmakers to craft new laws with big, multidimensional deals: Your team gets X; my team gets Y; we sew them up into one huge bill.” To make all of this more likely is the use of the reconciliation process, as I have written about previously. 

From this perspective, it’s not difficult to understand why each party makes such substantive changes every time they have majorities, and therefore power, in Congress. If not, they lose out on the possibility of getting something through the respective chambers, because polarization makes that increasingly difficult. Add to that the fact that pushing through legislation simultaneously acts as a form of campaigning for the get a shot at future legislation, you must get some through now, or you may be out on your ear. 

In essence, getting legislation passed is proof of your sincerely, evidence of your “bona fides.” If you can’t get it done, then voters may conclude that you are full of proverbial hot air, even as you, and your supporters, vilify the opposition. 

If you examine polls closely, you can see this dynamic shaking out. In the most Real Clear Politics (RCP) poll, which averages multiple other polls, Biden’s approval rating is sitting at a lackluster 43.7%, with 52.1% disapproving. Yet, despite this, his legislative agenda has received fairly vigorous support from Democrats.  

NBC reports “Despite the slip in his job approval, Biden’s economic agenda remains popular in the same polls, which find that voters support his plans to overhaul U.S. infrastructure, expand Medicare, fund universal pre-K and put money into clean energy.” This disparity between overall job approval and approval for agenda items points to the fact that his supporters want action, something that says, “I got this, see?” As Jeff Horwitt, a Democratic pollster who co-conducts the NBC News poll, frames it, “Voters are looking for a return on what they were promised.” 

The reality is, of course, that whatever is in the legislation now is probably going to undergo some significant revisions as Team X and Team Y make their demands and extract their pound of political flesh. Meanwhile, the pressure is on for President Biden to step up or shut up, as they say, because the President, along with an entourage, including his climate envoy, John Kerry,  is slated to be in Glasgow, Scotland in November as part of the UN climate summit.

A White House official recently told CNN, “They will demonstrate the strength of the entire US government working in lock-step to reduce emissions and achieve our international climate commitments — and that the countries who take decisive action on climate will reap the economic and jobs benefits of the clean energy future.”

Showing up to such a prestigious and high-level meeting without having achieved at least a partial legislative victory will not help Biden’s poll numbers, and may threaten to undo the already waning momentum in Congress. In this sense, the Ghost of Christmas Future may end up haunting his legacy.