Stop Acting Scared, Pass BBB Now Instead of Paring It Back

  • Polls are showing broad support for Build Back Better’s many provisions.
  • Still, Democrats are trying to scale the bill back to appeal to Republican brass.
  • Instead of paring back popular legislation, Democrats should pass the bill now.
  • Karen Dolan directs the Criminalization of Race and Poverty Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

After Republican Glen Youngkin won the Virginia gubernatorial race in a state Joe Biden won handily, a few conservative Democrats are questioning their party’s mandate to deliver transformative change.

Hanging in the balance is the Build Back Better Act, an ambitious attempt to create jobs, strengthen the US social safety net, and address climate change that Democrats are still struggling to finalize. The package has been repeatedly cut back to appease conservative Democrats, but even its reduced form would make it the most significant anti-poverty program in half a century.

Still, some in the party are trying to pump the breaks. “Nobody elected Joe Biden to be FDR,” said Virginia Rep. Alison Spanberger. “He was elected to be normal and stop the chaos.”

Spanberger is mistaken. Polls show broad support for the plan’s provisions — including more affordable health care, prescription drugs, child care, and elder care, as well as monthly payments for parents, investments in clean energy, and more. 

The bill has now been passed by the House. As it heads to the Senate, the Democrats need to focus on passing the bill, not stripping it down.

Pays for itself

All of this is more than paid for by fairer taxation of the uber-wealthy, which is itself very popular.

An overwhelming majority of Americans support these measures, including a majority of independents and nearly 40% of Republicans polled. So this is not only Biden’s agenda — it’s the new normal that the majority of US voters desperately want.

Yet Youngkin won where he shouldn’t have, New Jersey’s Democratic governor was only narrowly reelected, and only Donald Trump was more unpopular at this point in his presidency than Joe Biden is. 

A big part of the problem is that most voters simply have no idea that Democrats are trying to do all this. Instead of telling voters what’s actually on the agenda in Washington, the mainstream media has been nearly exclusively focused on the “cost” — and the infighting between progressive and “moderate” Democrats. Neither focus is accurate or honest. 

The same surveys that show overwhelming support for elements of the Build Back Better Act also show that barely a third of voters believe anything in it will help them. People don’t know what’s in the bill — a big enough problem that Sen. Bernie Sanders held a webinar entitled “What’s in the Damn Bill?” 

Far more voters, by contrast, have heard something about what the bill costs. 60% say they know the bill’s cost — $3.5 trillion over 10 years in its original form, now closer to $1.85 trillion.

Set aside for a moment that these investments represent a fraction of what we spend on the Pentagon, and barely a drop of water in the sea of money poured into militarism since 9/11. The real net cost of the law is closer to $0.

Because the bill raises revenue from taxing millionaires, billionaires, and profitable corporations, the plan is more than paid for. In fact, over the next 10 years it raises enough revenues to actually start paying down the federal debt. 

What’s more, 15 Nobel Laureate economists agree that the plan won’t contribute to inflation. In fact, by creating good jobs and making it easier for Americans to afford child care, food, housing, prescription drugs, and certain medical expenses, the bill offers much-needed assistance to voters worried about inflation.

Once you know what’s actually in the bill, the coverage of the debate over it feels even more frustrating. 

For one thing, there’s nothing “moderate” about the obstructionism of Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. By limiting the bill’s ability to allow Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices, raise tax rates on billionaires, and guarantee American workers paid family and medical leave, they’ve positioned themselves far outside the US mainstream. This opposition to broadly popular ideas is radical, not moderate.

But for another, negotiation is what democracy is all about. Lawmakers should be doing as they’re doing: listening to constituents and advocates, incorporating data, and representing voters. The sensationalist, 24/7 cable news infotainment industry has morphed the perception of this process into dysfunction rather than democracy.

If Joe Biden was elected to “be normal” and “stop the chaos,” then this program would take the first step toward a new normal — and away from the chaos of poverty, uncertainty, and climate disruption so many of us are experiencing.

Democrats shouldn’t back away from the wildly popular programs in the Build Back Better bill. Instead, they need to pass it, and make sure voters actually know about it.