The case for Manchin’s intransigence

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) talks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 1, in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/TNS

This editorial comes from the editors of Bloomberg Opinion

On Friday, Democrats in the House of Representatives finally voted to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill that the Senate approved back in August. This gives President Joe Biden an important legislative achievement, something he badly needed. The measure is far from perfect, but it includes some necessary and valuable investments, and won support from both sides in Congress. It’s to be welcomed.

However, wrangling over Biden’s bigger and more contentious “Build Back Better” plan is far from over. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema have spent weeks objecting to aspects of this omnibus tax-and-spending plan and spurning numerous changes designed to appease them. Last week Manchin escalated his quarrel with his party yet again, saying he wasn’t ready to support any plan before it has been thoroughly costed and assessed for its effects on the economy, and he’s given no sign that Friday’s votes in the House will change his mind.

Democrats’ patience with Manchin is at an end. But they should ask whether many of the country’s voters — and not just in West Virginia — might see things his way. Enacting an enormous tax-and-spending bill without knowing exactly how it will work, what it will cost or whether it will help or hurt the economy is irresponsible. Manchin’s intransigence is serving a vital public purpose.

Moderate Democrats in the House of Representatives have echoed his concerns, asking their leaders for more time and insisting that an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office should be done before they vote on the bigger bill. Rep. John Yarmuth said he couldn’t see why the CBO needed to get involved before the vote – coming from the chairman of the House Budget Committee, that’s disappointing.

In addition to calling for a more cautious and exacting process, Manchin continues to lodge specific complaints and demands. Many of these are also justified. The “Build Back Better” plan started out much too big. In its latest revision, it still squeezes far too much into a single measure — a tactic demanded by “reconciliation” (which avoids the need to recruit 10 Republican senators to defeat a filibuster). It’s packed with gimmicks, including counting a decade’s worth of tax revenues to pay for spending programs marked to expire much sooner. Months into this process, the proposal continues to change shape day by day. Despite cuts, it’s still projected to cost nearly $2 trillion — repeat, trillion. And that’s most likely an underestimate.

Biden and other Democratic leaders built pressure to pass this omnibus package by stalling the infrastructure bill (which the CBO had vetted, by the way) so that the two could be voted on together. This both-or-neither strategy, insisted upon by the party’s progressives, was ill-judged from the outset, and after pointless, protracted delay can be judged a political failure as well. Now that the infrastructure bill has been passed, Congress needn’t cut short its deliberations over the far more complicated, ambitious and still-unfinished reconciliation package. It should be cast in final form, examined by the CBO and debated in public and in detail, so that Congress and the country as a whole can see what they’re actually getting.

It doesn’t much matter whether Manchin, Sinema and the other moderate Democrats have acted out of high-minded principle or for more selfish, hard-headed electoral reasons. Given last week’s results in Virginia and elsewhere, Democrats would be foolish to dismiss the latter – but the main issue is simpler. Fiscal responsibility requires honesty, transparency and due deliberation. Throughout the “Build Back Better” saga, all have been conspicuously lacking, and without Manchin and Sinema, whatever their motives, the resulting budget mess might have been forced on the country regardless.

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