• Eugene Puryear

Build Back Better Becomes Build Back Never


The following is a lightly edited transcription from The Punch Out with Eugene Puryear, a daily news podcast that comes out Monday through Friday, 5pm ET. Subscribe here.



The endgame is upon us as it concerns the Democrats' budget reconciliation bill. The greatly slimmed-down “Build Back Better” final plan promoted by President Biden, is looking a bit more like “build back never.”


While Biden laid down his most recent framework as his final offer, it actually is not clear that even this gutted bill can pass, and lawmakers are set to continue negotiations through the weekend.


Given that anonymous high-level D.C. sources have told the major papers that this framework is likely to end up being the final bill, it is useful to look at what’s actually in the bill and how that stacks up with the problems it purports to solve.


Before scrutinizing the particulars of the bill, the main argument to address, which is heard often from supporters of the bill, is that this bill is “democracy in action” and “you don’t get all of what you want.” Second, they claim these are actually still major investments and the bill is transformative even in its reduced form.


As for the first argument, the outcome of this budget process shows the opposite: rather than democracy in action, we have oligarchy in action. What took place was not some sort of balanced discussion, but a tiny elite of wealthy corporations and their Congressional agents shooting down proposals that the vast majority of people should pass. This was not real democratic discussion or action, but its negation.


It is really hard to overstate how popular the Biden proposals were across wide swaths of people. Data for Progress surveyed voters in 12 key swing states in next year's midterm elections and noted: “In all twelve states surveyed Build Back Better is supported by a majority of likely voters. In no state surveyed is it supported by less than a +15 percentage point margin, with the margin of support being significantly higher in many states.”


Georgia is one of those states, which is highly significant given that it is mainly controlled by Republicans and Democratic victories on the statewide level are considered hard to pull off. Well, in Georgia 74% of likely voters support the Build Back Better plan at the original $3.5 trillion cost, including 58% of Republicans. In Wisconsin, another noted swing state where there is going to be a hard-fought Senate contest next year, 67% of likely voters support the $3.5 trillion spending bill, including 53% of Republicans. And in West Virginia — home state of Joe Manchin himself — 68% support the whole $3.5 trillion, including 56% of Republicans.

How is it possibly “democratic” that large majorities of voters across political affiliations — in blue states, red states and purple states — all could say “yes” to $3.5 trillion for basic priorities, and yet the outcome is that nearly all those priorities get stripped out of the bill?


Senators Sinema and Manchin, the two most vocal opponents, are Democrats, and in both their home states over 90 percent of Democrats supported the original proposal. Where is the democracy in “representatives” standing against 90 some percent of their own supporters?



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There are all sorts of other random excuses being thrown around but for opponents of the original bill, the real principal objection has always been taxes on the wealthy. This can’t be said enough. Biden explained this himself on CNN when asked about Sinema’s biggest concerns.


That is what makes this outcome all the more outrageous.


Remember that the original proposal was to spend $3.5 trillion over ten years — $350 billion a year. The U.S. spends nearly $800 billion a year on the military. This proposal was to spend 43 percent of what we spend on guns and bombs per year, but instead on free college, better healthcare for senior citizens, paid days off for all workers (when 30 million do not have a single one) and an 80 percent clean energy standard by 2030.


This is the bare minimum of what the government could be doing. They are not radical. A significant number of these proposals are provided by almost every other developed country in the world, and all of them are eminently affordable.


To recall, the pandemic so far has been the best 18 months ever for billionaires. As the Institute for Policy Studies reports: “America’s billionaires have grown $2.1 trillion richer during the pandemic, their collective fortune skyrocketing by 70 percent—from just short of $3 trillion at the start of the COVID crisis on March 18, 2020, to over $5 trillion on October 15 of this year.”


If you took the entire cost of the $3.5 trillion bill from the wealth of billionaires, each billionaire in the U.S. would still have on average over $2 billion left. You could pay for the entire budget reconciliation bill with the wealth of billionaires, and they would all still be billionaires, and literally remain among the richest people on the planet.


Of course, the bill wouldn’t just be paid by billionaires, but also by millionaires and very rich corporations. The Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy has released new research that over the entire period of 2018-2020, 39 profitable corporations paid no taxes and another 73 profitable corporations paid less than half the statutory corporate income tax rate of 21 percent. Of the 39 companies that paid no taxes, these “reported to shareholders that they had generated $122 billion in profits during that period.”


Some of these corporations actually had negative tax rates at the federal level because they got tax refunds, which are oftentimes, tax dodges. Duke Energy, for instance, over the 2018-2020 period, had a negative 15% tax rate, and got over $2 billion in tax breaks. FedEx which had a negative 1.7% tax rate got $1.8 billion in tax breaks. T-Mobile got over $2 billion in tax breaks and had a negative one percent tax rate. They took in $11 billion in profits over that same time.


To sum up, Biden originally proposed a bill that proposed spending less than half of what the U.S. spends on the military in order to help children, families, the planet, and senior citizens, and that bill was gutted, despite plenty of money being available, due to the whims of rich people and profitable corporations through the agency of politicians going against the will of 90 percent of their own voters. In what world is that actually “democratic?”


So now that we have established that the gutting of the bill is absurd on every level, let's turn to the actual provisions within it.


The framework of the bill can only be judged in relation to the problem itself. Earlier this week, I reviewed how the climate provisions were not even close to enough. In short, to keep the planet below 1.5 degrees warming by the end of the century, the threshold between catastrophic change and manageable change, the U.S. would have to reduce emissions 195% by 2030. Biden’s original plan proposed only a 50% cut by 2030, the new bill reduces that even further. Despite being touted as the “core” of the new plan, as the “largest investment in climate policy ever” it is actually an extremely minimal investment based on actual need.


On the brighter side the final Biden framework does maintain universal, free preschool for 3 and 4 year olds, a crucially important expansion of public education for young people. The plan will also expand childcare to 20 million children, and make sure no parent pays more than 7% of their income to child care, average savings for families are estimated at $5,000 a year. In addition the expanded child tax credit will be extended for another year. It will also provide $65 a month to help buy groceries over the summer for 29 million families whose children have free and reduced lunch.


The child tax credit should have been extended permanently and childcare should be free. But, bottom-line, this is the most substantive area of the plan overall and should provide a significant cost savings for tens of millions of working and poor families saddled with massive childcare costs.


But this is practically the only thing salvaged from the bill once held up as the New Deal 2.0.


On health care, the situation is shameful— especially when one considers that we are still in a pandemic, which has taught the country painful lessons about public health and the failures of our existing system. Ultimately, rather than allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices and expand healthcare significantly for seniors, only hearing benefits will be increased; vision and dental will still not be covered, nor will the eligibility age drop down to 55. Build Back Better will leave many seniors still struggling to afford the cost of basic health care.


Million of poor people left in a lurch because their state governments refused to expand Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act will be able to get direct subsidies to gain some access to decent health care. About 9 million people will see reduced healthcare premiums from increased subsidies through the ACA exchanges. These are all important pluses but a mere pittance compared to the original bill.


On housing the original bill was cut from $332 billion to $150 billion. It includes $65 billion to make repairs to public housing, where 10,000 units a year are lost to disrepair. The backlog for repairs amounts to, lowest estimate, $70 billion. Overall the housing money is supposed to provide 1 million affordable housing units over ten years. There is a shortage of 7 million affordable housing units for “extremely low income” renters alone. So, ultimately, similar to climate, while these are the “largest ever” investments in many housing programs, they are woefully inadequate.


In terms of how to pay for it, Biden hasn’t totally given up on higher taxes. His proposal adds a 5% surcharge on people making from $10 million to $25 million, rising to 7% for those above $25 million. Also it would apply a 15% minimum tax on corporations with over $1 billion in profits. It also has a range of increased tax enforcement proposal to “fully pay for” the rest of the bill, but these are more or less gimmicks. The Trump tax cuts, which every Democratic presidential candidate vowed to reverse, as did the party itself, are essentially preserved.


So, ultimately, how to view it? Obviously many of the proposals are objectively “good” compared to the dire present state of things, but overall it falls far, far short of actually addressing the problems it purports to solve. In some of them it falls so short to be almost criminal, given the severity of the issues like climate change and affordable housing and healthcare.


And that is the overarching point. Put all the abstract rhetoric aside about how “this is the most ever” for x or y issue. The lesson of this bill is, even with the Democrats in charge, policy-making in the U.S. remains totally disconnected from the actual needs of the population, and from solving major social problems just about everyone agrees are imperiling humanity. Policymaking is hemmed in by arbitrary limits, determined by a handful of wealthy elites who decide who should have what and when.


It is quite an indictment of the political system and the two major parties that their leaders admit to and present problems but don’t solve them, even when large majorities of people support doing more. The corporate-controlled Congress is permitted to acknowledge we have issues, and to grandstand about them, but they are only empowered to resolve them if the ultra-rich decide not to exercise their veto. This time they have done precisely that.