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Democrats are setting up social policies for painful cliffs

They’re banking on the popularity of social programs to keep them from expiring.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) speaks alongside fellow progressive lawmakers following a meeting with President Biden on October 19. The group of lawmakers met with Biden as negotiations on the infrastructure bill continue.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Democrats, it seems, are looking to pare down their budget bill by going the route favored by progressives. While they’re weighing some big cuts to the $3.5 trillion package, the general approach — which isn’t yet finalized — skews toward funding more programs for a shorter period of time, rather than fewer programs for longer.

Pushback from moderates over the size of the package has meant tough decisions about what to cut and what to keep. Progressives argued for preserving as many of the proposal’s policies as possible, while saving money by having them expire sooner than initially planned. Some moderates, meanwhile, advocated for the opposite: funding fewer programs for more time.

President Joe Biden backed the former strategy as well, and that appears to be the course Democrats will pursue. Biden and the progressives hope the policies will be so popular — even if they’re only implemented for a short period — that it will be difficult for future lawmakers to let them lapse, regardless of who controls Congress.

President Biden addressed attendees on his Build Back Better plan at an event in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on October 20.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“Obviously, some of these programs are shorter than ideal. But the president believes, and I agree with him, that once we have these programs established, it becomes hard to take them away,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), a member of Progressive Caucus leadership, told reporters on Tuesday.

Opponents of this thinking emphasize that this approach could mean that many of these programs simply expire after funding runs out. Provisions in the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan, like the eviction moratorium and expanded unemployment insurance, ended after Congress opted not to renew them.

“My own view is we ought to do fewer things better,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) told reporters on Tuesday.

Progressives, however, feel quick implementation of a broader set of programs will benefit a wide constituency, which will pressure lawmakers of both parties to keep the programs around. Second, they see these policies helping more people and giving Democrats concrete achievements to point to as the 2022 midterms approach.

“If given a choice between legislating narrowly or broadly, we strongly encourage you to choose the latter, and make robust investments over a shorter window,” Congressional Progressive Caucus leaders recently emphasized in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “This will help make the case for our party’s ability to govern, and establish a track record of success that will pave the way for a long-term extension of benefits.”

What the budget framework could look like

Democrats are narrowing in on what will — and won’t — make it into the bill.

Lawmakers hope to reach a “framework” deal this week, which would outline the main tenets in the legislation ahead of an October 31 deadline they’ve set for themselves.

What exactly that will look like is still uncertain. In a meeting with progressive lawmakers on Tuesday, Biden floated some cuts including eliminating a proposal for tuition-free community college, but didn’t get into more policy specifics around issues like means testing.

“We’re not at a place where there’s a final thing for us to look at,” Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) said Tuesday.

The White House has suggested a range between $1.75 trillion and $1.9 trillion for the final bill, according to the Washington Post. Although the original legislation included $3.5 trillion in spending, conservative Democrats including Sens. Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) have said they won’t support legislation of that size.

Democrats are working to nail down the final figure this week, and see that number as driving other decisions about what the bill contains as well. “The top-line agreement is key to everything else,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) said on Tuesday.

Here are some major provisions that now seem likely to make it in the bill:

  • Expanded Medicare coverage for dental, vision, and hearing; universal pre-K; child care subsidies; the expanded child tax credit; and paid family leave are all provisions that are poised to be included, Rep. Khanna told reporters after Tuesday’s White House meetings.
  • There could be major changes to their duration and reach, though: According to the Washington Post, the expanded child tax credit could last for just one year, and more means testing might be needed to win Manchin’s support. Additionally, the paid family leave program could wind up being for four weeks instead of 12, and capped by income as well.

And here’s what’s most likely to be cut:

  • Cuts could include free community college and the Clean Electricity Performance Program. Tuition-free community college was not among progressives’ top five priorities, and it hasn’t been named by Manchin or Sinema, either. Manchin, meanwhile, has explicitly called for the Clean Electricity Performance Program — a provision that would pay companies that transition to clean energy — to be stripped out of the bill.

Previously, progressives had laid out the five main policy areas they saw as essential to include: lowering prescription drug prices; providing funding for child care, paid leave, and long-term care; investing in climate jobs; providing funding for affordable housing; and offering a pathway to citizenship for immigrants including DACA recipients. Manchin, meanwhile, has expressed openness to universal pre-K and lowering drug prices. Sinema hasn’t publicly made her stances known, though she’s reportedly focused on pushing lower corporate and personal tax rates and expressed concerns about the drug pricing provisions.

Expect progressives and Manchin to continue to push for the inclusion of those priorities, and for many of them to appear in some form in the final framework.

There’s a lot of uncertainty around policy cliffs

A major risk of funding more policies for shorter periods is the possibility that these programs will just end if they are not renewed.

“We need to make sure people have certainty. Just doing something for a year or two doesn’t have the impact, doesn’t provide the certainty,” Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA), the head of the more moderate New Democrat Coalition, previously told Politico.

Progressives, however, have countered that these proposals will have picked up so much public support that it will be challenging for Republicans to avoid renewal if they were to control Congress.

“It would be very hard for people to take things away, and that’s part of our goal,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) told the Hill last week, citing the expanded child tax credit as an example. “Once people see how popular they are ... once people start to see it, [they will support it].”

Activists highlight climate initiatives in the Build Back Better agenda outside the US Capitol on October 20.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images

Another example progressives have pointed to is the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans repeatedly attempted to unravel when they had congressional control. The ACA, though, was not set to sunset by a certain time, unlike some of the policies being discussed in the budget bill. To undo it, Republicans actually had to pass repeal legislation of their own, which they were ultimately unable to advance. To effectively end the budget bill’s proposed programs, all Republicans would need to do would be to deny them funding in future budgets.

Still, progressives argue this won’t happen due to pressure from constituents benefiting from the new programs. An example of this, the Brookings Institution’s Molly Reynolds told Vox, is the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for low- and middle-income households enacted by Republicans during the Bush administration, many of which were set to expire in 2010. Because of how popular they were, they were renewed again that year and in 2012, when Democrats had control of the Senate.

Democrats are betting that this will be the case, once more, with the many programs in their budget bill.

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