A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the horn-locked struggle between President Joe Biden and his party compadre Senator Joe Manchin over the fate of the president’s pricey ‘Build Back Better’ plan to revive America.
President Joe wants to spend somewhere between $1.7 trillion and $2 trillion; everywhere I look, I find a different estimate, but these days, journalists seem to be taking the high road – not in terms of ethics, just on the cost projection. Senator J thinks this is too pricey, says he wants to cut the pork rind out of Washington’s diet, to a degree, and has been standing firm in opposition.
A few weeks ago, I shared all the details then at my fingertips (Hey Not-So-Big Spender – Is Senator Manchin Ready to Rumble on Biden’s BBB?) and presented my assessment. I also warned that it could all go wrong, and every projection might change in a flash. So I got one thing right.
‘BBB’ is off the table. Manchin and Biden never had their sit-down, never hashed out an agreement. So it goes. There’s still time to accomplish something or another, congressional sources and unnamed blowpipes are saying. I can spin-up one trustworthy assessment, I think: in DC today, down the myriad halls of power, expectations are low.
That might not be bad. Republicans have been griping: they don’t object to every line item the Democratic proposal. It’s just the Dems want it all, right now, in this single budget. Maybe we should take it in billion-dollar-bit-size chunks, say the right-leaning critics. Fund a few programs, see how they perform, then tweak and up-fund them – baby steps, informed by experience. Sounds sensible to me, assuming they mean it.
Whatever the case, that approach is Congress’s likeliest strategy today. It’s funny, because over the weekend, I was watching the Mel Brooks movie “Young Frankenstein.” It was written by the late Gene Wilder, in point of fact, yet Brooks was all over the pic – when you see a scene that’s absurdly goofy, that’s Mel’s hand stirring the pot.
Consider the following scene. Young Dr. Frankenstein (pronounced ‘Frankensteen’) and hunchbacked minion Igor (‘Eyegore’) are robbing a grave. Don’t look so stern, we were all young at one time or another.
Dr. Frankenstein: What a filthy job!
Igor: Could be worse.
Dr. F: How?
Igor: Could be raining.
[Cue mirthful thunderstorm]
That’s how I rate Build Back Better today: it seems dead in the box, but has been pulled from its grave, and parts of the corpse will be sawn off and rejuvenated. The dark stirrings behind Capitol Hill’s grim castle walls can be hard to ferret and fathom. You should be glad that you have my fine cultured mind, informed by high art, at your service to explain things.
Let’s run it down. Just before Christmas, not even a mouse was stirring the House, yet the Senate was alive with tension. Senator Manchin and President Joe, said staffers and pundits, were about to settle down by the fire, rest their old bones, settle their tiff, and work out a holiday cheer-style compromise.
Joe M, it was said, didn’t want to kill BBB: it needed haircut, shave off a few billion and we can shake hands, go for a sleigh ride. Reasonable heads would prevail and Joe, President, would get his year-saving victory.
Nah. Joe, senatorial, was just bluffing. Even his own offer, a slim $1.8 trillion proposal, fell off the table. He proposed talks in the first place, floated his plan, then showed up on Fox News of all un-liberal forums to lambaste that big-spending president. The White House lobbed back a few unfestive bombshells, bursting in air, suggesting Senator J might be less than morally compos mentis. Good old traditional American politics, with its bare-knuckle pummellings and unfeigned hostility – making the holidays merry and bright!
Senator Manchin (or Quisling, depending who’s punditing) now counsels scraping BBB to the bone. Sit down with a fresh, blank sheet of paper and pen, ponder what dreams may come, he says. Some individual programs pass JM’s muster – so let’s sit down and talk, he offers to colleagues, again.
The forecast calls for tense meetings ahead; I wonder if JM ever fears for his safety? In these calamitous times, are we on course for portentous events? Is a great American myth in the making – the Defenestration of the Dirksen, say? I’d like to think so, if only to enliven high school history courses.
Likely, a bunch of boring old meetings will be held by stuffed shirts, distant from the public eye, and applying conventional reasoning. We’ll hear rumors and leaks, sly quotes, and deceptive motes. They’ll hammer something out, because if they don’t, with the midterms in November, they can expect figurative pitchforks and torches at the ballot box.
We can guess some results. The e-car tax credit looks dead, so you’ll have to fund your own Tesla or Prius. Joe M doesn’t seem to mind a special tax on billionaires, and if that’s you, don your armor. Democrats minus Manchin are adamant about passing an enhanced Child Tax Credit, but JM insists that it contain a work requirement for the recipient parents. There seems room for agreement here, if nowhere else on the agenda.
Manchin does sound heartless sometimes; who would oppose extending relief to struggling parents? Yet I recall the $400 million in US aid to Russia in 1997. In Moscow back yonder, Yanks like me thought this a wise investment: the Russian government was having trouble paying its pensioners, and we feared the tide would rip leftward, right back to dread communism.
As it turned out, all the funds in the ‘aid’ package were earmarked for US consultants – after the Russian authorities deducted their ‘fee’, naturally. The money famously went to Harvard University ‘specialists’ who drew up ‘recommendations’. Not very good ones, alas, as the Russian economy dramatically collapsed in 1998. I knew two of those Harvard boys, and they both left Russia smiling, ear to ear, and I kid you not one iota. Just because it’s called ‘aid’ or ‘assistance’ doesn’t mean the target audience will benefit. It makes sense to be cautious.
When Bill Clinton was elected president, he had big notions about transforming our country, too. Those plans fell along with his zipper. After a very long period of unprofitable stalemate, Bill and the Republican Congress got down to work, cooperated, agreed a few sensible bills. I hope history repeats. But if it doesn’t, there is that election in November, and the development of that plot line will be out of Washington’s hands.