For long months, Democrats have been engaged in premature exultation based on their March success in enacting a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package. But giving away borrowed money is hardly a herculean task — and one victory does not a successful presidency make. The real test comes in the next few weeks, a period that will reveal whether congressional Democrats actually constitute a governing coalition or, contrariwise, are a fractious assemblage of such disparate ideologies that broad agreement is impossible.
Before month’s end, president and party hope to hammer out an agreement on a multitrillion-dollar 10-year spending plan that will address everything from climate change to health care costs to child and elder care to expanded Medicare benefits to enhanced health care subsidies. The degree of difficulty here much exceeds that on the COVID relief package. For starters, Democrats intend for this plan to be (largely) paid for, which means taxes have to be raised, never an easy thing.
Indeed, we see some of those differences within the Massachusetts delegation. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a leader of the progressive left, is an enthusiastic advocate for a wealth tax, a levy that wouldn’t merely target an ultra-wealthy person’s income but his or her accumulated fortune in its many manifestations. A signature proposal of her presidential campaign, it’s something Warren has been pushing hard on the Senate side, along with a tax on actual (read: non-falsely assigned to low-tax countries) corporate profits and a crackdown on wealthy tax cheats.
Why a wealth tax? Here’s her elevator pitch: “The whole concept of taxing income is something that no longer works in a billionaire’s world. The billionaires have figured out how to have virtually no taxable income and pay virtually no federal taxes. . . . Jeff Bezos makes about what a public school teacher makes in Massachusetts in income, while he can fund a trip into outer space in part because he pays almost nothing in taxes.”
But Richard Neal, the moderate Springfield Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, has gone in a different, and more traditional, taxation direction, focusing the House’s revenue-raising plan mostly on income.
So will Warren give way on her wealth tax in the interest of getting an agreement?
“I am not going to negotiate against myself,” she laughed.
Another large disagreement comes over the scope of the spending. Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders, the curmudgeonly Vermonter who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, wants to go big — that is, a full $3.5 trillion.
No go, says stubborn centrist Senator Joe Manchin, the sole Democrat in Trumpy West Virginia’s congressional delegation. Manchin would like to see the plan pared back in a big way, to the $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion range. That’s absolutely unacceptable, declares Sanders, who thinks he’s already compromised aplenty, given that he and some of his fellow further-lefties once wanted as much as $6 trillion in new spending. As much as some Democrats like to loathe limelight-loving Manchin, the reality is that, in a 50-50 Senate, his vote is essential.
Meanwhile, what happens on the big social agenda could well determine the fate of the $1 trillion infrastructure package waiting on the runway; various congressional factions have huffed and puffed that they won’t consider one without the other.
The larger problem here is that Democrats are hoping to do something sweeping with a majority much better suited for incremental progress. Don’t get me wrong: Given the pressing need to address climate change, the likelihood that it will have to be done through spending carrots rather than a carbon tax, and the laudable desire to improve America’s social contract, there’s considerable logic to a substantial package. It’s also important to remember that the $3.5 trillion would be spent over 10 years — and that the $350 billion a year it would mean in new spending amounts to less than 2 percent of current national income, or gross domestic product. That said, unless blue state progressives expect mauve-state moderates to engage in a political kamikaze mission, the final package has to be something that they can defend politically back home.
As sand trickles through the political hourglass, it seems strange that rather than sitting down and hammering out an agreement that has the votes it needs, Democrats are still posturing — and sniping — in public. It’s particularly unfortunate and gratuitous for progressive pugilist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to insinuate that Manchin is simply a tool of the energy industry.
So how does Warren assess the degree of difficulty of pulling this off?
“Very high,” she said. “But I also put the prospect of getting it done as very high. There is not a senator who doesn’t understand the historic impact of this moment, and that drives us toward making a deal — even if it’s not exactly what any one of us wanted.”