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By Not Passing BBB First, Dems Missed Chance to Improve Economy for Low- and Middle-Income Voters

By Not Passing BBB First, Dems Missed Chance to Improve Economy for Low- and Middle-Income Voters
Election Night 2020

Eight months before Election Day, President Biden is foregrounding his economic record, an issue top of mind for most Americans.

Meanwhile, the Trump campaign is touting its own claims about its economic record, with Rep. Elise Stefanik trotting out the question, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”

A recent CBS News poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans remember Trump’s economy positively, compared with just 38% feeling bullish under Biden. Economic sentiment is on the rise, but mostly among Democrats. A new poll from the New York Times similarly indicates that the positive sentiment is highly partisan, limited to the Democratic faithful. A survey from early last year found only 10% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents were willing to say the economy was good.

Biden’s job approval ticked down in the NYT poll to only 36%.

The issues of jobs and the economy are top concerns, but voters are still giving chilly appraisals of the Biden administration’s economic performance. In a challenge to “Bidenomics” showing results for working families, analysis of government data shows that financial hardship levels surpassed 39% in 2023 and food insecurity levels rose past 11%.

Under Biden, Democrats had a chance to pass an agenda that they tweeted would “address the kitchen table issues that impact American families the most,” but party leaders did not ensure that it passed Congress before the infrastructure bill that was championed by industry lobbyists.

In 2021-2022, Democrats developed a sweeping budget plan, the Build Back Better Act (BBB), that would have invested in social spending programs, climate resilience, and more. The filibuster-proof bill’s spending authorized was pared down over months of negotiation from $3.5 trillion over 10 years to $1.75 trillion over that time. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, unbeknownst to his House counterparts, had signed an agreement with critical vote Sen. Joe Manchin setting a topline of $1.5 trillion. After false starts, the House passed the bill in November, but it was killed by Manchin in a climactic Fox News appearance the following month. 

In early November 2021, progressive Democrats—and many rank-and-file members—had been wary of passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill before the BBB, giving up leverage over Manchin and the Senate, but Biden himself urged the progressive caucus to follow his lead and give him a win on infrastructure. Industry lobbyists had pushed hard for the Biden administration and Democrats to pass the infrastructure bill first, and they did—and, as progressives warned, the party’s signature legislative push died.

The failed BBB contained significant spending on social programs that voters of all inclinations might have noticed. Had it passed Congress in 2021, its impacts over the past few years might have changed voters’ minds about Biden’s economic management.

The BBB, if it had been passed before the corporate-favored infrastructure bill, would have provided tax credits of immediate use to families:

  • extended Child Tax Credit (CTC) increase to $3,000 ($3,600 for kids under 6) for one year ($130 billion)
  • made CTC fully refundable for 2023 & beyond ($55 billion)
  • extended expanded Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for one year ($15 billion)

The BBB would have provided four weeks, 20 workdays, of paid family and medical leave available to all working people.

The BBB would have invested in child care programs and voluntary, free universal pre-K.

On who qualifies for child care support, the First Five Years Fund wrote: “During the 3-year phase in, eligibility would be limited to children in families with incomes at or below a specified level: 100% of state median income (SMI) in FY2022, 125% of SMI in FY2023, and 150% of SMI in FY2024. Family copayments would vary by income.”

The Center for Law and Social Policy wrote that the available child care funding would have been $24 billion in FY 2022, $34 billion in FY 2023, and $42 billion in FY 2024. 

The Congressional Research Service found that universal pre-K would have spent nearly $11 billion a year for 10 years for serving children in preschool programs. They would have been eligible to children age three or four, with no income test or parental activity requirements.

On making health care insurance more affordable, the BBB would have extended three premium tax credits from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) in 2021. The Commonwealth Fund wrote it would have:

  • ensured through 2025 that no one has to spend more than 8.5 percent of household income on premiums
  • increased premium subsidies through 2025 for people with incomes between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level
  • granted premium tax credit subsidies through 2025 to people with incomes below 138% of the poverty level who are not otherwise eligible for Medicaid, closing the Medicaid gap

On making housing more affordable, the BBB would have invested in housing vouchers. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities wrote it contained more than $170 billion in housing investments, including funds for about 300,000 new housing vouchers, as well as $65 billion to fix crumbling public housing infrastructure and more. The National Low Income Housing Coalition called the amount “historic.”

On climate and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the failed BBB contained a Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP) that would have helped the U.S. stay on target to halve emissions by 2030. The compromise clean energy incentives in the smaller Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) may only reach a 41% reduction by that date.

On prescription drug affordability, the BBB contained a congressional Democratic proposal in the legislation H.R. 3 that would have put certain lower negotiated prices into effect in 2025. By contrast, the drug pricing measures that became law in the IRA exempted many categories of drugs, did not make lower negotiated prices of select treatments available outside of Medicare, and the lower prices do not take effect until 2026.

When Democrats won the Georgia Senate runoffs in early 2021, the candidates ran on a message that foregrounded stimulus checks, pandemic relief, and taking on Big Pharma. If the Biden administration had not listened to business-funded conservatives and corporate lobbyists and instead had followed the plan and passed the BBB first, before the industry-backed infrastructure package, struggling voters might be in a better mood in 2024.

Photo: Joe Biden on Flickr