For the sake of the planet, Build Back Better must be salvaged

AP Photo/Noah Berger

Let us not sugarcoat an ugly New Year’s reality. 

President Biden’s Build Back Better (BBB) bill — the centerpiece of his domestic and climate change agenda — is on life support after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) declared on Fox News that he would not vote for it.  

The success of Biden’s presidency and the likely outcome of the 2022 midterms rests in part on whether BBB’s policies can be brought back from the dead. This is no trifling domestic political debacle among Democrats: Achieving global climate change goals depends on the U.S. starting to implement Biden’s net-zero carbon emissions plan today — not two (or god forbid) four or more years from now. We have no extra time.  

Build Back Better and its climate change policies need to be saved or salvaged. So what, if anything, can be done?

Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is taking the right first steps by corralling his caucus and seeking a series of votes on an amended package that Manchin and the present, but silent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) might support. Schumer says he will keep bringing the bill up until it gets passed and he must take this route, but the prospects look grim. Manchin’s verbal middle finger on Fox was no accident; he appears to have deliberately picked this toxic venue to reject his own party, despite his commitments to Biden to negotiate. His refusal to negotiate in good faith dooms the bill as currently constituted. It almost appears as if Manchin did not really want a deal on BBB. 

A real negotiator would have gone into talks with a series of priced, concrete demands for their state. For instance, Manchin could have demanded three years of redundancy payments for all miners in the state at 100 percent of a mine supervisor’s wages ($72,900), along with retraining for new fields at community colleges ($3,610) for all the state’s 49,754 miners and contractors. Let’s assume in this alternative universe Manchin adds 50 percent on top of his figure to be sure that he can deliver. What amount do we get — approximately $5.7 billion. Is getting BBB passed worth paying this?  Certainly. It’s chump change in a $1.75 trillion bill. Yet Manchin does not appear to have engaged in this type of dealmaking with the White House. For shame.

If the current version of BBB is dead, what’s next?

The president needs to break down the massive bill’s elements and focus on them piece-by-piece and, as Elaine Kamarck of Brookings urges, “start doing things the old-fashioned way, one bill at a time.” Popular provisions just might attract enough Republican votes to become law if they are standalone bills. To achieve this, the administration needs to start talking about the highly popular policies Biden wants and less about the costs. If you ask people about BBB’s policy components, a majority repeatedly say they are in support. 

By breaking up the bill into pieces, the administration can focus on congressional action backed by support from voters, industries and other actors. The Biden administration can also use regulation, state-level coordination and rulemaking to achieve its goals. 

Take the electric vehicle transition and the support that is needed to accelerate adoption. Practically all U.S. automakers support incentives BBB proposed —particularly, the tax incentive granting up to $12,500 for the purchase of certain types of vehicles. Get automakers, United Auto Workers, climate-alarmed voters and consumers behind passing these provisions in a new bill. 

Or consider the green power transition — here too, all is not lost. Financial advisory and asset management firm Lazard calculates that renewables are competitive with fossil fuels and costs are falling. As a result, clean energy firms are booming and renewable equities linked to the powers sector are jumping as investors show they want to back the future, not the polluting past. The loss of BBB incentives for new renewable energy developments is a small factor, not a determining one for the sector — the cost of renewable energy production and prices falling relative to fossil fuels are the real drivers for expansion. The administration can continue to greenlight major new renewable power projects, as it is doing today with plans to approve 16 new offshore power projects by 2025. Using this strategy, the Biden administration can help to change the conversation in corporate boardrooms and among investment advisors, as well as in Congress and among voters.

This will not get us all the way to a reconstituted BBB, and U.S. growth will suffer this year as a result, Goldman Sachs warns. But in 2022, some progress is better than none. 

Build Back Better is likely dead. Long live the many pieces of Build Back Better. Democrats must not give up. They must use every lever at their disposal, including the bully pulpit. Keep pushing to get through what are still essential policies for all Americans — and for the planet.

Dr. Stuart P.M. Mackintosh is executive director of the Group of Thirty and author of “Climate Crisis Economics.” 

Tags Chuck Schumer Climate change mitigation Climate change policy Environmental social science Joe Biden Joe Biden Joe Manchin Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Low-carbon economy Politics of climate change Presidency of Joe Biden Renewable energy Sustainable energy

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