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Excess partisanship and the cost of big budget bills

The U.S. Capitol is seen from the East Front Plaza on Tuesday, November 16, 2021.
Greg Nash

Hyper-partisanship in Washington may be the inevitable result of a closely divided Congress inflamed by recent conflicts — ideological, personal and corporeal. Nevertheless, the damage to the country is great, in ways direct and indirect. One harm that deserves more attention is the cost of depending on the big budget bills that have come to dominate congressional action. Whether from Democrats or Republicans, they often have flaws that threaten their success — flaws that, in less-partisan times, might have been caught and corrected, without overly compromising their essential goals.

A revealing example is the 2021 expansion of the Child Tax Credit (CTC) and its apparently failed extension as part of President Biden’s Build Back Better bill. It could have improved the lives of millions of low-income Americans, but, if public opinion polls are to be believed, it was unnecessarily expensive, not sufficiently means-tested, did not reward work, and was an administrative catastrophe waiting to happen — problems that might have been fixed if Congress had followed regular order.

Squeezing so many programs into one filibuster-proof bill effectively short-circuits “regular order,” the process of public hearings; widely disseminated draft bills; committee reports; Congressional Research Service (CRS), Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analyses; multiple votes; and, most important, the elapse of time that permits a broader diffusion of information (and debate) about the contents of bills and their effects. 

Instead, these many-hundred-page bills — sometimes more than a thousand pages long — tend to be drafted by senior congressional staff and finalized by congressional leaders negotiating among themselves, sometimes with the administration and, when necessary, with holdouts — together with armies of lobbyists (representing liberal and conservative political and social advocacy groups as well as business interests). Individual members of Congress and their staffs may be briefed on the contents of these monster bills, but the die is essentially cast. 

News media can’t really fill the gap. Even descriptions of a bill’s costs and how (and whether) it will be paid for are treated as a horse race — what is in and what is out, and who is winning and who is losing — rather than as serious explanations of the pros and cons of multifaceted legislation. And, of course, there are always many of each.

Departing from regular order denies Americans the give-and-take of a transparent, contested legislative process that could illuminate a bill’s strengths and weaknesses. It also shortens the time for the coalescence of informed public opinion — perhaps in opposition to a bill (or some of its provisions). 

It may be that regular order would not make a difference. The problem may run deeper, fueled by the partisanship of a heavily gerrymandered Congress. Certainly, the cross-aisle comity that made regular order work, or seem to work, is in short supply these days. But something valuable has been lost. 

The expanded CTC had the potential to be enormously important to low-income Americans. In the one year of its existence, depending on the age of the child and the family’s income, it gave between $2,000 and $3,600 to about 96 percent of American children. It phased out completely at family incomes of $440,000, a Trump-established ceiling, to counterbalance the 2017 tax cuts on the very wealthy. Its extension was embedded in the Build Back Better bill, which is stalled because of opposition by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz). 

Like the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the CTC might have gained more support (and not just from the two holdout Democrats), if it were freestanding and hewed more to the center of public opinion. There are many “ifs.” What if the credit were less massively expensive? At $1.4 trillion (or more), its 10-year cost equaled all federal aid to education, kindergarten through college, in the same period. What if it did not try to bribe middle-class and higher-income families with a tax cut that polls said that voters in general do not support? What if it had been paid for by reductions in other programs? What if it had responded to voter antipathy toward aiding parents who aren’t working (also confirmed in polls)? 

Whether or not such parents have applied for welfare, they could have been required to engage in some work-related activity, such as looking for a job or participating in job training. Less visible was another looming problem: The IRS, already far behind in its work, could collapse under the weight of distributing 37 million monthly payments — with a possible $10 billion in mistaken payments, each year.

Such concerns were typically brushed aside by the CTC’s proponents on the basis that the expanded credit would reduce child poverty by 40 percent. That result, however, came dearly. According to CRS estimates, almost 80 percent of the expanded credit would go to those with incomes above the poverty line, and about 44 percent to those above twice the poverty line. Moreover, the improvement in people’s lives would not have been nearly as great as the figure implies. The poverty reduction effect comes largely from moving some families from just below to just above the poverty line — a measure usually derided by liberals as grievously understating the needs of low-income children and families. They are right. In fact, many progressives consider the CTC just a first step toward a much more generous, universal basic income.

Perhaps the greatest “if” involves Biden’s campaign promise that “nobody making under 400,000 bucks would have their taxes raised, period, bingo.” It happens that $400,000 is the income eligibility cap for the CTC, and it tied the administration’s hands in shifting benefit levels to ameliorate distributional problems described above. One can imagine a scenario where committee consideration of the bill, under regular order, resulted in corrective amendments that the administration would have accepted, saying that the change was needed to achieve approval.

Greater understanding of the contents of proposed legislation — and of its effects — is an important element of representative democracy. It just might persuade (or embarrass) the majority party into changing course, or at least to fix glaring weaknesses, while leaving unchanged a bill’s central thrust.

Douglas J. Besharov is a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and directs its Welfare Reform Academy. He was the first director of the U.S. National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. Douglas M. Call is a lecturer at the University of Maryland and the deputy director of the Academy.

Tags budget bill Build Back Better Child tax credit Congress hyper-partisanship Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema

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