Can compromise make a comeback?

Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, Bernie Sanders and Joe Manchin
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As Democrats finalized the details of “Build Back Better” legislation and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) moved to schedule a vote on the bi-partisan infrastructure bill already passed by the Senate, President Biden acknowledged, “It’s all about compromise.”

Although they have been pared down substantially from the administration’s original proposals, these two bills constitute the most sweeping domestic legislation in over half a century. They provide resources for highways, bridges, railroads, and access to broadband; pre-K for all 3 and 4-year-olds; childcare subsidies; a per child tax credit; and clean energy tax incentives.

Nonetheless, pundits are wondering how disappointed supporters will be if the bills do not add dental and vision coverage to Medicare; paid parental leave; free tuition at community colleges; increase the corporate tax rate; or reduce methane emissions.

These days, alas, a significant minority of Americans do not believe (or are not sure) that it is more important for politicians to compromise to get things done than to stick to core values, even if little is accomplished. This view, it seems, applies to intra-party differences as well as conflicts between Republicans and Democrats.

Despite intemperate comments and protracted public displays of political sausage-making (that may affect the outcome of the Virginia gubernatorial election on Tuesday), moderate and progressive Democrats have, on the whole, acted responsibly during the negotiations over Build Back Better. They have aggressively staked out positions on the overall cost, specific provisions, how they should be funded, and whether some benefits should be means tested. To be sure, moderate senators Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), have repeatedly used the de facto veto power they have in a 50-50 Senate (where, President Biden quipped, “When you have 50 Democrats, every [Senator] is a president. Every single one.”). That said, all Congressional Democrats have committed to far-reaching legislation addressing infrastructure and the social safety net.

When they get to yes, Democrats across the ideological spectrum must set aside disagreements, issue full-throated endorsements of Build Back Better and the proposition that the perfect must not be the enemy of the good (or the most feasible), and contrast themselves with Republicans — who seem to have forgotten that the role of minority parties in Congress is to offer constructive alternatives to policies they do not approve.

Progressives might also emphasize that the legislation can be a down payment if, as in the past, pressure from beneficiaries induces Congress to expand programs and make them permanent. The Social Security Act of 1935, for example, initially excluded farmers and domestic workers, self-employed individuals, and casual laborers, a disproportionate percentage of whom were African Americans and women. In 2021, virtually all workers participate in what has become an immensely popular program; 64 million people, including survivors, collect benefits, which are now indexed to inflation. Neither did the 1965 Medicare Act initially cover disabled Americans, hospice care, or prescription drugs. Thanks in no small measure to New Deal and Great Society legislation, the poverty rate of Americans age 65 and over declined from 30 percent in 1966 to 9 percent in 2019.

The social programs in Build Back Better, Democrats should point out, will build on provisions in the 2021 stimulus package, which are on track to produce the largest ever one-year decrease in child poverty in American history. The ten states benefiting the most from stimulus bill child tax credits — Utah, Idaho, South Dakota, Alaska, Nebraska, Wyoming, North Dakota, Iowa, Kansas, Montana — all voted for Trump in 2020.

Although in the past, Americans have told pollsters they support universal pre-K, child care subsidies and child tax credits, far too few of them know what’s in Build Back Better. In a recent poll, 10 percent of respondents indicated they know a lot about specifics in the bill; 33 percent had a general sense and were familiar with some specifics; 28 percent a general sense but no specifics; and 19 percent did not know anything about the content of the legislation. Even more troubling, only 36 percent of respondents thought Build Back Better would help them and their families; 33 percent concluded it would be harmful; and 31 percent it would have no effect. Only 37 percent believe the bill focuses on issues they care about a lot; 37 percent on issues they care about a little; 31 percent on issues they do not care about at all.

When they reach agreement on Build Back Better, then, Congressional Democrats and officials in the Biden administration will still have their work cut out for them. They know, of course, that you can’t make music unless you blow your own horn. But they’ve got to figure out — and soon — how to break through apathy, anger, and anxiety about inflation, supply chain problems, immigration, racism, and COVID-19 to convince American voters — many of whom pay very little attention to politics — that the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act and Build Back Better really will have a positive impact on their lives.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”

Tags Build Back Better plan Compromise bill Democratic Party Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Nancy Pelosi political compromise Presidency of Joe Biden

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