There are several hugely important items that were left out of the compromise domestic policy plan that President Biden urged Congress to pass last week before he left for the global climate change summit in Scotland. The list, which if common sense and broadly shared common good thinking had been ascendant in American politics and policy in recent years, would have long ago passed into law, includes:
- a guarantee of 12 weeks of paid family leave to virtually all U.S. workers as is done in large number of advanced countries,
- dental and vision care for Medicare recipients,
- efforts to rein in prescription drug prices, and
- funding for a national program to guarantee two years of tuition-free community college.
Unfortunately, as we have been reminded time and again throughout the last several months – a period in which a former president and several other leaders in his party have repeatedly and recklessly (even criminally) sought to undermine the basic institutions of our democracy – we are not in the midst of such an era. To the contrary, we inhabit a period of deep and dangerous division in which, tragically, almost half the U.S. Congress remains committed to doing whatever it can to foil the current President’s every move and to lay the groundwork for the return of his lawless predecessor.
One might try to deny this state of affairs, or to combat it by making louder and more passionate demands for justice, or simply walk away from the battle in disgust, but the cold, hard reality of the moment is that none of these options is a realistic or responsible one.
The situation might look slightly different had the U.S. Senate campaign of North Carolina’s Cal Cunningham not gone up in flames like a piece of cigarette paper on a windy day 12 months ago, but in November 2021, getting a deeply divided Congress to pass any kind of meaningful bill on the scale of President Biden’s Build Back Better initiative is a truly herculean task and one that, ultimately, comes down to a matter of counting votes.
And so it is that caring and thinking progressives are faced with a choice: Support the President and the maddening compromises that have been forced upon him by his party’s misguided conservative wing – most notably, Sens. Manchin and Sinema – or simply pack it in, abandon the effort, and somehow approach a distracted and mercurial electorate in 2022 arguing “vote Democratic, we’ll get something meaningful done next time.”
Happily, for all the exasperating cuts that have been inflicted on the legislation, the bill that remains is still full of vitally important provisions long sought by progressives. The list includes:
- An end to the Medicaid coverage gap in states with resistant legislatures like ours – a change that could bring affordable coverage to more than a half million uninsured North Carolinians;
- $550 billion to combat the climate emergency, including tax breaks for electric vehicles and improvements to clean-energy transmission and storage, as well as money to help make communities more resilient to extreme weather events;
- $400 billion to pay for a new, six-year universal pre-K program that would guarantee free preschool for 3- and-4-year-olds and limit childcare costs to no more than 7% of income for families earning up to 250% of a state’s median income;
- Another one-year extension of the enormously successful Child Tax Credit expansion;
- Hearing coverage for Medicare recipients;
- Reduced premiums for health insurance bought on the ACA marketplace;
- Improved Medicaid coverage for home care services;
- $150 billion to expand access to affordable housing;
- Bigger Pell Grants for low-income college students;
- Expanded free school meals.
These are, by any fair assessment, massive and transformative policy changes that will save thousands of lives, enrich millions more and, perhaps most importantly and hopefully, jump-start our desperately overdue efforts to attack the environmental crisis that afflicts the planet.
What’s more, their enactment would lay the groundwork for even more ambitious change going forward. As veteran journalist John Micek of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star put it last week in an examination of the politics surrounding the matter:
All Democrats have to do is come together, pass Biden’s budget bill, and then set about the relatively simple work of explaining to voters how they will benefit from the party’s domestic agenda, while also reminding them that the current GOP poses an existential threat to American democracy.”
In other words, yes, it’s deeply frustrating to miss out on the chance to pass some long-sought and badly needed progressive changes. And like any massive bill in Congress, the measure will undoubtedly include some unpalatable giveaways to well-heeled special interests.
But given where Democrats stood 12 months ago prior to the come-from-behind wins in the Georgia Senate runoffs, passage of the compromise package would, in the end, amount to a genuine political miracle and a tremendous substantive accomplishment for the good of the nation and the planet. The choice going forward ought to be obvious.