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Conservative Democrats Threaten Devastating Cuts to Budget Bill

Will the Democrats retreat on a popular budget bill due to pressure from the Joe Manchins of the world?

Senators Tommy Tuberville and Joe Manchin attend a remembrance ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on September 13, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

Last week, it seemed as if many Democrats were gearing up for a robust fight to pass every part of their $3.5 trillion climate-directed budget. “That $3.5 trillion is already the result of a major, major compromise,” said Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders. “$3.5T is the floor,” Rashida Tlaib tweeted. “We’re moving full speed ahead,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in the face of threats from perennial legislation troll Joe Manchin.

Days later, and while solid progressives like Sanders and Tlaib are holding firm, others are wavering. Democrats are fighting with Democrats over how much of the bill to cut, again. The issue is not the portions addressing climate change, on the surface at least. It’s actually much filthier: Conservative Democrats are kicking and screaming over how much the bill intends to tax rich people and corporations in order to pay for itself, and party leadership appears ready to give in to those “concerns.”

There I was, foolish enough to hope.

A draft plan, which emerged on Sunday from the House Ways and Means Committee, is a departure from the original proposal in a variety of ways. If the math adds up, the combined proposals would raise $2.9 trillion in new revenues. The top capital gains rate would jump from 20 percent to 25 percent, and alterations to what is defined as “investment income” would bump that number to 28.3 percent. This is, of course, less than what was first proffered by billions.

Also included in the Ways and Means proposal, according to an Axios review of a Washington Post report: “Accelerating the end of the $24 million estate tax exemption would bring in another $50 billion; Imposing an additional 3% tax on Americans who make more than $5 million would raise $127 billion; Expanded restrictions on carried interest impacting how private equity firms compensate employees could bring another $14 billion; The pharmaceutical industry could be forced to foot $700 billion of new spending by negotiating rates directly with Medicare. Add these provisions and others up and you get to $2.9 trillion.”

Getting from $2.9 trillion to $3.5 trillion involves the kind of fingers-crossed argle-bargle that has kept trickle-down economics alive for so long: In marking up the bill, Democrats intend to employ something called “dynamic scoring,” a mathematics game that assumes all the other stuff will stimulate the economy enough to produce that missing $600 billion. The “dynamic” part? Laying a more-than-half-a-trillion-dollar bet on, “Trust us.”

All this, I suspect, amounts to little more than chum for the swarming corporate and energy lobbyists, who are already gnawing away at the draft proposal like hungry sharks. “The far-reaching social policy bill under construction in Congress has much that corporate America has long sought from Washington,” reports The New York Times. “But the bill also contains plenty for corporate America to dislike — particularly the tax increases that would pay for it — and in the cold calculus of corporate lobbying, industries are working hard to bring the whole enterprise down.”

Everything from the capital gains bump to the corporate tax increase is under assault because these combined proposals chisel away at the trillion-dollar Trump tax cut of 2017, and a grim number of corporate-beholden Democrats are giving ear to those complaints.

One (of course) unnamed lobbyist told The Hill back in September, “The business community has made progress with certain Democrats on legitimate policy concerns with some of these proposals and their implications on the economy and international competitiveness. A lot of those arguments are landing.”

“The economy” and “international competitiveness.” Right. They must send these people to Capitol Hill reporters with buzzword flash cards.

Beyond them are the Joe Manchins of the world, whose entire political existence is stapled to fossil fuel money. If they can deeply damage a climate bill in the name of fiscal responsibility, they will be grateful for the political cover, and the complicit corporate “news” media will be more than happy to skip the nuance in their coverage.

Congressional progressives and their activist allies are making it clear that watering this bill down amounts to an utterly unacceptable capitulation to Big Money. “There is a sense of urgency which I think the American people understand,” said Bernie Sanders on Sunday. “And what they want, is finally — maybe, just maybe — the Congress of the United States will act for them, and not just for the wealthy campaign contributors.”

Erica Payne, founder and president of the progressive advocacy group Patriotic Millionaires, took it further:

America’s billionaires are popping champagne tonight as the House Ways and Means Committee — led by Chair Richie Neal — fails the president, fails the country, and fails history….

If this proposal becomes law, working people in America will continue to pay almost twice the tax rate of millionaire investors, heirs to billionaires will continue to inherit enormous amounts of money and property tax-free, and the concentration of wealth and power will continue until this country becomes what it is already fast approaching, a feudal aristocracy,” the Patriotic Millionaires said of the House plan.

And because the House Ways and Means Committee refuses to stand up to the 55 profitable multinational companies that paid no federal income tax last year, corporations will continue to play international shell games with their profits while moving American jobs overseas.

Beyond the bottomless greed of the one-percenters and their business allies lurks the belief, held dear by too many members of Congress, that being perceived as doing something is vastly preferable to actually doing something. “These people,” I wrote on August 10 after a drastically denuded infrastructure bill passed in the Senate, “are happy to have something in hand to prove they actually work for a living. After all, it’s Washington D.C.; the details of the bill matter far less than the fact of the bill’s passage.”

After some hopeful noise last week, the retreat appears to be on. At moments like this, I close my eyes and play out a scenario where Democratic leadership — with broadly popular legislation in hand — finally decides to stop haggling with other Democrats over how much to strip out and shave down.

“Most Americans love this bill,” my imaginary Pelosi and Schumer tell the right-leaning elements of their caucus, “and you’re going to vote for it. It will improve people’s lives noticeably, including the lives of your constituents. We will all run on that next year, and we will win. Vote against it at your peril.”

Even if that strategy fails and the legislation is defeated, there is merit to the approach. Shake most any citizen awake in the middle of the night and ask them what pisses them off most about Democrats, and a large swath will reply, “They’re weak. They always retreat. They never seem to stand for anything. At least Republicans stand for something.” That the “something” is comprehensively horrifying did not stop 74 million people from pulling the lever for Donald Trump ten short months ago. It is, alas, what it is, for the time being anyway.

There you have it. Democrats: perfecting the art of losing debates with Democrats since 1981. Let the undoing commence, again.

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