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The Best Parts of the Inflation Reduction Act Came Out of Progressive Advocacy

The IRA is a step, but it’s insufficient — so let’s push to ensure it’s only the beginning.

Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus pose for a group photo in front of the U.S. Capitol Building along with Sen. Bernie Sanders on July 19, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

Back when the world was fresh and new, with all possibilities still green on the vine, the pundits enjoyed comparing President Joe Biden to Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the details for the Build Back Better Act (BBB) were rolled out. It would be transformative, they cried, a New Deal for the realities of the 21st century… and then the political corner of that reality — in the form of corporate conservative Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, along with a clot of equally conservative House Democrats — intervened.

Biden became the incredible shrinking president as the BBB Act turned into a punctured balloon at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Suddenly able to get very little done and with approval numbers crashing down around him, because “controlling both the House and Senate” did not actually mean controlling the House and Senate, the pundit groan of Biden’s doom grew louder by the day. If he was lucky, so they said, he’d maybe rate a Jimmy Carter comparison: to that stymied presidency, that is, and not to Carter’s Yoda-like post presidency.

And then of all people on this green and bloody Earth, Chuck Schumer pulled a nifty “Look at my thumb!” trick on the Senate’s bleak wizard, Mitch McConnell, and all of a sudden there was a deal on the table with Joe Manchin’s name signed at the top. A sweaty week of waiting for Sinema — will she insist on an amendment requiring gerbils to pay a lower corporate tax rate before blowing up the process? — came and went. While she did chop out more money for private equity pirates, the bill passed the Senate yesterday with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.

Farewell, Build Back Better Act. Hello, Inflation Reduction Act. FDR comparisons are out, Carter doesn’t fit anymore, so the pundits needed a new presidential contrast. As ever, one was handy.

Passage of the Inflation Reduction Act will make Biden one of the most legislatively successful presidents of the modern era. We once noted that the mismatch between the size of Biden’s ambitions and his margins in Congress made it seem like he was trying to pass a Rhinoceros through a garden hose. It ended up being more like a pony, but it’s still pretty impressive.

To wit: American Recovery Act: $1.9 trillion; Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: $550 billion; Chips and Science Act: $280 billion; Inflation Reduction Act: ≈$700 billion

That’s a nearly $3.5 trillion agenda. The scope of the issues addressed is notable: the pandemic and its economic fallout, highways, bridges, broadband, rail, manufacturing, science, prescription drug prices, health insurance, climate change, deficit reduction and tax equity. He also expanded NATO, passed a new gun safety law and passed a bill to address the effects of vets exposed to toxic burn pits. Five out of seven of these laws — all but the two biggies, the ARP and IRA — received significant Republican support.

There’s not much debate anymore over whether Biden has been a consequential president. In the long run, his first two years may be remembered as akin to LBJ when it comes to moving his agenda through Congress.

Ah yes, Johnson… who, like Biden, had flaws as broad as the Mekong Delta. There absolutely could be worse comparisons; Robert Caro didn’t write a massive, timeless, three-part biography of Johnson and his legislative skill, culminating with the book Master of the Senate, if Johnson didn’t knock some bodies down under the Dome. Biden is a purring kitten compared to Johnson, but still, this not-insignificant thing got done, “half a loaf but fairly delicious,” in the words of Esquire blogger Charles P. Pierce. Mitch McConnell is still trying to figure out whether to scratch his watch or wind his butt. That’s worth the price of admission right there. The bill now goes to the House, where those lurking conservative Democrats are making noises like they might just go along with the show.

“Democrats voted along party lines to pass the first comprehensive climate law in American history,” reports Robinson Meyer for The Atlantic. “The bill will touch every sector of the economy, subsidizing massive new investments in renewable and geothermal energy, as well as nuclear power and carbon capture and removal, and encouraging new clean-energy manufacturing industries to develop in the United States. It is the first economy-wide emissions-reduction bill adopted by the Senate. At more than $369 billion, its investment in climate change is the largest in the country’s history.”

It is hard, though, so very hard to look at the Inflation Reduction Act and fail to see a thousand missed opportunities in a moment of towering emergency. The difference between this and the BBB Act is the difference between a diamond and a dime. They both have worth, but you can definitively alter the future with one (if placed on the right finger) and cannot even make a phone call with the other. Even the lumpy name has “Manchin” written all over it, from back when the coal baron senator blew up the BBB for the eleventh time, because of inflation that time, until whatever his Magic Republican 8-Ball told him to say the next time.

Nearly every nook and cranny of this new bill has either a giveaway to fossil fuel interests or the money power, contains provisions that push elements of the bill years down the road, opens new areas for drilling, and/or leaves entirely untouched issues of immediate concern that stood at the core of the original bill. It is historic, they say, which tells you every stinking thing you need to know about history. This is what happens when good runs into the teeth of the United States Senate.

“There are some people who think this bill is worth supporting,” Sen. Bernie Sanders said from the Senate floor this week. “There are others who think that it is not. But, whatever your views on this bill may be, let’s be clear: As currently written, this is an extremely modest bill that does virtually nothing to address the enormous crises facing the working families of our country. It falls far short of what the American people want, what they need, and what they are begging us to do.”

Upon passage of the bill in the Senate, Sanders released a statement that read, “This reconciliation bill goes nowhere near far enough in addressing the problems facing struggling working families. But it is a step forward and I was happy to support it.”

Indeed, inadequate though it may be, this bill with its withered freight of good policy would not exist at all without the labors of Bernie Sanders and the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The months-long Manchin/Sinema wars waged by that caucus got the infrastructure bill passed, and their work since has kept the BBB Act from disappearing entirely, a fate many wished for it for many long months. If their labors ended here, with this bill, it would be a generational tragedy.

I suspect, however, that it could be an actual, no-bullshit beginning, finally. The Progressive Caucus in the House is as strong as it has been in my memory, with Sanders’s clarion voice still ringing the walls in the Senate. A great vat of news media people who get paid a king’s ransom for being wrong all the time seem to think a Republican takeover of Congress in November is a foregone conclusion. I am not at all ready to concede the certainty of that outcome. Consider:

  • Biden suddenly has a thick stack of legislative accomplishments to lean on;
  • The Republicans, particularly on the Senate side, have fielded a clutch of candidates who reflect the far right Trumpian wing of the party, making them exceedingly vulnerable in a general election;
  • The astonishing outcome of the Kansas abortion vote not only proves the energizing quality of the issue for Democrats, but that the GOP’s horrific assault on choice across the country runs against the beliefs of a huge majority. If 60 percent of one of the reddest states in the country says the GOP is wrong on Roe, the GOP has a huge problem on its hands;
  • “The consumer outlook for inflation decreased significantly in July amid a sharp drop in gas prices and a growing belief that the rapid surges in food and housing also would ebb in the future,” reports CNBC today. In other words, the Republicans who hope inflation will help them in November may not have that issue on their side anymore, at least in the minds of the voters;
  • Donald Trump is still out there lurking like some dyspeptic shark, trembling on the verge of a pre-midterm presidential announcement that would immediately make those midterms all about him. Few Republicans look at this likely development with anything other than a deep existential dread.

There are less than 100 days to go (92, to be precise) before the November midterms. All who have said “things can change” should pat yourselves on the back; things have already changed, and will change again. And again. The idea that the Inflation Reduction Act could be a promising beginning, instead of a heartbreaking end, is not so far-fetched after all.