President Biden has proposed, and Congress is currently debating, one of the most transformative pieces of legislation in modern history. Before we discuss what’s so transformative about it, let’s define what “it” is.
The legislation has been referred to as “reconciliation,” the Senate procedure needed to pass it. It’s been called the “Build Back Better” plan, which sounds like a campaign slogan—because that’s what it was. Those words don’t adequately define the components and transformative nature of the bill. Most fundamentally, what we’re talking about here is a Working Families Budget.
How best to explain the cobbled-together nature of the pieces that exist in this bill? Well, if you polled American working families and asked them what they needed to wreck structural economic obstacles that stand in their way in order to achieve their best lives, they’d give you answers like childcare, pre-K, home care, reduced prescription drug prices, paid leave, immigration reform, college affordability, and new climate jobs. In other words: all the things that are included in this legislation.
Understanding this to be a Working Families Budget gets also to the heart of what makes it so transformative.
In all the time I’ve ever worked in, or been involved with, legislation that has been able to pass Congress, there has been a standard axiom that governs it. That rule has been: If you want to do something good “for the people,” then you have to do something nice for the powerful.
When you look at the compromises struck to pass Obamacare, or the recently passed semiconductor bill, or the currently pending bipartisan infrastructure bill, there’s a consistent string through all of them. Namely, corporate America stands to benefit in some fashion or form. Even in passing the American Rescue Plan, which distributed the bulk of its benefits to the working class, there were still some stimulative perks for larger businesses.
To prescribe economic populism, the price has typically been some dosage of corporate accommodation.
But not this Working Families Budget. That’s what makes it so transformative, even beyond the policy elements embedded within it. What we’re currently debating is a piece of legislation that would deliver 100 percent of its benefits to working-class people! Nothing for the wealthy.
But not only does it deliver for working people—it asks for the rich and powerful to pay for it.
And that’s also why this particular legislation has been under assault from corporate America. If you look at the ad spending going on right now, you have PhRMA and a whole host of corporate front groups (like Americans for Prosperity, the 60 Plus Association, American Action Network, No Labels, etc.) pouring money into fomenting opposition to the bill.
When you have populist legislation like the one before us, the politics of how to pass it require change. There is no Lobby for American People that is going to be spending big money or stomping around the halls of Congress to get this across the finish line. That job is for the president and his allies. They need to think in populist terms about how to sell this bill.
Among two options the White House would do well to consider: First, give President Biden a chance to interact in a town hall setting outside the Beltway with the potential beneficiaries of this bill. Hold an event with real people in some key states, but make it compelling. If you held it in Arizona and invited Senator Kyrsten Sinema to be on stage, do you think the livestream would be popular and the media would tune in? If Biden were interacting with actual Trump voters, wouldn’t we be interested in the back and forth? Now is the time to get creative and put it on the line.
Second, call out the names of those who stand in the way. Biden’s voters need to see what animates him, what causes him to get angry, and who he’s taking on. The truth is that much of the paid advertising against the Working Families Budget is not well understood by the public; much of the corporate lobbying on Capitol Hill isn’t common knowledge out in the country. Reveal it! Call out what the opponents are doing, and thus, you’ll also be able to inform people about the benefits of this legislation. “I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged. Embrace the friction.
Politically, the journey of this bill is almost as important as the destination. How Democrats choose to engage the detractors of this Working Families Budget can send a powerful signal across America about what the party stands for and, importantly, for whom it is fighting. Engaging in a more pointed way with the corporate influencers and their allies would send a great signal about the values of the Biden-led Democratic Party.
If you’re going to pass a transformative bill that gives 100 percent of its benefits to working families, you had better do everything in your power to let them know what extraordinary actions you’re taking.