One of the best aspects of the “Build Back Better” legislation passed by the House and under consideration in the Senate is that, at least among Democrats, the system is working: Members seem prepared to negotiate the measure not only to accomplish what is possible, but to do it without adding to the federal debt.
That’s a critical aspect of any expensive bill – one, oddly enough, that Democrats seem more committed to lately than Republicans, who ballooned the national debt during the Trump administration.
The legislation, championed by President Biden, would serve millions around the country, Western New Yorkers included. It would continue the important work of diminishing childhood poverty, provide universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, expand Medicare to cover hearing issues, allow Medicaid to cover home care for seniors instead of sending them to nursing homes, and lower prescription drug prices, among other benefits.
It would also restore some of the deduction for state and local taxes that the Trump tax cut of 2017 recklessly hacked, punishing Americans who live in high-cost areas, including many New Yorkers, especially those downstate.
Those programs will be welcomed around Western New York, where high levels of urban and rural poverty are stubbornly unchanging. The measure could help to break generational cycles of poverty, producing a healthier, better educated population. It would raise the horizons of millions who see no hope of change. That’s a national benefit, but the work must begin somewhere. It’s not free.
Western New York is also home to an aging population that will benefit from better coverage for hearing loss. All taxpayers, meanwhile, will benefit if home care keeps more seniors out of the country’s famously expensive homes.
Some critics – predictably on the left and strangely on the right – are complaining that the partly restored SALT deduction would benefit wealthy Americans. It would certainly do that, though its beneficiaries would also include the middle class. In places such as Long Island, an annual income of $200,000 is unlikely to constitute a wealthy household; it would describe a family somewhere in the middle class, given the area’s high costs of living.
The 2017 law capped the SALT deduction at $10,000. The new legislation would raise the cap to a more plausible $80,000. Not only would that benefit many middle class New Yorkers, it would help to keep wealthier residents in this state, where their tax payments count for a disproportionate share of government revenues.
Democrats will need all 50 of their Senate votes if the bill is to pass. Not surprisingly, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, an independent who votes with Democrats, objects to giving more money to wealthy people. The good news is that he is looking for a way to shape that aspect of the bill in a way that he can support. He is willing, that is, to negotiate.
Republicans, meanwhile, are painting the Democrats as in the pocket of the wealthy. It’s entirely hypocritical, of course – that’s been the Republican approach for generations – but in a realpolitik way, it could play to the fears of voters who are worried about inflation or who think the Democratic Party has left them behind.
More broadly, though, Republicans are holding to their reputation as the Party of No, at least when a Democrat is in the White House. In 2010, Republicans wanted no part of the Affordable Care Act. Instead of doing what legislators are supposed to do – trying to influence beneficial legislation before saying yes or no – they simply tried to block the bill. Later, they tried to repeal what had, by that time, become a popular program among millions of voters.
They seem to be taking a similar approach with Build Back Better. So far, at least, they are adamant about opposing the bill’s efforts to lower childhood poverty, to better serve the health needs of adults or other aspects of the bill. They have already decided that those are unworthy goals.
And, once again oddly, that is so even though the strategy for reducing childhood poverty – via a tax credit – lifted 3 million children out of poverty in July during its initial, temporary phase. Even more peculiar, the tax credit approach comes straight out of the Republican playbook. So, for that matter, was the Affordable Care Act, which was modeled on a Massachusetts law signed by then-Gov. Mitt Romney. In each case, Republicans were for it before they were against it.
Still, it’s good to see Democrats looking for ways to make this bill work without raising the deficit, an essential standard and – talk about realpolitik– a requirement of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who also objects to including a family leave policy in the measure.
Unlike Trump Republicans such as Rep. Chris Jacobs of Orchard Park, who opposes the bill, Manchin is a thoughtful conservative, interested at least as much in his constituents as he is in toeing a sometimes preposterous party line. Machin, we suspect, fully recognizes that his poverty-plagued state would benefit from a responsible effort to make life better.
So would Buffalo and much of the rest of Western New York. The goals of this law are absolutely worth pursuing. If the bill is thoughtfully negotiated, it can make a difference in an affordable and honorable way – one that will credit this generation of Americans.
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