I’ve Read 'Build Back Better.' It's a Hot Mess.
The late Senator Everett Dirksen once said, “A billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” More recently, Speaker Pelosi expounded, “We have to pass the bill so you can find out what’s in it.” While we do not yet have the final text of the Democrats’ “Build Back Better” social welfare and climate change legislation as of this writing, because of daily changes, we do have enough documentation to assess some of its major themes and conclude in a Dirksenian way that they amount to “real money.”
Counting explicit expenditures and scored tax credits for equity and justice items in the legislation, I found 145 separate provisions or programs costing $167.684 billion. This sum does not contain scores from the Congressional Budget Office. Included are programs and grants where the main, or sometimes only feature or requirement for the budgeted spending is equity or justice narrowly focused on a particular racial or ethnic group, specific geographic areas, certain types of workers, or people with bad personal experiences. The allocated funds range from $1 million for general program administration to $10 billion for down-payment assistance to first-time, first-generation homebuyers (however determined), and $11.7 billion for low-income housing tax credits.
This new explicit allocation of significant sums to special interests in the legislation is unlike the previous passage of popular but carefully crafted universal programs and features like Social Security, tax advantages promoting homeownership (available to major portions of the population), or Medicaid for well-defined and circumscribed low-income individuals. The $168 billion total (and likely more) is a tenth of the unofficially estimated cost of $1.75 trillion for the whole package over ten years. I also note below several provisions that seem quite duplicative, leading one to question their ultimate purpose beyond being part of an avalanche of federal spending.
Reading section by section, the following representative sample of language from the legislation gives a sense of the wokeness at play. Provisions include giving grants, loans, and tax credits, spending money for, and delivering cooperative extensions to “underserved forest landowners,” “tree equity,” “insular areas,” “colonias” (substandard housing developments along the US-Mexico border), “equity commissions,” “frontline grocery workers,” “low diversity workforce,” “Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs),” “Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs),” “those with temporary protected status or deferred enforced departure,” “students of color,” “high-crime or high-poverty areas,” “young adults who are justice-involved,” “Migrant and Seasonal Workers,” “early childhood staff,” “racial and ethnic minority individuals,” “underserved due to sexual orientation or gender identity,” “individuals who were formally [sic] incarcerated,” “climate justice,” “low-income water customers,” “areas with significant racial or ethnic disparities,” “diversify the doula workforce,” “communities of color,” “training to reduce discrimination and bias,” “individuals underrepresented in biomedical research,” “experiencing or at risk of homelessness, survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking and human trafficking,” “tribal climate resilience,” “neighborhood equity,” “individuals at risk for social isolation or loneliness,” “ union,” and “journalist.”
The legislation also has a slapped together feel, as if someone said to the various committees and agencies, “give us all your equity, climate change, home care, etc. ideas,” but then didn’t review or prioritize or organize the submissions. For example, there are 10 different provisions totaling about $5 billion from the Departments of Agriculture, Education, Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, Homeland Security, National Science Foundation, and Treasury. All are meant to support research and facilities at HBCUs and MSIs. And aside from the estimated extra $150 billion to be sent to the states to pay for Medicaid home care (which is intended to increase the wages of direct care workers), there are five different requirements for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development, to support direct and home care services and workforce for a total of nearly $2.5 billion.
Along with the blow-out spending and a general sloppiness in form and substance unbecoming to public consideration of major changes, this legislation is worrisome for its directions. It replaces private and local efforts with federal government direct interventions in many key areas of life: child care, youth education, farming, manufacturing, transportation, business and household investment, and health insurance benefits. It ramps up an already divisive and likely counterproductive focus on equity and justice. As Senator Manchin has stated many times, we should pause our consideration of this massive, complex, subject-to-fraud, and confused legislation and develop instead a bipartisan package to focus on sensible approaches to consensus high-priority areas.
Mark J. Warshawsky is a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is a former Deputy Commissioner for Retirement and Disability Policy at the Social Security Administration, and served as Vice-Chairman of the 2013 Long-term Care Commission.