What Was, Is, and Will Be in the “Build Back Better” Agenda?

By Stockton Grunewald, Resident Editor and Columnist

In the weeks leading up to the 2020 presidential election, then-candidate and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. analyzed President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s response to the Great Depression. Biden employed a similar lens to combat the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. He promised not only to return America to “normalcy” but to “build back better.”

The following winter, President Biden presented the Democratic majority in Congress with his American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion package designed to stave off the threat of recession. Among other provisions, the plan largely extended and expanded relief programs outlined in the CARES and Consolidated Appropriations Acts. It further allocated funds for state and local governments to balance their pocketbooks. However, the final bill excluded an attempt to pass a $15 minimum wage. Nevertheless, Biden’s program passed the U.S. Senate in a narrow 50-49 vote in March 2021. The American Rescue Plan avoided a Senate filibuster thanks to budget reconciliation — a parliamentary tool that enables a simple majority to enact legislation, but only sparingly

In succeeding weeks, the White House unveiled two broad packages to supplement the work started with the American Rescue Plan. The first, the American Jobs Plan, focused on traditional infrastructure and economic development. The second, the American Families Plan, proposed long-standing Democratic priorities, such as paid family and medical leave. Altogether, the price tag of these programs stood at around $6 trillion: $1.9 trillion for the Rescue Plan, $2.3 trillion for the Jobs Plan, and $1.8 trillion for the Families Plan. 

Leaders of both parties expressed their support for infrastructure legislation. Both former presidents Obama and Trump called upon Congress to rebuild America’s traditional infrastructure, which received a C- rating from the Report Card For America’s Infrastructure.  President Biden long expressed interest in pursuing bipartisan solutions to national problems. A group of 21 senators agreed with the infrastructure focus and in turn negotiated a Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, or “BIF.” This agreement scaled back much of Biden’s original American Jobs Plan, but the $1.2 trillion BIF included a host of traditional infrastructure remedies: $110 billion for roads and bridges, $55 billion for water infrastructure, and $25 billion for airports. This legislation, endorsed by the White House, passed the Senate with flying colors on August 10, 2021.

Despite sailing through the upper chamber of the U.S. Congress, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s fate in the House was far from certain. Even with a four-seat majority, the BIF lay at the feet of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a group of 96 left-leaning Democrats who raised concerns over corporate influence in drafting the legislation. The caucus was receptive to the bipartisan bill — but only upon guaranteed passage of the priorities outlined in the American Families Plan.

With the disintegration of the American Jobs and American Families Plan, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, introduced a $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better Act” that sought to target the priorities of the Biden domestic agenda. The signature items on the reconciliation docket included: the expansion of Medicare to cover vision, dental, and hearing costs; free universal pre-K and two-year community college; 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave; a permanent expansion of Biden’s child tax credit; the ability for Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices; and the deployment of the Clean Energy Performance Program designed to curb emissions and transition the U.S. to a carbon-neutral future. With uniform Republican opposition, Democrats began to pursue their second reconciliation package of the year. 

The two bills linked and prolonged negotiation promoted heated dialogue between Democratic ideological flanks. Few key moderate Democratic senators opposed the top line number of the Build Back Better Act. Two attempts to bring the legislation to the floor stalled in the House of Representatives. Eventually, the reconciliation bill was whittled down into a $1.8 trillion social policy and climate package to be spent over 10 years. 

Currently, the Build Back Better Act includes:

  • $555 billion for climate change, seeking to halve emissions by 2030.
  • $400 billion for childcare and universal preschool education.
  • A one-year expansion of the enhanced child tax credit; families making up to $150,000 annually will continue receiving monthly payments of $250 to $300 for each child through 2022.
  • $150 billion to build new housing.
  • $100 billion for immigration reform and streamlining services.
  • Affordable Care Act subsidies.
  • Expansion of Medicare to cover the cost of hearing.
  • $40 billion for Pell Grants.
  • A plan to allow Medicare to negotiate the price of prescription drugs.
  • Increase in the state and local tax deduction cap.

Democrats are currently considering a way to include paid family leave but have dropped free community college and the Medicare expansion of vision and dental coverage. 

Critics have largely condemned both plans’ reliance on deficit spending. Democrats have claimed the reconciliation bill will “not add a single penny to the deficit,” citing tax measures from IRS enforcement to surcharges on the ultra-wealthy to pay for their agenda. If enacted, the Build Back Better agenda’s scope will have a higher price tag than the New Deal after adjusting for inflation

Late last Friday, the president personally pushed lawmakers to bring the BIF to his desk. Only 13 House Republicans joined all but six Democrats in the passage of HR 3684. As soon as next week, Democrats in Congress may take up the remaining piece of the president’s agenda. With Congressional Democrats inside the 40-yard line, we can expect the BBB package to become law.

Featured Image by Jason Richard on Unsplash.

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