The Democratic Party in Washington, especially Democrats in leadership positions, are making three mistakes in their effort to pass both the Senate bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and the $3.5 trillion social services reconciliation bill.
First, the very idea of passing a $3.5 trillion bill that concerns Medicare expansion, climate change, pre-K, the child tax credit, free community college, parental leave and child care, along with a host of other working class and middle class provisions, is based on a flawed concept: The bill spans 10 years.
Who really plans their budget 10 years in advance? What business, what family?
What about five years? At five years the amount of that bill would be $1.75 trillion, rather than $3.5 trillion. This is close to the $1.5 trillion Senator Manchin said he is willing to spend.
Progressive critics will retort that the changes being called for are “generational changes” and a “commitment” is needed now by the federal government. Well, if they are generational changes why not make the commitment 30 years and make the bill $10.5 trillion?
Whatever is passed may be rescinded down the road if Republicans take control of both chambers and the White House. And for at least for the next five years, it doesn’t matter what the law says if Republicans are in a position to scale back or eliminate some or all of the proposed items.
Second, the whole discussion about the two bills is based on the erroneous assumption that these are President Joe Biden’s bills, as if Congress somehow is there for the sole purpose of giving the president what he asks for — or not. This is really a peculiar way of looking at the legislative process.
Congress makes laws, not the president.
It is true that the president makes a budgetary request of Congress. But both of these bills have essentially been campaigned on for years, especially the infrastructure bill, which Republicans also have supported.
The social services bill is as much Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ bill as it is President Biden’s, not to mention Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and the so-called “Squad.” Mr. Biden has actually been profoundly influenced by them.
In short, the social services bill is being pushed by the progressives and the president, but in the end it is going to be a bill passed by Democrats in the House and the Senate using reconciliation or not. By saying that it is Mr. Biden’s bill, the Democrats, and certainly the media, are distorting the legislative process and the job of the president.
The president has more power than anyone in Washington, true. But he also has to negotiate with more people than anyone. He must lead his party, as best he can, but these are not his bills.
Finally, given the power of the presidency, Mr. Biden needs to guide his party out of the realm of bargaining leverage with all of the positioning and posturing and threats that come with it. He needs to guide his party into the realm of resource leveraging, a kind of leveraging that enables you to be creative and imaginative and draw forth energy and strength from the various parties involved in a negotiation.
Bargaining leverage pits individuals (or groups) against each other and coerces individuals (or groups) to do what you want. Resource leveraging takes resources — economic, material, psychological, political — and breaks down walls and creates new products, new services, new brands, new relationships, new laws.
In this case, President Biden needs to leverage Camp David and bring 10 to 15 House and Senate Democratic leaders together to talk out the challenges they face passing both bills. Going to Capitol Hill, as Woodrow Wilson did, to give a speech is one thing. But it is also a 100-year-old strategy and still very top down. Going to Camp David to get AOC and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia to talk to each other under the trees and get to know each other is quite another.
The negotiations literally need to come out from behind closed doors, and all sides need to be in nature, outside of Washington. Camp David has been used for major negotiations in the past. It is time to leverage it again.
President Biden needs to leverage the presidency to pass two bills that he wants to see passed and that Democrats, with qualifications, want to see passed. There will be compromises, but the right space is needed for the negotiations to proceed.
Dave Anderson (email@example.com) has taught ethics and political philosophy at five universities and is editor of Leveraging: A Political, Economic and Societal Framework (Springer, 2014).