On Joe Manchin
And our crummy system
The deal that Senators Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer struck on Wednesday, a *very* skinny version of the original BBB legislation Democrats had hoped to pass last year, still has hurdles to clear. For the particulars of what’s in any legislative package and what isn’t, the first person I read is David Dayen, of the American Prospect. That includes this one. There’s a lot that was left on the table and at the same time, according to progressive advocates I respect, a surprising amount to like in the bill.
Because of the quirks of the American political system and the razor thin margin with which the Democratic majority is currently operating, Manchin has basically become Lord Dictator. So, a few thoughts about our fickle friend from West Virginia.
1)When the deal was announced on Wednesday, Manchin said, in part: “The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 invests in the technologies needed for all fuel types – from hydrogen, nuclear, renewables, fossil fuels and energy storage – to be produced and used in the cleanest way possible…It is truly all of the above, which means this bill does not arbitrarily shut off our abundant fossil fuels.”
This statement is a simple and elegant reflection of the casual and endemic corruption of our political system. Manchin, famously, owns a coal business, which he’s made a fortune off of. His personal stake as well as business and social connections all dispose him to be, in essence, a coal lobbyist from the inside. Coal remains an important industry in West Virginia, which Manchin cares about, of course. But the best estimates suggest coal accounts for 11,000 jobs in the state, less than two percent of its workforce. As Philip Bump pointed out last year in the Washington Post, there are more unemployed people in the state than there are coal employees, yet Manchin insisted on ending early the enhanced unemployment benefits that had been part of the federal government’s economic response to Covid.
Coal has served Manchin very well, and Manchin serves coal interests in return, the large public good (and the planet) be damned. As they say, if you saw this happening in another country, what would you call it? Manchin is, of course, not alone in this. For example, when Chuck Schumer replaced Harry Reid as Democratic leader in the Senate, Wall Street famously cheered. In any event, among other things, this pending deal reflects the nature of the corrupt beast that is our political system.
2)A widely reported detail on the deal that struck me was that the economist Larry Summers was brought in at the 11th hour to reassure Manchin that the package he was negotiating would reduce inflation.1 Whether it accomplishes that is another matter. Regardless, it appears that this was a sincere concern of Manchin’s. Inflation is, right now, an undeniable political problem for Democrats. It’s also one that elites - who are insulated from the negative effects of an economic downturn2, which the cure for inflation might hasten and exacerbate - are particularly sensitive to.
The Summers story also reflects something else. Our political elites may be cold and calculating and interest-driven, but they’re also swayed by what’s around them, including who has their ear and what mainstream media narratives emphasize. They are, in a word, impressionable. Dayen who, in addition to policy chops has significant sources on Capitol Hill, is convinced that Manchin was personally bothered by being blamed for the collapse of previous negotiations, especially the ones he scuttled a couple of weeks ago. Whether this package reduces inflation, or whether inflation is, in policy terms, the thing we should be most focused on is moot here. What matters is that Manchin appears to have been motivated by a desire not to be the bad guy in this story, seems genuinely to believe that inflation is a big problem and apparently really was convinced by Summers (and other economists) that this deal won’t make the problem worse. If that’s what it took to get him to yes here…
3) As I mentioned up top and as Jamelle Bouie wrote last week, Manchin’s outsized political influence is, of course, a symptom of a much more fundamental problem - the Senate itself. It is an increasingly unrepresentative body, giving shrinking rural areas of our country an ever greater say in national affairs relative to their numbers. And that lack of representativeness is further fueling the crisis of legitimacy that is enveloping all of our political institutions. The only viable, short-term fix, patchwork though it is, is to expand statehood, especially to Washington, D.C. and its 700,000 inhabitants, whose lack of representation in Congress there is no valid justification for.
4) Having said all of the above, when friends complain about Manchin (and, as I think I’ve already made clear, I’m not exactly a fan of the guy), I do try to remind them that, in some ways, he’s a political miracle. West Virginia, a once Democratic bastion, long ago became a Republican stronghold. Donald Trump won the state by over forty points in 2016 and by nearly that much in 2020. Manchin’s WV Senate counterpart, Shelley Moore Capito, won reelection in 2020 by 43 points over her Democratic challenger. Were it not for Manchin, the Senate would be in Republican hands. Democrats passed, on a party line vote, a two trillion dollar Covid relief deal in early 2021 that really benefitted ordinary folks. That doesn’t happen without Manchin. Democrats filled more federal judicial vacancies in Biden’s first year than any president since Kennedy. That doesn’t happen either. Nor, of course, is there a prospect of the current bill passing. Would it be better if he - or his frequent partner in crime, the less easy to explain Kyrsten Sinema - weren’t the 50th vote in the Senate? God, yes.3
But perhaps it pays here to count our blessings, even if through gritted teeth.
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It’s notable/kind of hilarious that this slimmed down version of Build Back Better is being repurposed as an inflation reduction measure. But, whatever.
The economist Dean Baker notes that while high inflation hurts low-income workers in some sectors, in others, like restaurants and hospitality, workers have done very well the past three or four years, adjusting for inflation. Baker’s larger point is that there is rarely so much emphasis on how poorly low-income workers are faring except when it comes time to highlight the horrors of inflation. But combatting it involves tradeoffs, some of which will adversely hurt those same workers.
Thanks, Cal Cunningham.