President Biden finally got to sign one of his infrastructure packages into law Monday, Nov. 15, and now it’s time to return once again to the bargaining table to Build Back Better. Though a vote is not yet formally scheduled, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) plans to pass the massive spending bill before Thanksgiving break – and she has warned members of Congress they might not get to leave unless they do. But does she have the votes to enforce her will, or was it an empty threat? Either way, between BBB and the looming specter of government spending and debt, it seems members of Congress – and the media – have a hectic holiday season ahead.
Happy Holidays – Now Get to Work!
Speaker Pelosi is so determined to push the Biden legislative agenda that she has threatened to work House members through the Thanksgiving holiday break if that’s what it takes. Many lawmakers already have travel plans, and it’s unclear exactly what punishment she might seek should any defy her order and simply leave. The answer may well depend on how many of the moderates in her own party refuse to back down on their demand to see the CBO analysis before pledging support.
If only Republicans or even if just a few Democrats buck her rule, censure or reprimand are certainly options. Either form of House discipline requires only a simple majority to approve, meaning that without sufficient support, reluctant members will have to either suffer through Pelosi’s hectic holiday plans or risk the wrath already faced by GOP Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona.
Should enough Democrats protest the push, however, there would be no voting majority to either punish them or pass the social spending act, and it seems likely Pelosi would cave.
CBO and Moderates v. Biden and progressives
So what’s the hold-up? Despite Biden’s claims that BBB is a $1.7 trillion bill that won’t cost the people a dime, as it covers its own costs, moderate Democrats in the House and the Senate want to hear from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) first. The CBO’s job is to analyze the fiscal impact of legislation, then advise Congress. The CBO has promised to release its analysis by Friday, and depending on who you ask, it’s either looking good for Biden’s plan, or really bad. Some say the CBO will verify the president’s claims, and others believe the agency will announce a price tag much higher than zero – anywhere from the advertised $1.7 trillion to as much as $4 trillion.
Despite the fact this is precisely the reason for the nonpartisan agency’s existence, the White House and some congressional Democrats have rushed to discredit the CBO. “There’s wide agreement CBO doesn’t have experience analyzing revenue amounts gained from cracking down on wealthy tax cheats who are taking advantage of honest taxpayers,” said Andrew Bates, White House rapid response director.
Democrats hoping to hedge against a negative report argue that this deficiency probably means the CBO will find the social spending bill isn’t fully funded, but that it’s only because the CBO doesn’t know what it’s doing. “We’re working overtime to educate members about the flaws in the CBO’s methodology,” an aid to Democratic leadership explained. “Everyone has waited months for this bill to come together. A few bad cost estimates shouldn’t derail it from moving forward.”
There’s a problem with this argument, though. If the CBO can’t properly assess how much revenue the IRS will nab from folks who haven’t been paying taxes because these measures have never been implemented before, then neither can the Biden administration. As CBO Director Phillip Swagel pointed out, “There’s people at CBO who have been at Treasury, and vice versa, so it’s a topic we’re very familiar with and have a pretty established methodology.”
The plan, of course, is to soak the rich, which presents another issue entirely for Republicans and moderate Democrats. That’s what the 87,000 IRS new hires in the BBB are for, and to pay for that measure alone, they’ll need to find some significant tax evasion whether it exists or not.
As federal employees, IRS agents have a standardized salary that falls along a predictable pay scale. A look at currently open jobs with the IRS shows a range of starting salaries for Individual Taxpayer Advisory Specialists (GS5-GS9) at anywhere from $35,265 to $70,481 a year. The job description for that spot reads “Assist and advise taxpayers in meeting their Federal Tax obligations.” Let’s do a little math with the lowest possible starting salary there: 87,000 new Specialists would cost the American taxpayers a minimum of just over $3 billion in the first year of annual salaries alone. Nevermind their training, future years of service, any who hire in at the upper end of the range, any non-salary benefits they receive, or the actual fruits of their labor. Those with actual police powers, of course, make more.
Can they pull it off?
Whatever the CBO says, Pelosi is confident she’ll get BBB passed either Thursday, Friday, or Saturday. According to party leadership, the hope is to clear it in the House before Thanksgiving so that the Senate can take it up in December – but the second half of that plan has problems all its own. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has made it clear he wants to avoid adding to the pressure of inflation, and he’ll likely base his willingness to support reconciliation on the CBO report. Between satisfying him and fellow moderate Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, it’s quite likely the spending package will flounder in the Senate. Any changes made in the Senate must be accepted by the House, and, of course, there is that pesky battle over federal funding and the debt ceiling that must be addressed as well.
Time is running out for Biden and friends to Build Back Better – and it just doesn’t seem likely to happen this year.
~ Read more from James Fite.