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Op-Ed | The American Prospect | July 20, 2022

Democrats Need to Fight for a Government That Works

GovernanceGovernment CapacityLarry Summers
Democrats Need to Fight for a Government That Works

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Despite months of increasingly desperate horse trading and frantic whittling, Joe Manchin has narrowed the reconciliation package formerly known as Build Back Better to just a health care bill. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, meanwhile, appears set to torpedo popular, bipartisan antitrust bills on Big Tech’s behalf simply by refusing to bring them for a vote. And a once-sprawling bill on competitiveness and advanced manufacturing is now mostly an economic development subsidy to semiconductor manufacturers.

With these legislative vehicles either ground down or facing dim prospects, the upcoming government funding agreement may be one of the last uncertain pieces of legislation before the end of the session and the rumored Democratic midterm wipeout. This week, House Democrats begin voting on their versions of these appropriations bills.

The proposals they’ve developed—which are neither adequate to the task at hand, nor particularly inspiring—are emblematic of a political approach that has set Democrats on a course to disastrous results this November. It’s time they pull up and begin using the budget vehicle to fight for an affirmative vision of a federal government with the resources to work for regular people.

Make no mistake: striking a government funding agreement that satisfies enough Democrats and Republicans to clear the filibuster is a difficult task. The frequency of government shutdowns, and ubiquity of midnight agreements that barely averted others, is a testament to that fact. But the bills Democrats will vote on this week are not a product of those admittedly wrenching negotiations. Rather, they ought to be a statement of what Democrats would do if they didn’t have to make concessions to Republicans; because in the House, they don’t.

Democrats’ bold, unencumbered vision for government funding appears to be as follows: restore agencies to the funding levels they enjoyed prior to Trump-era cuts and the bipartisan austerity agreement that reigned throughout the 2010s. Full stop.

This basic formula holds true across a range of agencies that the Revolving Door Project has analyzed. Consider the proposals for labor agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), both of which will be essential to fulfilling Biden’s promise to be the most pro-labor president in history. The House bill would appropriate $712 million for OSHA, $100 million over its enacted budget for 2022. That is undoubtedly a large increase in absolute terms. But, accounting for inflation, it fails to match the value of OSHA’s budget in 2010. The same goes for the NLRB. The $319 million budget included in the bill may be $45 million above what the NLRB received last year (and in the 8 years prior), but it is approximately $70 million below where the agency’s budget would have been had it simply grown in line with inflation since 2010.

The Biden administration has declared housing a human right and outlined steps to improve housing affordability across the country. Yet, in real terms, House Democrats’ appropriation for the Department of Housing and Urban Development falls $2 billion short of what it was in 2010.

Last week, after Manchin made clear that he would not support climate measures in the reconciliation bill, President Biden issued a statement promising “strong executive action to meet this moment.” But the speed at which these measures can be deployed, and their effectiveness, will depend on the agencies implementing them being sufficiently funded. And for many key agencies, House Democrats’ proposals don’t cut it. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, would get an appropriation of $11.5 billion. That’s $2 billion short, in real terms, of what it received just over a decade ago.

If there’s anything to be said for these proposals, it is that House Democrats did go beyond what Biden requested in many cases. But that is more an indictment of the Biden administration than a real mark in House Democrats’ favor. The President’s budget request is already universally understood to be aspirational; why did the administration refuse to lay out a bolder vision?.

Contrast Democrats’ approach to that of their opponents. For decades, Republicans have been unabashedly swinging an ax at the federal government. President Ronald Reagan came into office promising to eliminate the Department of Energy and Department of Education and implement steep cuts across many other agencies. Since the 1990s, abolishing the Internal Revenue Service has remained a relatively mainstream position in the Republican party. Just this cycle, National Republican Senatorial Committee chair Rick Scott has proposed halving the tax collector’s budget. Other agencies that have recently been in the GOP’s crosshairs for total annihilation include the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)Department of Commerce (DOC), and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Of course, Republicans haven’t actually managed to abolish any of these agencies. But their persistent hacking, and the steady downward pressure it has applied on the agencies’ budgets, has been damaging enough. And the only budget that grows is the one where Republicans and Democrats have a consensus, either out of conviction or out of fear: the military budget.

Substantively speaking, Democrats would be entirely justified in advocating for similarly significant moves in the opposite direction. Compared to the size of the population or, even more starkly, the size of the economy, many agencies are being asked to do much more today with much less than they once had. (Predictably, and despite best efforts, this leads most often to agencies doing “less with less.”) As a result, many agencies have a sizable backlog of unfinished business, in addition to an ever-growing list of new priorities. Simultaneously tackling both will require major new investments.

These investments make good political sense as well. With additional funding, agencies could quickly have a positive impact on regular people’s lives, whether through enforcement against corporate wrongdoers, the implementation of new safeguards to prevent exploitation, or improved administration of basic programs like Social Security.

Despite this, Democrats have shied away from championing budget increases anywhere near the scale necessary. The thinking, I imagine, is that by tamping down their own ambitions from the start, they may win points with their Republican negotiating partners for being “reasonable.” Instead, just as Larry Summers once ensured that the Obama administration’s stimulus package would fall short of what was needed to get out of the Great Recession in the name of appearing reasonable to Republicans, Democrats in Congress have only guaranteed that agency budgets are insufficient to the task at hand.

It’s time that they learn from their opponents and try a bolder approach. They will have several opportunities over the coming months. The votes this week are just one early step in what is sure to be a long road to a final funding agreement (if we even get one). The Senate, for example, has yet to draft its appropriations bills. It should depart from the House’s example and propose funding levels that go beyond mere restoration, and give agencies the resources they need to fulfill their statutory responsibilities and advance the public interest. House lawmakers interested in getting the federal government working better for regular people should consider offering amendments that provide for larger budget increases. 

Democrats in both chambers also shouldn’t hesitate to take this fight to the campaign trail. For decades, Republicans have run on slashing agencies’ budgets. Democrats should make clear what that means: fewer people to enforce the law against corporate criminals, or to answer the phones or staff offices for essential social services, and so on. They should argue forcefully for a big move in the opposite direction. This would be among the most popular positions that lawmakers could take. In polling with Data for Progress, we found that “increasing funding for federal investigations into corporate lawbreaking was backed by a +49-point margin of support.”

Of course, the negotiations that matter most—over the topline spending numbers for defense and nondefense appropriations—are happening in an exclusive room to which most Democratic lawmakers don’t have the key. This only makes it more important that those outside of that room use the means that are available to them to ensure Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Patrick Leahy, and Rosa DeLauro feel the pressure to put up a rousing fight for Democratic priorities, very much including agency budgets.

There’s no certainty on what will make the difference between victory and disaster for Democrats this November. But, if one thing is clear, it’s that Democrats won’t get anything that they won’t fight for. So it’s time that they put up a fight for a federal government that works for regular people.

Photo Credit: “Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy” by Carlos M. Vazquez II is licensed under CC BY 2.0

GovernanceGovernment CapacityLarry Summers

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