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After months of negotiations among Democrats over the fate of President Biden’s historic $3.5 trillion proposal, a compromise seems to have been reached (although nothing is certain). At the insistence of Democratic Senators Manchin and Sinema, the size of the ambitious plan has been cut in half. Many of its parts were cut away, including two years of free community college and 12 weeks of paid family leave for medical reasons (the U.S. is the only major nation that doesn’t provide it). Three Democratic members of the House killed the provision to lower prescription drugs. And of course the Republicans opposed everything.
World’s Biggest Half-Full, Half-Empty Glass
Biden’s bill is historically great and bitterly disappointing.
Well—had we not anticipated, had it never seemed, that the Democrats, having won control of Congress and the White House, would proceed to enact paid family leave, expansions of Medicare, a permanent Child Tax Credit, disincentives to fossil fuel use, the ability to negotiate down drug prices, and such—had we not counted on that, then today would be a day of unmitigated celebration. Instead, celebration of the groundbreaking social provisions that actually are in the bill President Biden outlined today—universal pre-K, child care subsidies, incentives for clean energy, commonsense tax reforms that will compel corporations to pay some taxes, and the like—has to be mitigated by the fate of the even more commonsense provisions that now lie on the cutting-room floor.
For me, the most absurd relegation to that floor has been killing the proposal to give Medicare the ability to bring down drug prices. Seldom is a serious change to social and economic policy backed by more than three-fourths of the public, but this one surely was. Reportedly, President Biden has persuaded Kyrsten Sinema to accept a deal so preposterously weak—one that enables Medicare to negotiate down the price of drugs whose patents have expired (that is, after the big drug companies have wrung out the lion’s share of profits on those drugs, and which simply incentivizes those companies to extend their patents)—that few Democrats on the Hill seem inclined to vote for it. (Its merits are so nonexistent that the provision was omitted from Biden’s bill.)
By opposing giving Medicare the capacity to stop Big Pharma from charging Americans vastly more for their medications than they charge the citizens of any other nation, Sinema and three House Democrats effectively killed the one provision of the proposed $3.5 trillion package that would have most reduced the cost of living, significantly slowed the pace of inflation, and quite possibly moved more swing votes into the Democrats’ column than any other.
Leading the resistance to this measure in the House was Scott Peters, the California Democrat whose North San Diego County district includes many of the biotech companies that reap fortunes from high drug prices. While Sinema and the two other House Democrats who joined with Peters can likely be successfully primaried, the economy of Peters’s district is so dependent on high drug prices that he might well survive such a challenge…
One provision of the PRO Act—which, taken as a whole, would have been a new Magna Carta for American workers—has made it into Biden’s bill. The provision requires employers to pay fines ranging from $50,000 to $100,000 when they commit unfair labor practices, such as firing employees for their pro-union activities. Under current law, there are effectively no penalties assessed on employers when they’re found guilty of such practices. By excluding the more fundamental provisions of the PRO Act from Biden’s bill, chiefly because they don’t fit under rules of reconciliation, the employer-employee playing field remains steeply tilted toward employers, but if these fines pass muster with the Senate parliamentarian (an open question), they do reduce that tilt by a decidedly modest margin.
As befits a half-empty, if also half-full, glass.
~ HAROLD MEYERSON