President Biden has signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law — a landmark climate bill that also addresses prescription drugs, health care, and taxes. But the IRA's passage also marked the official end of the Build Back Better plan that preceded it, which consisted of trillions of additional dollars in social spending that was intended to go in the same bill.
It's a bittersweet combination for Democrats, who can justifiably tout a massive legislative win, even as they mourn Build Back Better's fate.
Now that it's all over, what should we make of its gradual evolution from a $3.5 trillion everything bill to a $433 billion climate-and-health bill? Here are three takeaways from the saga of Build Back Better.
1) It was about one guy
Bills that make capital-H History usually inspire grand explanations of all the sweeping social and political and economic forces that made their success or failure inevitable.
There’s definitely plenty of that to discuss here. But the overall arc of this bill was largely decided by one guy, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va, whose status as a Democrat in a deep red state also made him uniquely resistant to pressure. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. mattered too, especially on the tax side, but Manchin and his personal policy quirks were the primary factor in both killing Build Back Better and reviving it as the Inflation Reduction Act.
This also means a lot of Democratic second-guessing around the bill is about how they handled negotiations with the one guy. The key stretch in question was in late 2021, when Manchin was demanding a smaller $1.75 trillion bill with permanently financed programs.
In theory, it was more than possible to meet these requirements and still pass a major bill if they jettisoned some of their programs. But nobody in leadership seemed willing to say "no" to enough committee chairs and key members, each of whom had a longtime priority they wanted included, until it was too late. Instead, they spent weeks trying to pressure Manchin into approving a patchwork of expiring programs that he thought hid the bill’s true cost. Talks dragged on, Manchin chafed at the constant lobbying to keep this or that item, and it all ended in a highly personal fight between him and the White House.
There may be a lesson there for future Democratic leaders about keeping early expectations in check, not overestimating one’s leverage, and learning to prioritize a few big things rather than spreading a bill too thin with half-formed plans. But the earlier version died because of Manchin and Manchin alone, not a broader revolt by either the party's left or right flanks, which means there should be some humility to these takes.
2) The bill's problems were not about popularity
Usually, when big ticket legislation struggles, the process looks the same. It starts with a president announcing a plan to great fanfare and barnstorming the country to build public support. The opposition, with backup from interest groups who would be hurt by the proposal, then tries to tear it down. Slowly, a voter backlash builds and the legislation becomes a stand-in for broader opposition to the president’s agenda. Eventually, it either dies or squeaks by at great political cost.
This was the script for President Clinton’s failed health care bill, President George W. Bush’s failed push to privatize Social Security, President Obama’s barely-passed health care bill, and President Trump’s failed attempts to repeal and replace Obama’s health care bill.
It was not the script for Build Back Better, which tried to avoid these pitfalls by sticking carefully to a long list of less controversial ideas. While its overall size made it arguably more ambitious than any of those prior examples, every individual spending item (taxes were more complicated) enjoyed broad and enthusiastic support within the party, even from moderate Democrats in swing seats. Even some conservatives conceded that Democrats successfully avoided hot button issues that caused them trouble in the past, like taxing or restricting energy use.
And it almost worked. Build Back Better typically polled well, even as Biden’s personal approval collapsed and inflation raised concerns about new spending. Republicans struggled to find an attack that stuck, while the grassroots right largely ignored it in favor of culture wars and Donald Trump. It was hard to even name a prominent conspiracy theory about the bill until the recent focus on new IRS spending. Instead, the main barrier to passage was, once again, that one guy.
The most recent NBC News poll suggests the final product is following the same path. Voters favor the Inflation Reduction Act by 42% to 31% margin, but the most notable number might be the whopping 26% offering "no opinion." America is polarized as ever, but a collection of vanilla spending programs isn't what they feel like fighting each other over right now.
3) This might be the last bill of its kind
As discussed above, it's possible throwing a bunch of relatively popular items into one bill turned out to be a good political strategy, even though the larger version failed to pass. But it also was a strategy borne of necessity rather than political calculations.
Democrats had to pack as much of their agenda in a single budget bill as possible in order to avoid a filibuster, a procedural hurdle that requires 60 votes to overcome. The Inflation Reduction Act that passed only required 50 votes and a tie-breaking vote from the Vice President because it used a procedure called budget reconciliation. But you can only craft a limited number of these budget bills each term and they come with a variety of restrictions on what can go in (priorities like immigration and a minimum wage increase were ruled a no-go, for example).
The filibuster is only a rule the Senate majority agrees to abide by, however, and Democrats appeared to be only two votes away (Manchin and Sinema) from changing it this year to pass bills on voting and abortion access.
The Democratic base is highly engaged on the filibuster issue now and there's a strong chance the next time they control the White House, Congress, and Senate, the votes will be there to change the rules. That would allow them to break their agenda into more manageable chunks — a child care bill, a climate bill, a housing bill — rather than jam everything together.