A Week When Congress Mattered

Three important bills and what happened to them.


Most of the time in America, it’s hard to believe that the Founders intended Congress to be the center of our government. Today, our political conversation spends weeks at a time focused on what the Supreme Court did or might do, what the President did or might do, or how one of them will respond to the other’s latest move.

But wait — isn’t there a third branch? What ever happened to it?

When we talk about Congress at all, it’s usually because they’re investigating some scandal or pseudo-scandal in the executive branch. Or because the Senate is confirming a new judge. Or Congress is the backdrop where the Fed chair makes headlines by commenting on the economy or interest rates.

Of course, members of Congress can become a topic of discussion if they tweet something outrageous or share a platform with Nazis or embarrass our country in some other way. When Republicans control one house or the other, Congress occasionally manufactures a news-making event out of nothing: a government shutdown or a debt-ceiling crisis. The world would be puttering along just fine if Congress weren’t standing on an important life-line and threatening to shoot itself in the foot.

Every now and then, congressional coverage is about legislation, but the bill in question is only symbolic: The House may be voting to codify Roe (i.e. respond to the Supreme Court) or ban assault weapons or protect voting rights (again, in response to the Supreme Court letting states violate rights previously established), but its members rest secure in the knowledge that a Senate filibuster will prevent any of that from becoming law. The point isn’t to accomplish something for the country, but to get one party or the other on the record, so that their votes can be issues in the next election.

In short, we’re used to viewing Congress through a veil of Shakespearean cynicism: Its doings may be full of sound and fury, but ultimately they signify nothing.

To the country’s great surprise, though, this week was different: Congress was in the headlines for three pieces of legislation, all of which matter to people in the non-political world and stand a real chance of becoming law: One bill passed and is on President Biden’s desk. One bill that looked like a slam-dunk failed. And one that seemed dead came back to life.


The bill that Congress passed is the CHIPS Act, which subsidizes American high-tech manufacturing in an attempt to bring the semiconductor industry back to the United States. (Currently, the US imports its most advanced computer chips from Taiwan, a supply chain that China might be able to interrupt.) Promoted as a move to stay competitive with China, the bill spends $52 billion directly, and also includes a tax credit for certain kinds of investments.

The bill is aimed at the future, and won’t do much to solve the immediate chip shortage, which is hampering a variety of American industries. Vox summarizes:

The bulk of the CHIPS Act is a $39 billion fund that will subsidize companies that expand or build new semiconductor manufacturing facilities in the US. The Commerce Department will determine which companies receive the funding, which will be disbursed over five years. More than $10 billion is allocated to semiconductor research, and there’s also some support for workforce development and collaboration with other countries. The bill also includes an extensive investment tax credit that could be worth an additional $24 billion.


https://claytoonz.com/2022/07/30/toast-our-troops/

The bill that unexpectedly failed was PACT. The point of this bill is to expand VA care to veterans whose illnesses may have been caused by exposure to toxic fumes from burn pits during foreign deployments. Wikipedia says:

Burn pits were used as a waste disposal method by the United States Armed Forces during the Gulf War, the Kosovo War, the War in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War, but have since been terminated due to the toxic fumes that posed health risks to nearby soldiers. Currently, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) requires veterans to prove that their illness is directly related to burn pits.

From 2007 to 2020, the VA denied 78 percent of disability claims by veterans that were alleged to have been caused by burn pits. The Honoring our PACT Act would remove the requirement that veterans prove that burn pits caused their illness and retroactively pay veterans who did not receive care for their illnesses after claiming disability caused by burn pits. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of the Act would be $300 billion from 2022 to 2032.

This was supposed to be a done deal. The House passed the bill in March. With only minor changes, the Senate passed the bill 84-14 in June. It then went back to the House, where “technical problems were discovered in the language of the bill”. The House made the needed technical changes and passed the bill again. Because the bill wasn’t identical to the one the Senate passed, it went back to the Senate, where passage should have been a formality. But instead Republicans blocked it.

“Why?” you might ask. Well, for reasons that have nothing to do with the bill itself, but rather with the other two bills. Democrats intend to avoid the Senate filibuster by passing the third bill, the Inflation Reduction Act (see below), via reconciliation. They can do that without any Republican votes, if they get all 50 Democratic votes. (That’s why an individual Democrat like Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema has so much power.)

Passing a bill without Republican votes is a horrible miscarriage of democracy — at least if you listen to Republicans. (Of course, they passed the Trump tax cuts via reconciliation, and tried to repeal ObamaCare via reconciliation, both without the votes of any Democratic senators. But that’s fine, because that was them. When Democrats do it, it’s unthinkably awful.)

As usual when Republicans aren’t getting their way, they took hostages. McConnell promised that there would be no bipartisan CHIPS Act if Democrats went ahead with a reconciliation bill. 17 Republican senators apparently believe that the CHIPS Act is good for America — that’s why they voted for it. But they were willing to torpedo something good for America if Democrats didn’t do what they wanted. (God forbid senators should just vote for what they think is good and against what they think is bad.)

But when Joe Manchin blew up what was left of the reconciliation bill two weeks ago, Republicans decided they didn’t need a hostage any more. So the CHIPS bill passed.

And then Manchin and Schumer announced they had come to an agreement. Someone had to be punished for tricking Mitch McConnell (who is always such a straight shooter himself, right?), and the only whipping boy at hand was PACT. So McConnell blocked it. (For technical reasons, PACT doesn’t qualify as a reconciliation bill, so 41 Republican votes was enough to stop it.)

Veterans were outraged, as they should be. Veterans’ healthcare shouldn’t be collateral damage in a dispute that has nothing to do with them. Nothing should, but especially not that. (Various Republicans have given a variety of bogus reasons for blocking the bill. But nothing that they’re talking about has changed since the same senators supported the bill in June.)

Fortunately, veterans have a celebrity speaking up for them: Jon Stewart, who has been championing these sorts of issues for a long time. (Before PACT, he nagged Congress until it fully funded the September 11 Victims Compensation Fund for first responders whose health problems traced back to working in the ruins of the Twin Towers.)

Partly due to Stewart’s ability to draw attention and channel outrage, the optics of this are terrible for Republicans, especially with the fall elections approaching. So I expect them to come back from the August recess looking to fix their blunder. I hope Chuck Schumer just takes the win and gets this done.


The bill that came back from the dead was the Inflation Reduction Act, a smaller and re-jiggered version of President Biden’s Build Back Better plan.

Build Back Better started out as a massive $3.5 trillion initiative that addressed a wide range of issues, from tax policy to healthcare to infrastructure to immigration to climate change. No Republican in Congress has ever supported it, so from the beginning, the only way to pass it was to get almost every Democrat in the House to support it, and then to squeeze it to fit the arcane rules of the reconciliation process in the Senate. If that happened, then Democrats could pass it if all 50 Democratic senators supported it and Vice President Harris broke the tie.

That need for unanimity gives every Democratic senator a veto. Most Democrats have seen the bill as a chance to prove to reluctant voters (especially young voters) that Democratic control of Congress actually matters, and that important things can get done if you vote. (Conversely, the best weapon Republicans have to suppress the youth vote in the midterm elections is “It doesn’t matter. Congress never accomplishes anything anyway.”) So they’ve been easy to convince. All along, though, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia have been more difficult.

Most of the attention has gone to Manchin, who represents a state that Donald Trump carried more than 2-to-1 in 2020. So Manchin wins his elections almost entirely on his own, rather than because he represents the Democratic Party. When he runs again in 2024, “He saved Joe Biden’s agenda” is likely to appear in an attack ad against him, rather than an ad in his favor. So he has been understandably careful about what he agrees to.

(On the Left, I often see people attributing his position to corruption, to having coal industry donors, and to having coal interests himself. Similarly, the Senate’s inability to pass significant climate legislation gets attributed to “the Democrats” not really wanting to do so, because of donors and whatnot. I don’t see any reason to go there. Manchin represents a poor state with substantial fossil fuel resources. He needs to get votes from people who are skeptical about climate change, and are particularly skeptical that the Democratic Party wants to solve their problems. And “the Democrats” haven’t been able to pass a bill because they need 50 people to be unanimous, which is hard. Remember when the Republicans tried to repeal ObamaCare? They had 52 senators, but they couldn’t get 50 of them to agree on any particular proposal.)

https://www.realtriv.com/sellouts.html

For a year and a half, Manchin has been hard to please. The bill kept getting whittled down to fit what he claimed to want, but the goalposts would always move again before an agreement got made. (In his defense, the issue that he said he was worried about — inflation — kept turning out to be worse than previously anticipated.) Two weeks ago, it looked like he had ended any hope of getting a bill done in this session of Congress. And if Democrats lose either house of Congress in the fall, as seems likely (especially if they can’t generate more accomplishments to run on), it might be a long time before they’ll get another shot.

From the beginning, I’ve been debating whether Manchin was serious, or was just stringing President Biden along. (Moderate Republicans played a similar game with President Obama about ObamaCare. They kept hinting that their votes were available, but then never getting to Yes.) If he was serious, I figured, then eventually he would agree to something. Two weeks ago, I concluded that he was not serious and had never been serious.

But then Wednesday, Manchin and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced an agreement, which they dubbed the Inflation Control Act. Vox sums up what the bill includes:

  • $739 billion in revenue increases and $433 in new spending, leaving more than $300 billion for deficit reduction over ten years.
  • $370 billion of the spending addresses climate change. Most of the money goes for renewable energy and electric vehicles. The bill also includes a new penalty to discourage methane leaks.
  • The cap on the cost of ObamaCare insurance policies (adopted as part of Covid legislation in 2021) is extended for another three years.
  • Medicare is finally allowed to save money by negotiating the price of at least some drugs.
  • The IRS will get more money to help it catch rich people who cheat on their taxes.
  • Loopholes will close so that corporations pay at least a 15% tax rate.

The wild card in this is the other renegade Democrat, Kyrsten Sinema. She’s the last veto standing, and she might use that power to either get something that she wants or to scuttle the deal entirely. We should find out this week.

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Comments

  • Alan  On August 1, 2022 at 11:29 am

    Considered in isolation, using the CHIP Act and PACT Act as negotiation is trash. (And not in isolation, what Republicans want in general is trash.) But compromises have always been part of the game. Banning earmarks in 2011 may have made it worse, as they were often the grease to get necessarily support. What Senators and Representatives are left with is much cruder. If Build Back Better is so important, maybe giving Manchin something to show his constituents would be a reasonable price? “Manchin brought $500M in federal spending to create new jobs in West Virginia”. I don’t like it, but I like our government failing even less.

    (Of course, the real solution is to deal with how the non-proportional representation in the Senate is intrinsically broken, a dangerous compromise that’s centuries out of date.)

    • Mary  On August 1, 2022 at 12:58 pm

      The ban on earmarks was quietly lifted last year. I agree with you that it’s a change for the better which may help get Congress unstuck. Consensus building requires negotiation.

      https://rollcall.com/2021/02/26/house-appropriators-to-cap-earmarks-at-1-percent-of-topline/

      • Mary  On August 1, 2022 at 1:00 pm

        Since that link only talks about the House, here’s one about the Senate…

        “With Democrats bringing earmarks back no matter what the GOP does, the choice to keep the ban likely won’t affect individual senators’ behavior, since there are no firm rules precluding them from earmarking — ban or no ban. A number of Senate Republicans already plan to propose earmarks, particularly top appropriators who oversee spending for a third of the federal budget, like Sens. Richard Shelby of Alabama and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.”

        https://www.politico.com/news/2021/04/21/senate-republicans-earmark-ban-484054

      • Mary  On August 1, 2022 at 1:08 pm

        I found a more current link (from this year) describing the current rules about earmarking (which is not longer banned in either chamber, at least while Democrats hold power.)

        https://www.axios.com/2022/02/16/congressional-earmarks-new-constraints

    • Dale Moses  On August 2, 2022 at 6:35 pm

      You cannot give him something because he does not want anything. If he isn’t/wasn’t negotiating in good faith how could you even elicit from him a thing he supposedly wanted?

  • Lisa deGruyter  On August 1, 2022 at 11:49 am

    Thank you for correctly characterizing Manchin. Too many Dems even in WV have fallen into conspiracy theories about his motivations. I did think he was serious all along. Several provisions that haven’t gotten much publicity are particularly important in WV – the Black Lung provision; the drug inflation cap since WV has high rates of chronic disease and people on Medicare; the ACA tax credit extension, since WV has almost double the average premium. It also targets brownfield and fossil fuel communities, virtually the whole state, for enhanced tax credits to renewable energy, which come with some employment requirements.

  • Thomas Paine  On August 2, 2022 at 11:52 pm

    The last person you want to have have you in his rhetorical crosshairs is Jon Stewart. His take-down of trustifarian fourth-rater Tucker Carlson back when he was spewing his bad-faith concern trolling on Crossfire is epic, and is generally considered the reason CNN cancelled the show. https://youtu.be/aFQFB5YpDZE

    And, to Stewart’s comments on the burn pit issue: the cruelty is the point, Jon.

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