Will Congress pass Biden’s $3.5 trillion reconciliation package? Is there hope for criminal justice or immigration reform, or will the Senate filibuster block the rest of Biden’s agenda? And can Biden play a role in uniting Democrats on a path forward, even as the impending legislation highlights deep divisions within the party?
In this special conversational edition of the Science of Politics podcast, Matt Grossmann and Matt Glassman (Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University) discuss the status of the Biden agenda in Congress. They talk reconciliation, infrastructure, and spending, tying it into congressional procedure and how the agenda might progress or be derailed over the next few months as tensions between moderate and progressive Democrats come to a head and fiscal crises loom.
Matt Grossmann: Thank you all for joining us. For those who are with us live, you’ll be able to ask questions in the Q and A or chat function of Zoom. I’m sure we’re all used to that by now, and we’ll also be broadcasting live on YouTube and available on the podcast later on. So some folks will be listening or watching us in a week or so. We certainly appreciate you being here. So we will begin.
Welcome to the Science of Politics live edition from the Niskanen Center. I am Matt Grossman. Today, I am joined by Matt Glassman, who is a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. Matt is a Yale political science PhD, and a former staffer at the Congressional Research Service who worked on congressional operations and appropriations. This event is proof that we are two different people, despite our common names and social media presences.
Our last live edition of the Science of Politics was with G. Elliot Morris, I think a day or two after the election. So we were all very sleep deprived. We’re not quite as sleep deprived now, but we did have sort of a classic Washington week last week with deadlines, with some late night brokering with Dems seemingly in disarray and with no real conclusion, just kicking the can down the road.
So Matt bring us up to date. What is the state of the Biden agenda in Congress, and how much should we be reading into what happened last week?
Matt Glassman: Well, I mean, I think the developments last week were important, but in the big picture the Biden agenda is much larger than this, and his presidency is much larger than this, and the 117th Congress is much larger than this. I mean, I think if you think about the 117th Congress in general, I think we still need to reset ourselves that this is a crisis Congress and it began that way. I mean, it’s sort of wild to think about, but remember this Congress began by doing something massive in its first hundred days, which is entirely atypical for Congress.
I mean, you’re talking about the hundred days, but when have Congress actually done something big in the first hundred days? Well, in ’33 they did, right, in response to the second wave of the depression, [inaudible 00:02:44] legislating. And then they did in 2009 with the stimulus bill.
But beyond that, it’s hard to think of Congress acting sort of quickly out of the gate with major legislation. It just doesn’t seem to exist. Right? You know, even sort of the Bush tax cuts were later than the first a hundred days. But here we are in Congress and we have another crisis, COVID, and what do they do? They respond quickly with the American Rescue Plan, which was sort of the centerpiece of Biden’s out of the gate agenda and sort of passed in whole form as he wanted. Right? That was a bill package sort of organized, collected, and presented by the White House as an administration bill, and it passes. And unless we forget, we also had an impeachment at the beginning of this Congress, sort of a second crisis with 15,000 troops stationed to the Capitol. And so this is an unusual Congress to begin with in what has already happened to it and what it’s already done now.
Now obviously sort of the centerpiece of this first year of the Biden presidency is sort of the Build Back Better agenda. You can call it the reconciliation bill and the bipartisan infrastructure bill at this point, and sort of the division of those I think is important. But where we are in that is that we’re at party negotiations. And I think one thing that people I think don’t quite perceive is that this is pretty normal in two senses.
First is that reconciliation and using it has sort of been sort of the standard fare for a while now. The last five presidencies have begun with unified government and all of them have been sort of tempted into using the reconciliation process for party line legislating. Right? Think about the Bush tax cuts, about Obama with the ACA, Trump with the attempted repeal of ACA and with the tax cuts and jobs act. And now Biden attempting to do the Build Back Better agenda. So in some sense, this is sort of normal modern approach for political parties. They’re getting unified governments under new presidents, and they are attempting to do sort of party line legislating on their major agenda pieces.
Now sort of underneath the guts of that is that we are in sort of a negotiation phase. And we’ve seen this battle between the progressives and the moderates in the House that seems to be at least temporarily revolved so the ball can move forward. And now it’s a game between the House and Senate and all of this is sort of kind of normal. But where we are is that they’re taking sort of presidential policy and paring it down.
I think one of the main things we’re seeing here is just how important Congress is. This bill has certainly, I think reintroduced everybody to the idea that the president just doesn’t get what he wants and that’s not how policy’s made. Right? Congress has to deal with it, and the president can’t snap his fingers and make people pass a $6 trillion bill or a $3 trillion bill or a $2 trillion bill. And whatever the nuances of it are, sort of the rough terrain is that you have unified government and a very small majority. And that empowers factions. And I think that’s what we’re seeing here at its core.
Matt Grossmann: You’re resetting expectations lower, so I’ll try to raise them again. We have the most experienced congressional president ever, spent lots of time telling us that that was going to pay off in negotiations with Republicans in the Senate, and with a moderate image. We have the supposedly magical Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, who’s able to rein in her troops and bring them all along. Didn’t we see signs that that was not really happening?
Matt Glassman: Well, I mean, I think you’re just running up against reality here, which is that as soon as you have margins this small in the House or the Senate, right, these are sort of the smallest margins of the modern era. You’re just empowering anyone to become a veto player. And this isn’t just Manchin and Sinema in the Senate, because I think that’s sort of well known terrain when you’re 50/50.
But in the House we keep talking about sort of the rise of the progressives. And I think there is sort of reason to believe that the progressives are becoming ascendant in the Democratic Party. But the reason they’re becoming ascendant in this moment is because the margins are so small. Right? If the Democrats had 245 seats, which is not unusual for a majority party in the House, there’d be a lot more room to sort of pick this majority apart or pick this faction apart. Right?
When you have to hold together 20, 30 people to sort of hold the balance of power, it’s quite easy for the leadership to start buying people off and cutting deals that sort of disintegrate your faction. When all you have to do is hold four or five, or seven people together, it becomes much more difficult to pick you off. And of course, in the Senate, when you’re just a lone individual, like there’s no sort of picking you apart, right, you just become sort of a true pivot point in the pivotal politics sense.
Matt Grossmann: Of the House, the Senate and the White House, is the behavior of any of those abnormal or surprising? What’s been most surprising so far?
Matt Glassman: Good question. I thought the White House would be more sort of aggressive about how they were approaching this. It seems like a lot of this was left to Congress over the last month. But again, that’s a strategic choice that they made. It’s not like they forgot to be sort of aggressive about this. But I thought the White House would be more engaged. You know, I didn’t quite think we’d see sort of the fight out of the progressives we got. Traditionally sort of Pelosi has preferenced centrists, her majority makers, and always done her best to sort of take care of the care and feeding of that. Because ultimately she has been sort of electorally focused in the end, even if she personally might agree with the progressive agenda.
And that’s usually led to the progressives being rolled because their votes were sort of taken for granted, and you do what the majority makers want. You make sure these centrists are happy and they win their elections and stick with you because they have sort of a more credible threat. And so I think the progressive standing their ground and doing their flex last week to really put their foot down and credibly threaten to block something on the floor is the most surprising development to me. That’s not sort of been their MO. But again, they don’t need as many people to hold together. They keep talking about sort of 96 progressives, if they can get half of them to vote for it.
In the end there’s probably a couple dozen members who think of themselves as progressives first, rather than some other sort of Hill identity. But now that’s plenty enough, and so they become a credible player. So I think that’s been the most surprising to me, is that they didn’t get, not necessarily rolled, but that they didn’t have to sort of give in and sort of eat the deal. At this point, right? I think eventually they’re still going to have to eat a deal. The bicameral nature of the negotiations means that they are not going to be able to sort of bend the Senate to their will in the same way.
Matt Grossmann: Although the White House and Pelosi also got nothing to sell them. So.
Matt Glassman: I mean, so you know, I think that in the big picture, right, this does look like legislative politics. Right? And I Think the key on the democratic side is that this isn’t sort of the mirror of the Republican situation where you have a faction, like the Freedom Caucus, or before the Tea Party, that not only held the balance of power, but wasn’t necessarily looking to get the yes. Right? So they were a separates group, often seeking sort of that outsider credibility to vote no, and be like, “We are not conservatives.” Right? And they flexed it a lot. What that ended up doing was moving bills towards the center because Boehner or Ryan would have to go deal with the Democrats.
That’s not where the progressives are coming from. I think ultimately everyone still wants to get the yes. Maybe Manchin doesn’t. Maybe Sinema doesn’t. But in the House, I think you’re dealing with good faith players who are just trying to pull the bill closer to their ideal points. And in the end, they’ll do the best they can to do that, but they will vote for the package in the end.
And so that leads to sort of brinkmanship, but it’s brinkmanship in the bluffing sense. Right? Everyone is just trying to see what they can claw in their direction, increase the bill by $400 billion. That matters. Right? Get one more provision in there you like. That matters. But it’s not backed by sort of, I think, a credible threat to sink the president’s agenda the way the Freedom Caucus might be more than happy to tell Boehner to stick it and just vote against him.
Matt Grossmann: So a reminder for those of us joining us live, is that you can ask questions in the Q and A, or the chat function, and we will incorporate them into our discussion.
So we’re also speaking at a time when supposedly the full faith and credit of the United States are on the line and the factions are dug in. And yet I just can’t get animated about it, because it seems like one side is going to give in. And it doesn’t matter to any important outcome which side that is. Is that right?
Matt Glassman: Yeah. I agree with you on that. So Matt Green over at [inaudible 00:11:47] had a nice piece of this week talking about the way members sort of misperceive things. And one thing members seem fixated on is the idea that tiny policy decisions in Congress have sort of electoral impacts. And the debt limit seems to be a great example of this, where members twist themselves up into this, where what is the actual sort of marginal impact of this vote on a future election is probably close to zero, at least in the aggregate. Now you can always point to a story about one member lost sort of their election based on one little vote that became a huge issue. But that seems to be not true in aggregate. And I think the debt limit… The problem right now is there’s no vehicle. Right?
If we define the modern era in Congress as sort of post 2009, where you have a 60 vote Senate and sort of this heightened partisan animosity, we’ve always had the vehicle to raise the debt limit that were must pass bipartisan bills, starting with the BCA deal in ’11. And then basically the raising the BCA cap since then, and then the CR in ’17, and again, the BCA cap.
So there’s always been this sort of vehicle for it to ride on that was going to require A, a bipartisan deal to get that vehicle through. So you would get like 80 votes in the Senate, or whatever, 75 votes in Senate, and then the leaders could sort of talk the debt limit into that. And this didn’t mean there weren’t hostage negotiations. Of course there were. But it was sort of the debt limit had always been sort of a hammer that the minority hit the majority with. You had unified government in the 1970s, right? The debt limit was sort of like something they hit you with.
But then now we don’t have this sort of bipartisan vehicle to ride it on right now. There’s no more BCA caps to extend. The CR has failed to be the vehicle, and it’s been pushed off. That was sort of the one way it might have looked like the past 10 years, if the CR, plus disaster relief, plus Afghanistan relief could have been the vehicle to ride this. It was not. Maybe that’s the Republicans just digging in more.
But at any rate, we’re stuck at this point where you’re not going to do this sort of that way anymore. And someone will give in. It would’ve to be a colossal coordination failure for sort of the debt limit not to be raised here. And you can get that in politics, right? What you hope is that sort of spite and animosity don’t start to drive behavior here as much as sort of rational considerations about these things. But I assume that someone will give in. Both parties’ positions on this are ridiculous right now. And I think you’ll probably get something like a UC agreement in the Senate to sort of streamline the reconciliation process. And the Democrats will just do this.
Now, what they do is an different story, right? If they go and try and extend the debt limit to sort of a gazillion dollars or whatever to clear it off the table, that’s very different than they extend it enough that it’ll last another year when we’ll be back in this position in 2022. And I think that’s still a wide open game. But getting into the sort of details of whether you’re going to suspend it or raise it to a dollar figure, it strikes me as a very sort of elite DC concern that doesn’t actually have impacts.
Matt Grossmann: So we agree that who gives in this dispute is not going to have any electoral impact. We have several questions about the potential electoral impact of the reconciliation bill itself. So McConnell has said that Dems are going to suffer either way. They’re either going to not pass anything, and therefore Biden’s agenda is going to be seen as failing, or they’re going to pass something and it’s going to too big and too unpopular. Is that right? Or is there a way through here where passing this reconciliation agenda actually helps Democrats electorally?
Matt Glassman: Well, I mean, I think the broader sort of political science point is that like passing legislation that benefits people is really overrated in terms of like the electoral impact. You can literally like cut checks to people. Right? We’ve done this routinely in the last decade, literally cut checks to people and they don’t give you a whole lot of credit for it retrospectively in the election. And for a party like passing and failing to pass stuff doesn’t seem to be that correlated with electoral success. Neither does this idea that you need to sort of fulfill your agenda. It just doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing that drives voters, sort of this core competence type thing. Elections seem to turn on other matters of partisanship and the economy and sort of social identity.
Now, what you can do as a party is do your best to make things go well in the country, and to the degree that your bill can improve the lives of people and improve the state of the economy, they may not directly give you credit for passing the Build Back Better Act of 2021, but if they’re feeling better about their own economic situation and their perception of the American economy is that it’s doing better, that can help you. And so there’s definitely incentives for governing parties to pass things that do good things for people and improve the American economy and the state of America in the world. And so there’s certainly an incentive to do that.
And there’s obviously the opposite incentive for the minority party now, to stop that from happening. But I don’t think whether the $15 minimum wage is in the bill drives anything beyond that provisions effect on the economy down the road. So parties want to do stuff that is good and popular and helps the economy, and that makes sense, and things they can campaign on, but ultimately, it’s pretty marginal impact in terms of actually passing some specific thing.
Someone asked me the other day what I thought the effect of these bills passing would be in the Virginia governor’s race. And I said nothing. Like zero, right? No impact. Even if you could pass this stuff, none of it’s going to go in effect by next November, and no one votes on the credibility of a party to be able to fulfill its campaign promises in a state election. It’s just not particularly relevant.
Matt Grossmann: Yeah, let me underline a few of those points, because they’re commonly confused, that we, first of all, all of our evidence is of fairly minimal electoral impacts and the baseline is that the party of the presidency will lose seats in the midterm election, regardless of what happens. To the extent that we have evidence it’s about the bigger, the success agenda that you have, is actually, if anything, negatively correlated with electoral performance in the next election.
The counter is what Matt said about the actual effect of policies. So there’s no counterevidence that passing something big is good for you electorally. The counterevidence is people who explicitly benefit from a policy, or if that policy has an effect on the economy as a whole, that can be beneficial. So those things really aren’t in as much contradiction as sometimes people say.
But there is a lot of conversation, and we did get another question about the popularity of things in the reconciliation bill. So we’re having this kind of top line argument about how big the package should be. We’re also having an argument about the extent to which are the child tax credits better to do than some other piece? Should they be means tested or not? And a lot of this conversation is about perceived electoral or public opinion effect. Is there any, and should Congress be concerned about the design of these policies in terms of how popular they will be?
Matt Glassman: Well, I mean, I think there’s two questions there. One is the sort of normative question, should there be concern, and second is, are they concerned? And everything we know is that members of Congress do feel very concerned about these things, again, probably to an extent that’s irrational, but maybe not, from the individual perspective of a member who might be, you know, most members are overly worried about the policy ramifications for electoral interest. But do you want to do popular stuff? Sure. It’s certainly not going to hurt you in the abstract, to be like, well, I’m doing popular things and not unpopular things, but I think it’s certainly overrated.
And I think a lot of sort of like, well, are you going to means test this, are you going to limit it, this is much more a function of the procedural situation in Congress than anyone’s normative vision of what these policies should be. I think one of the keys to understanding Congress right now is that the nature of the partisanship and the nature of how these bills are passing forces these political actors to work in very strong constraints that they wouldn’t normally be working in.
And the most important piece of that is that the reconciliation process requires things to be related to budgetary impacts. And so the nature of how we talk about everything comes down to budgetary impacts. And so, when you say we’re going to do something popular, it doesn’t mean you’re choosing the most popular thing to do, and it doesn’t mean you have to do that, but you’re choosing things that fit within this narrow path you have. And it’s like, well, why would you means test this? Why would you limit this to a certain number of years?
Well, members of Congress wouldn’t choose this naturally out of the air. They’re working within the structures of the institutions they have, and that can be the rules of the Senate and the Byrd rule, or that can be the political constraints of the actors. And I don’t think anyone ever thought about, well, is it popular to start a dental benefit six years from now and have it only go for two years. Dental benefits are popular. Why not start them immediately and have them last forever would be a typical person’s position on that. And the answer to that would be this is sort of the, I don’t want to say artificial, but it’s the structural incentives of the deal.
And I think the bigger picture now about popular is reconciling this idea of a top line, which is what a lot of people like to talk about, how much are we spending, versus what you actually are spending it on. It’s amazing, the number of people who I hear just sort of parroting partisan lines, as if spending 3.5 trillion is better than spending 2.2 trillion. Maybe it is, maybe it’s not. Or the opposite, it’s better to spend less, without having any clue about what you’re spending it on underneath.
And I think those top lines also serve to sort of obscure the differences within the Democratic party, for instance, over these issues. If you think about Manchin’s 2.2 trillion versus, say the progressives’ 2.2 trillion, if you just had them write them down on a piece of paper, what those would be, they’d be light years apart. They’d be light years apart. Same with Manchin and the House moderates. I think that’s another really important piece.
If you look at that Manchin letter, I think it’s a fascinating document to think about contemporary politics, because it really smacks of an old fashioned, home style, personal vote. It’s a laundry list of things that are good for West Virginia coal interests, that help West Virginia financially, but also show no opposition to raising tax taxes, really. Which is sort of like when you think about, well, tell me about a moderate Democrat, what don’t they want to do? Well, they don’t want to raise taxes on corporate interest. Well, Joe Manchin does. He’s fine with it. Really reflective of a Congress that a lot of people don’t want to believe exists anymore, but one that’s made up of local representatives thinking about local issues.
Matt Grossmann: So we haven’t really had much of an opportunity to see Democrats’ prioritization. They pretty much put everything in the American Rescue Plan that they had talked about. The presidential primary, everyone sort of said they were for everything. There wasn’t a whole lot of we’re for this versus this. So now we have a time when we have to make that decision. What is going to control whether we see a Medicare expansion versus a Medicaid expansion versus a child tax credit versus … There’s so much that is potentially on the table. And it seems like there’s not a lot of guide to what is the top priorities of some of these actors.
The White House was in Michigan yesterday and mostly touted the childcare benefits and the child tax credit. Didn’t mention anything about healthcare or energy. So I guess that was surprising to me, but what should we expect in terms of what the most likely things are that’s going to be included in this, and what does that tell us?
Matt Glassman: I mean, I think part of it depends on how much Manchin and/or Sinema decide they need this thing to be paid for. Because then if they decide that, you know, basically the Democrats have, in the actual reconciliation instructions, they have like 1.75 trillion in wiggle room. Everyone talks about this 3.5 trillion number, but that’s really notional, right? Because Ways and Means and Finance are allowed to offset these things with their taxing authorities, they could spend 10 trillion, as long as they offset it with 10 trillion in tax increases.
And so getting to how much deficit spending here Manchin and Sinema want is a big question in how they want to go about doing it. If Sinema’s not going to give in on the corporate tax increase, and she’s demanding that this thing’s paid for, I don’t know where you are at that point. You’re losing sort of like nearing a trillion dollars in revenue in some sense, that it’s going to come up to pay for these things you want to do. I assume that the centerpiece of the spending in terms of single item is the child tax credit, but that’s a massive cost too. That thing almost balances out the corporate tax increases right there.
And I think a lot of the stuff is super popular as a polling thing, be it the paid leave, the childcare stuff, the college stuff, and any of the Medicare expansions poll really well. But again, I think it’s more a question on the paid for side right now.
Matt Grossmann: So let’s say we do get to something around two trillion dollars. As you said, there could be very different things put in that that bucket. Seems like one story we could tell is that this is just about the particular individualized local preferences of these two senators, but there’s political science that would suggest, oh no, the provisions that are included are going to be responsive to party constituencies or public opinion or marginal voters. I mean, is this really a very internal process driven by these idiosyncratic preferences of Sinema and Manchin, or are there some structural factors that’ll determine what gets in that two trillion dollar bucket?
Matt Glassman: I don’t know. I mean, I am very partial to the idea that Manchin and Sinema are the only ones with credible threats to vote now. And that means that policy is going to be driven towards them. Now, what that actually means in the Senate, I mean, there are a bunch of other moderate senators hiding behind all this. And could we see someone rear their head in the Senate, who’s like, wait a minute, what about my idea? That’s always going to be possible in the Senate. I don’t know if anyone has the credible threat.
I’m not even sure why Sinema has a credible threat. She has developed into this position where it’s not even obvious why she has a credible threat, except that she just does. And it could be as simple as like, hey, I’m just going to be sort of overtly irrational and hold my breath here, and you’re going to have to make me stop. But I certainly don’t believe anyone who says that the progressives have leverage here over Manchin and Sinema. They are not going to walk away from a bare bones deal here, but Manchin and Sinema, particularly Manchin, I think could in theory walk away from a bare bones deal here. And that gives him the leverage. So I think it does come down to a lot of what he wants.
That said, people on the left sort of pooh-pooh Manchin as some sort of stick in the mud, but I don’t think he’s trying to kill this bill. I think that was sort of the paranoia of the left, is that what Manchin wants is to just get the BIF through the house and then he’s just going to crater the whole deal. And that doesn’t strike me as right. Manchin is still a team playing Democrat, in some ways more than Sinema is. And I don’t think he has any interest in torpedoing the president’s agenda, but I think he has a strong interest in pulling it the direction he wants to do, which is something sort of like a left populist agenda in some ways, given his openness to tax increases.
Matt Grossmann: So did they win anything, though, by not delinking these? In other words, let’s say they had succeeded in delinking the infrastructure bill, would that have moved Manchin and Sinema’s number down, not that they might not pass anything, but now by winning this lack of delinking, have progressives moved up Manchin and Sinema’s number?
Matt Glassman: I mean, they removed that threat, which I don’t think was particularly big, but they definitely removed that credible threat to just get completely rolled. Like, for Manchin to blow this thing up and be like, you know what, forget it. So they won that. I don’t think, I mean, I think the main thing their flex did was it moved the process forward. They got to a point where we could start the negotiations. In some ways, we were just in limbo for a while. The president hadn’t really engaged Manchin, hadn’t set down a marker about what he wanted.
And then it all sort of happened simultaneously. Pelosi couldn’t figure out a way to put this thing on the floor and pass it. The progressives did their flex. And then we get the [inaudible 00:28:47] to the negotiations now. Manchin drops his letter. That leaks out. And now we have people presenting numbers finally, and engaging, and then Biden steps in, which is important, although I thought he stepped in in a less decisive way than he thought might happen. I thought maybe he’d step in and say, “No, we’re taking this vote now. Let’s do it. And then here’s what the framework of the negotiation’s going to be.” But he didn’t do that, but he did move them on a process where now you have actual negotiations with numbers that make actual sense. And the progressives have then said they’re coming down.
So everyone’s involved now in that factional negotiation. I think probably, you know, maybe the losers here are the house moderates, who like the [inaudible 00:29:29] tax, like who knows, man. I don’t see them as … They’re sort of stuck there, where they back Manchin on this top line deal, but they really want different sets of things than Manchin because they’re very different kinds of moderates than Manchin. And they may be the people on the cutting room floor here.
But again, with the margins this small, if you want to go stand out on the plank and take on Pelosi, you can do it at any time. It doesn’t take a lot of people. And Josh Gottheimer certainly is acting in a way that doesn’t strike me as productive, but also doesn’t strike me as someone who’s necessarily going to just fold in again and be like, “Okay, I’ll vote for whatever.”
Matt Grossmann: Yeah. Although I think they in some ways took the fall for Manchin and Sinema there. I think people didn’t quite notice that there was also the date of October 1st on that Manchin letter that slipped out. So the senators were also hoping and expecting that they would be able to get the infrastructure deal through while they hadn’t agreed to much. So I don’t know if the House was completely on their own there.
But so we are in some sense moving forward, but in another sense, we still have the same letter from late July that Manchin’s position hasn’t, I guess, officially moved off of. So what did we learn from that? We had a question from Ann about the energy related programs there. That obviously was where he was most specific. He wanted everything to go through his committee. He wanted anything that was a tax credit for alternative energy to also be a tax credit for traditional energy. So that seems like pretty traditional constituency politics. What do you foresee there? Are they going to be able to come to a deal where they do get some energy provisions that matter and still satisfy Manchin?
Matt Glassman: Maybe. I mean, it’s hard to imagine Manchin being like, you know what, I’m just going to abandon West Virginia coal. That’s it. Not going to do it. And Manchin has a huge personal vote in West Virginia. He’s running, whatever, 25 points ahead of the presidential candidates in the Democratic party. But it’s not that big, it’s not big enough to overcome a lot of things like that. And nor does he want it. Who knows if it’s even electoral [inaudible 00:31:43] for Manchin or he just actually believes in this stuff and actually wants to represent his interest, which is something people forget about. People actually have policy positions they believe in just as good public policy.
Matt Grossmann: Yeah. Sincerity is way underestimated, I think, in these discussions.
Matt Glassman: Absolutely. And the fact that sincerity overlaps with electoral benefit also shouldn’t surprise us. The reason you win elections from people often is because you happen to represent those people in some really basic way. You’re a farmer too, right? You’re from West Virginia too, right? You care about the people who work in the coal mines too. I don’t know how to think about climate change and this stuff, honestly. It feels like a piece of Biden’s agenda that is extremely important to activist liberal coalitions and just not that important to typical voters. It’s not particularly popular, relative to some of the other things and stuff. It’s not going to have a noticeable impact in an electoral sense and there’s significant coalitions in the democratic party that aren’t big fans of it, starting with West Virginia coal. To me that makes it, as policy packaging, expendable.
Now they’re never going to jettison climate change out of this bill, but the cost of it may be just that it is a much more holistic energy package that gives you senator Manchin’s continued tax expenditures on traditional energy stuff. No, I don’t think they’re going to win Manchin over on climate. Climate seems to be the least important piece of this from the big picture package and it wouldn’t shock me if that’s a place where Biden’s going to compromise too.
Matt Grossmann: Another piece of that I think has been misunderstood in Manchin’s letter is he also talked about the Federal Reserve and people are interpreting that as that had to be in the bill somehow and was impossible. I think he was just saying, I’m waiting to see if the Federal Reserve is going to continue to ease or if I think inflation is under control. We did have a question about inflation and if that is going to have any effect, obviously controlled mostly by monetary policy, but Manchin has raised it and there might be some concern that that would interact with the congressional agenda. What do you think?
Matt Glassman: I don’t know. I agree in general that the Manchin letter is not, here’s what I want in this bill. It’s more holistic the way a Senator operates. When he says policies are going to go through ENR jurisdictionally, that’s not something you can control in a bill, right? In theory you could. You could do some statutory rulemaking in there, but I think a lot of these policies are just Manchin laying out side pieces he wants, which is very typical of Senate negotiations. The one thing you always hear at the Senate is everything’s always up for negotiation because of the required deal making in the Senate, almost at the individual level. You’re bargaining across all sorts of policies at all sorts of times. It’s not just, oh, we’re passing this reconciliation bill and everything we’re going to deal with is internal to this bill and that’s true of all legislative politics and all politics in general, but it’s particularly noticeable in the Senate where you could easily be winning concessions on some sort of nomination hold, while you’re negotiating some completely unrelated bill on economic policy, like we are here.
I don’t know enough about inflationary politics or inflationary policy outside of the basic monetary control of the Fed and congressional control fiscal policy to really comment on the effects there, except that if Manchin’s concerned about it, you have to take it seriously.
Matt Grossmann: Yeah. It is interesting that it’s an issue on which Republicans traditionally own. They have a better perceived record among voters on inflation, so it’s something they bring up more often, but I don’t know how much it will impact the bill’s specific provision. Let’s step back a little bit and talk about what we’ve learned from a political science perspective. How powerful are parties in Congress? On the one side where we have almost party lined votes, on the other we’ve seen some things falling apart and one debate that we have been having for a while is about the extent to which we’re seeing ideological polarization versus party polarization. Some people say, well, it looks polarized, but it’s really just partially or mostly a function of increased party control. On the other hand, it does seem like once we strip away that control, it really does seem more like ideological factions going on more of a unidimensional spectrum than maybe we’re used to seeing. Should we revise that understanding, that this was mostly party and it might be real ideology?
Matt Glassman: Obviously the intersection of these things is often difficult to tease out. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the nationalization of party politics has forced more and more people into what Francis Lee would call the beyond ideology mode, where even if you disagree ideologically with these people, you have to be a team player because you’re collective fates are so much more dependent on its than they used to be. That non-ideological party cohesion feels like it’s increasing. The minority in the house almost feels like a parliamentary style opposition party now, where they are just going to reflexively vote no on the agenda of the majority and try and wreck it, carefully wreck it, in order to regain power. Again, there’s a lot of conflating variables here, the narrow nature of chamber control is a huge impact here. It just wouldn’t make sense in some ways to take a Bob Michael ’80s strategy, where you’re just going to try and improve the bills for your constituents and for your party, for your view of how the bill should be because you have no hope of getting the chamber back.
I think there’s a lot of those forces right now that may not be directly impinging on things, but are features of politics that have altered how parties behave in Congress, nationalization and narrow majorities and both those things could reverse. Certainly narrow majorities could reverse some time and nationalization maybe less so, but even in theory could, but if you remember the house right now, man, we talk about Manchin’s personal vote, no one else has one. Everyone else is hanging on the party thread. It’s so weird to think about May Hughes’s electoral connection where he makes the claim and I was never quite sure how he built this claim, that about a third of the component of what’s going on in the house elections was out of the members’ control. Feels a lot higher than that now. Feels a lot higher than that now, for whatever reason you can come up with, but your marginal ability to affect things in your district has pushed much more members to jump on the party bandwagon.
I think another thing going on, that’s important to this story, is the role of the leadership and the type of people who want to be there. The lack of policy work available to the typical member of Congress right now because of the reduction in power of the committee system and the increased influence of the leadership over the composition of the negotiations and the bills themselves, has exited a lot of policy [inaudible 00:39:08] from Congress. It’s not fun. It’s not fun to be a policy [inaudible 00:39:11] and not get to do anything and who’s replaced them? Well, surprise, surprise, it’s people who don’t mind being party soldiers. Who don’t mind spending their day dialing for dollars and then backing the leadership when they get the talking points. That can be overstated. Everyone points to [inaudible 00:39:29] or not hiring any policy staff right or saying you’re going to hire all com staff to just message to leadership’s message for him or whatever freedom caucus message maybe you want to put out, but I also think that’s real and that quickly transforms the nature of your people there at a personnel level and their willingness to participate in these beyond ideology party activities. I don’t know what that sum to. What’s your take?
Matt Grossmann: Well, I do think that there is this other route that the Republicans obviously have done a lot of, which is you can join an ideological faction and make that your identity. It does seem like there’s definitely an attempt to copy that among some Democrats and we we’ll see if it works, but I think it’s born of the same process you’re talking about, that there isn’t the committee issue specific route available and so what what’s available is either being a party soldier or being a maverick for some ideological cause.
Obviously interacting with this is Senate rules and there was a lot of talk at the beach beginning of the Congress about potential changes to the filibuster. I think you and I have both on our podcast had multiple hour long conversations about the potential for all sorts of reforms that still end with well, but really nothing’s going to happen in the near term. On the other hand, it does seem like the this thing will eventually be on its way out with the current configuration. Why are we in this strange place in the filibuster where it really isn’t going to change this Congress, but people still think it will eventually?
Matt Glassman: Yeah. The basic point that I have about this is that the current equilibrium is not stable. The 60 vote Senate where everything is filibustered by the minority party for all intents and purposes, isn’t a stable equilibrium and is going to have to change. The quip I always use is the Senate can stay irrational and unstable a lot longer than you think, but it also requires the correct short term configuration of things in order to give the majority part of the incentive to change things and that configuration is, you have enough votes to do it and you have unified government control. No one’s going to do this out of the good government reform nature, no matter what your left-wing cousin thinks. No one’s going to do this just so that we can set things up for the future and hand the other party the keys to this.
It’s going to require a unified government with enough votes to do it and essentially, we haven’t seen that yet. I think there’s two reasons there. One, right now, Democrats literally don’t have enough votes and second is that I think there’s enough senators who are a little more hesitant to do this than you think. I not only don’t think there’s 50 votes right now, I’m not convinced there’s 45 votes in this right now. There may only be 42 votes to do this right now. That puts us in a spot where you have to get to a point-
Matt Grossmann: Presumably all these intermediary things that we’ve all spent a lot of time talking about, suffer from the same problem. Everybody knows that takes you down the route of basically full on nation.
Matt Glassman: Yeah. People have, right now, been able to psychologically wall off the executive calendar in the Senate from the legislative calendar and it hasn’t been the case that the precedents from Reed in 2013 and from McConnell in 2017, over executive noms, lower court noms and Supreme court noms, have tipped over into the legislative realm, but everyone is terrified to do a anything in the legislative realm, even make one little tiny exception there because that probably is the floodgates people need it to just let it rip. People keep looking, particularly liberals, keep looking, progressives, keep looking for that one bill that will annoy the Senate centrist Democrats enough for them to sign on to of this stuff. I’m not sure it exists right now. The Democrat solution to this, you might want say to them, well, you just need to win five more Senate seats or something like that, in order to do this. It’s not clear that people like Manchin are ever going to do this, maybe not even other people too, be it Tester or even Hassen or whoever.
Matt Grossmann: The other dynamic is there doesn’t seem to be anything that is on Manchin’s agenda that he can’t get right now and that he thinks he would get with this. I think people keep saying, well, they’ve gotten him to a point of rights that he supports, but that’s still not his top priority and it’s just unclear what top priority he has that he can’t get past.
Matt Glassman: That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an impact because we don’t know to what degree fear of the Democrats doing this drives minority party behavior and that’s hard to measure, but it certainly makes sense theoretically, that McConnell or others will not push too hard because they’re scared this might be done and that limit might be a spot where that’s true. Now, the other side of it is that I think McConnell wants this going. Republicans have right now, a structural advantage in the Senate, which means, I think all else equal, they’re more likely to have unified governments going forward than the Democrats are and so maybe McConnell would be just happy to go on, particularly if you get the Democrats to do it. You can see that story on the executive calendar side, where they just block so hard on Obama’s executive branch nominations that Reed has no other option but to do this, but ultimately what it means is that McConnell and the Republicans can get the Supreme court justices they want, without having to take the hit for doing this.
Now what that hit means, honestly, it could fall on the same spot as these [inaudible 00:45:24] votes. Does anyone really care? Certainly on the hill, people act as if it’s going to be an issue and so maybe that’s McConnell’s plan. Maybe that’s six dimensional chess, it doesn’t exist, just too clever, but it could be the truth. I really don’t know, except that I am very confident that the filibuster, as we currently know it, is not going to exist in the medium term. It’s going to go. Some party is going to find a reason that they need to get rid of it. I don’t necessarily see the Democrats agenda. Certainly, it was possible. People were talking about crazy stuff back in November, like the minimum wage [inaudible 00:46:03].
Matt Grossmann: Yes, on the one hand we did have a talk about, we’re going to add two states, we’re going to eliminate the filibuster, we’re going to have all these Bernie policy agenda, we’re going to expand the Supreme court. Some of that stuff certainly seems like it was a true pipe dream for this Congress. On the other hand, in terms of a policy agenda, how should we look at things now? As you mentioned, we have the American rescue plan. We have a holiday, a few small things, we’re likely to have a science bill, that that’s pretty big, that was also bipartisan. We have some bipartisan stuff, some pure partisan stuff and we’re still, out of the reconciliation bill, most likely to get three or four new social programs, a reversal of both parts in some form of the Republican’s major achievement from two years ago, from the previous Congress. How should we judge that? Is this actually a pretty productive and normal and actually somewhat bipartisan Congress behind the scenes or has something really changed?
Matt Glassman: I think in the norms of the last stretch, this seems sort of like what you get. I was thinking that this looks a lot like the 115 Congress structurally, it’s the first Trump Congress, where they do their two big reconciliation things, success or failure, let it go and then you have that bipartisan period where you have to do the must pass stuff, that’s the other thing that has to happen with this Congress on a bipartisan basis, is the discretionary appropriations. The 22 appropriations are going to have to pass and then beyond that, you get this stale mate to the election with that secret Congress agenda that [inaudible 00:47:59] and others have been talking about, where you try and pass stuff at the policy guts level, that’s not ideological and you don’t let it jump beyond ideology, partisan Merry go around. And so you have little stuff you can do that way or big stuff. And we have something examples of that from past congresses under Trump, and even under Obama. And then at the end of the Congress, in the end of 2018, we did get a spur of policy making after the election. We got the farm bill. We got that First Steps Act on criminal justice reform and so maybe that is the span of this Congress. But in terms of the Biden agenda outside reconciliation, it’s hard to picture anything going anywhere on immigration. It’s hard to picture anything going anywhere on union… The Pro Act or whatever. Police reform seems to have died completely.
The Equality Act, no. Election reform, no. They’ll probably repeal the AUMF. The AUMF and replace those a little bit. But your dimension of this is executive branch reform, which I thought there might have been a chance for a bipartisan action on. The Democrats had passed that Protect Our Democracy Act in the House last Congress, basically everything Trump had done that they didn’t like, just reverse it. So that would be pardon reform, [inaudible 00:49:20] reform, executive branch subpoena reform, appropriations, the Emergency Act, the empowerments, the IGs, the whistleblowers. You name it, it was in there. I thought it was a great bill, and I thought there might be a chance that Democrats would continue wanting that because they are reform minded and enough Republicans would say, “Hey, let’s hamstring Biden here.” That it would go.
And I just don’t think it’s going to happen. I think a combination of Republicans have a disinterest in that in general, and Biden’s not going to back this because everyone who gets in the White House doesn’t want to back this kind of stuff, and so that may be dead too. And then of course election reform and voting rights seems like the most possible partisan issue right now. And so unless you’re going to find 50 votes and a boss to filibuster, I don’t see that going anywhere. I really don’t. That goes to the core of non ideological partisan animosity is how you go about shaping the elections and that’s a really tough sell.
Matt Grossmann: So we also obviously just went through the craziest presidential administration ever. People certainly thought that it was going to change things fundamentally. At least in the policy terms we’ve been talking about, it doesn’t seem to have made that much of a permanent mark. One of the crazy things is that according to Mayhew’s measure, the 10 major policy changes that occurred in the last Congress, of course it was divided government, but all of them passed with majority support of both political parties. Now, five of that was COVID bills, but as you mentioned, there were some other successes as well. So how much did Trump really change the way that Congress or American government is acting afterwards?
Matt Glassman: I don’t think Trump changed Congress itself particularly much at all. I mean, I think the thing about Trump in Congress is that I thought Trump was a very weak legislative leader and I know, my view was always that he largely outsourced legislative agenda setting and policy crafting to the hill. I don’t think we’ve seen a modern presidency where policy was so little developed at the White House or legislative policy, and so much developed in Congress since the pre-modern presidency. And to that degree, I don’t think he had a lot of luck influencing Congress so when they had unified government, he couldn’t get them to do tariffs. He couldn’t get them to do the border wall. He couldn’t get them to do his huge budget cuts, couldn’t get them to do infrastructure. The entire non GOP Trump agenda just kind of got left on the cutting floor and he got rolled on it.
And then he sticks his foot down on the border wall and the CR to patch over the 19 appropriations and caused the shutdown, which he essentially loses. And that’s when he’s going to get involved in, let’s say politics, right as he’s losing unified control. And he goes back to him versus Pelosi in this big larger than life figures, which is where he’s comfortable. So I thought Trump was an extremely weak legislative leader. So part of what Biden is, is a step back into normal, modern presidency where you do a little bit of administrative centered policy making for the legislature. Now where I think Trump did have a big effect, and then we’ve seen this in Congress, is in the Republican party.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that loyalty to Trump is a dimension of importance, particularly in the House and Liz Cheney being evicted from the leadership highlights that. Maybe you’re loyal to Republican policies, tax cuts, deregulate business, oppose Obamacare, that sort of stuff. But if you’re not loyal to Trump the idea, you’re not going to survive in the House. And just looking at the retirements during Trump’s tenure, it seems clearly that he shaped the party, which is obviously going to shape congressional politics.
Matt Grossmann: I mean, I guess, are we understating the change there because it maybe doesn’t go in the direction that people expect. So, I mean, if we compare the Newt Gingrich Congress with the new House Republicans with Clinton or the Tea Party House Republicans under Obama, the current House Republicans under a new democratic president seemed pretty weak and insignificant, and with an unclear strategy. I mean, some people were talking about last week, could they have helped pass the infrastructure bill and tanked the reconciliation bill? But clearly they didn’t want to do that. They didn’t seem to have much of a strategy or a mobilization at all. Has Trump killed off the House Republicans as a useful… Even from their own perspective, as having much of a role in American policy making?
Matt Glassman: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think there’s a bunch of structural things going on. One is that I think McCarthy’s a pretty weak leader and probably not the caliber of even Ryan and certainly not the caliber of Boehner. And so that that is going to cause a problem, especially when you have, in some sense, a bit of a circus underneath you. It’s very easy for the minority party in the House to just criticize without responsibility. And in the middle of a public health pandemic, that creates certain problems. You don’t see a lot of Republican governors running around doing anti-vax conspiracy theories. You do get that in the House minority because they don’t have any governing responsibility, which allows your wildest strands to take over and be as strident and as extremist as they want.
And so that’s some of the function of being a minority, but also some of the things we’ve already talked about structurally is what incentive does McCarthy really have to help the president? He’s going to get the House back I’d say with 75% probability or whatever in two years. And the last thing he needs is to not do that. And the second last thing he needs is to lose his popularity in the caucus, which is already tenuous. McCarthy’s thinking this through like, “I want to be speaker.” Serving the Trumpiest interest right now in his caucus is probably the way to go. And so I don’t envy his position to be in right now, but I don’t disagree that the House Republicans don’t seem to be a feature of politics right now at the organized leadership driven level.
I do think that just in general, back ventures have become more prominent, just like AOC. It’s tough to remember. This is her second term in Congress. But Marjorie Taylor Greene has more FaceTime than any freshman you can imagine in the House representatives say in 1987 or whatever. And so the rise of these extra voices that aren’t unified under the leadership, I think has magnified the breadth of ideological views you have in the majority caucus, for sure, but also made it tougher to be that unified minority at the position taking level. What is the policy program of the House Republicans? I don’t even know, and that can be a function of… I don’t use disarray because it’s so ridiculous at this point, but also a function of their Trumpification of ideology where it’s more an identity and mood affiliation than it is a set of policy principles that they can agree on.
Matt Grossmann: So we are going to wrap up soon, but still have some time for a last minute question. Congressional coverage in the media also got a lot of complaints last week. We seem to be in the classic process over substance kind of coverage. We seem to be covering mostly disagreement, yelling, not much problem solving. On the other hand, obviously the actual behavior of Congress is what it is and was driving that coverage. So where do you think the status of that is? Is there something better that can be communicated to the public about what’s going on in Congress or is the media basically just reacting to what the legislators are doing?
Matt Glassman: Yeah. I mean, I wish there was. I think normatively, there’s absolutely a better understanding of Congress to be had and Congress was never popular. No one’s ever liked Congress. I mean, you can go back to 19th century. No one likes Congress as a thing, but that doesn’t mean that Congress doesn’t serve a really important purpose. And I don’t know if people don’t like the conflict, they don’t like losing. They don’t like the nature of how it works, but this is politics in action. You have to have conflict and you have to have a way to resolve it. And there’s a lot of values to a legislature that people just don’t accept. We have a separation of power system and there’s a presidency and there is Congress and there are different groups and that’s why they fight.
These are different forms of governance and the legislative form is really important. It allows for diversity of ideas because you have lots of people. It allows for local representation, which is important. And it allows for public deliberation and testing of ideas against the majority. We could have an elected king, but that’s a totally different form of government where you make decisions alone in secret and you don’t have to present them and win public support of them, not in the legislature, not in public opinion. And so the legislature itself is really important. Legislative government is important. The problem is, people don’t legislative politics. They just think it’s unseemly or nasty. They don’t like conflict. It’s like sitting around a Thanksgiving table and your uncles are arguing about politics. Ugh, I can’t take it.
But this is, I think, inherently the best way for a Republic to operate. And so how do you communicate that to people that what you’re seeing on the reconciliation bill is normal, it’s healthy and it’s good? It’s normal, it’s healthy, and it’s good. The give and take of this is important, and working these things out in public is important, but I think people have this uneasy relationship in general with democracy and they just want to get what they want to get, and they would much rather have Biden snap his fingers and make it have happen than have to slog through the legislature and sometimes lose, and sometimes lose. When Congress doesn’t do anything, that’s a failure if you wanted a policy, but it’s a victory in some ways for deliberative democracy. If Congress thought about something, debated it hard, got caught in a deadlock and did nothing.
That’s okay. That’s okay. And so how does the press… The press has all sorts of incentives not to portray it this way. This does not sell newspapers. Like, “Oh, this is a lovely process we have here. You should enjoy this.” Conflict and personality fights over substantive policy development through a messy process is just how you sell newspapers. And so I don’t know what the answer is there. We couldn’t figure it out 150 years ago. I don’t think we’ve figured out now, but hopefully on the margins particularly as the executive branch becomes more and more powerful in American politics, as more and more statutory authority gets transferred to them, as more and more decisions are being made by executive authority, we don’t just see that as inherently bad. We see that there’s an alternative to that that is messy, but definitely the alternative to that, because otherwise we’re just on this crash course towards a defacto elected king.
Matt Grossmann: And one thing I’ve been trying to emphasize is, as you’ve started with, that a lot of this is a fairly normal process. And part of that normality is that the governing majority party does not get all of its things passed and many of the things that doesn’t pass are because of internal party disagreement, not necessarily the opposition party. So I think that’s about as bright of a note as we will have to end on. So I want to thank Matt Glassman for joining me on a live edition of “The Science of Politics” and Christy Eshelmen at the [inaudible 01:01:30] Center for helping us set up this live edition.
And thanks to all of you listeners. I also want to use this opportunity to call for a new return of “Congress Two Beers In,” a great podcast that Matt Glassman is involved in, and to recommend a couple of our other episodes, my long discussion of the filibuster with Sarah Bender and my discussion of the compromise in Congress with Francis Lee that was mentioned earlier in the process. I think if you liked this discussion, you’ll like those too. So thanks so much for joining us and please join us again next time on “The Science of Politics.”