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Joe Manchin dooms Build Back Better by disregarding America's biggest threats

Manchin's opposition to Biden's ambitious legislation deals fellow Democrats a grievous blow.
Image: Joe Manchin walks through a hallway.
Joe Manchin said in a statement that his concerns about President Joe Biden's Build Back Better bill largely revolve around the national debt.Alex Wong / Getty Images

On Sunday morning, as you might have heard, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., in an appearance on Fox News, killed President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan — and dealt his fellow Democrats (who overwhelmingly support the bill) a grievous political blow.

Sen. Joe Manchin dealt his fellow Democrats a grievous political blow.

In inimitable Manchin style, his arguments for doing so are a combination of nonsensical and incoherent. None, however, is more frustrating than his claim that Build Back Better would “reshape our society in a way that leaves our country even more vulnerable to the threats we face.”

What threats might those be? He said in a statement that his concerns largely revolved around the national debt. “I cannot take that risk with a staggering debt of more than $29 trillion and inflation taxes that are real and harmful to every hard-working American at the gasoline pumps, grocery stores and utility bills with no end in sight. ... As the Omicron variant spreads throughout communities across the country, we are seeing COVID-19 cases rise at rates we have not seen since the height of this pandemic. We are also facing increasing geopolitical uncertainty as tensions rise with both Russia and China.”

America’s ability to “quickly and effectively respond to these pending threats,” says Manchin, would be more difficult if America’s debt burden continues to rise.

OK, so let’s talk about threats. Without the Build Back Better plan, Americans will soon stop receiving the monthly child tax credit, which in just a few months significantly cut child poverty and hunger rates. It’s estimated that if the child tax credit becomes permanent, it could reduce child poverty by as much as 40 percent.

One might argue that child poverty — and the inability of millions of parents to provide food, shelter and sustenance for their children, thus reducing their upward mobility — is a serious threat to America’s future.

What about universal pre-kindergarten? According to a recent survey by the National Bureau of Economic Research, 3- and 4-year-olds in universal pre-K programs are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college. Other studies have shown that attendance in pre-K programs makes children less likely to be arrested, go on welfare and be unemployed as adults. Pre-K participants also make more money as adults.

One might argue that having a generation of kids with poorer life trajectories is a threat to America’s long-term future that the country’s politicians, including Manchin, should address.

The money in the Build Back Better bill would also extend subsidies for Obamacare recipients. Considering that life expectancy in the U.S. continues to decline (and it had been declining even pre-Covid) — and that America is by far the most overweight developed country in the world — it seems as though ensuring people have access to affordable health insurance is pretty important.

Of course, there’s also the most significant challenge to America and the planet’s long-term future: climate change. Without significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S., along with the rest of the world, will face rising seas, steadily warmer temperatures, biodiversity extinction and more erratic weather patterns, all of which will affect Americans’ quality of life. Some might even call this a threat.

Failing to deal with these issues now, when interest rates are low and debt is cheap, means confronting them in the future, when they are more acute and likely to be more expensive.

Indeed, by failing to deal with these issues now, when interest rates are low and debt is cheap, means confronting them in the future, when they are more acute and likely to be more expensive.

As for geopolitical uncertainty, Manchin is concerned about America’s ability to confront Russia and China in the future, even though neither represents any direct threat to the U.S. But Manchin can take some solace in the fact that the Senate just passed a Pentagon budget of $770 billion. Oddly, Manchin seems unconcerned about the threat to America’s long-term solvency from that one-year spending bill.

Ironically, Manchin referred to the warning raised in 2012 by Adm. Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about how “the greatest threat facing our nation was our national debt,” and noted that “since that time our debt has doubled.” However, Mullen’s concern had much to do with fear that a growing national debt would lead to painful budget cuts — and a squeezing of the Pentagon’s bottom line. Considering that the military budget has actually increased since 2012, Manchin can sleep comfortably at night.

Passing social spending legislation now wouldn’t preclude future spending for dealing with “pending threats,” particularly since the U.S. government is in the business of printing money. Debt, in itself, isn’t a threat. Rather, the issue is how fear of debt affects policy choices. If concerns about rising debt are preventing the U.S. from confronting pressing challenges to long-term economic, health and educational prospects for a generation of Americans, then the U.S. would be trying to solve one hypothetical problem by ignoring the ones all around us.

The issue isn’t that the U.S. doesn’t have enough money or that debt is bad; it’s that people like Joe Manchin don’t recognize threats when they see them. Would the Build Back Better bill solve all of America’s problems? Of course not. Some would be also be solved by the voting rights legislation, which Manchin is also blocking in the Senate by refusing to support a proposal to suspend the filibuster.

But without Build Back Better, American child poverty will continue to be among the highest in the developed world. So, too, will infant and maternal mortality rates. Life expectancy and educational outcomes will continue to trail those of peer countries. Climate change will get worse, and the U.S. will be largely unprepared for its inevitable impact.

These are actual threats to the American people. They could be addressed now, but only if Joe Manchin would show more concern for what is happening in the present than what might happen in the future.