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The Reconciliation Bill’s Gutting Is What Happens When Your Party Is Addicted to Corporate Money

The almost complete destruction of Democrats’ agenda in the reconciliation bill suggests that, despite some rhetoric to the contrary, the party is still intent on fulfilling Joe Biden’s promise to donors that “nothing would fundamentally change.”

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on his proposed "Build Back Better" social spending bill in the East Room of the White House on October 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Democratic Party leaders on Thursday united around a plan to halve their economic agenda, which had already been nearly halved a few months ago. The full loaf is really a quarter loaf, but at this point, it’s actually less than that, because they also slashed promised regulatory and tax provisions that might have reduced medicine prices, provided workers some paid leave, and made billionaires start paying taxes.

In the coming days, we will learn more of the granular details in the 1,600-plus-page bill — but the overall agreement amid a flood of industry campaign cash is an illuminating moment: it reveals the outer limits of possibility for corporate politics, and the human costs of those politics.

In general, the reason the Democratic Party always sounds so helplessly incoherent is because its lawmakers are trying to simultaneously appease their corporate donors and look like they are fulfilling their public promises to fix problems created by those corporate donors.

In most cases, this is impossible. You cannot protect pharmaceutical and fossil fuel industry donors and also reduce the price of medicine and solve the climate crisis. If you try to pretend you can do both, the donors always eventually win out. So you end up talking in circles, complaining accurately about the problems while doing nothing to solve them, and then portraying marginal victories as huge wins to voters who must wonder why their lives aren’t improving.

The so-called Build Back Better legislation embodies this conundrum. There are laudable provisions in the framework released by the White House, such as an expansion of Medicaid, universal pre-K, subsidized child care, the extension of the child tax credit, tougher penalties for employers who violate labor laws, and spending on clean energy programs. These are significant steps beyond the incrementalism and corporatism of the Obama presidency.

However, the deal also seems designed to honor the one campaign promise that President Joe Biden appears most intent on fulfilling: the pledge to his donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” in our economy when he is president.

Ultimately, Democrats’ reconciliation bill was stripped of most provisions to alter the structure of the economy to try to make it more fair and less ecocidal.

While there are certainly a few decent tax measures in the legislation, business donors and their lobbyists convinced Democrats to remove more far-reaching proposals to force the rich and corporate America to significantly sacrifice or pitch in more.

Gone from the current bill is paid family leave, free community college, and a plan to allow Medicare to negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs — the latter of which polls showed was the single most popular proposal in the entire bill. They also limited a robust expansion of Medicare benefits, while funneling more money into subsidies that prop up the corporate health insurance industry (and, obviously, there’s no longer even scant mention of Biden’s promised public health insurance option or lowering the Medicare age).

Oh, and they excised the truly vital climate measures at the very moment that scientists are warning of an impending ecological disaster — and even after Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said passing a full climate agenda was absolutely necessary for the survival of future generations.

As the bill is reviewed, we will inevitably learn of some genuinely grotesque giveaways added into the package — we can already see how its authors transformed a much-needed methane fee into a fossil fuel subsidy and slipped in a bailout for profitable microchip corporations that have offshored jobs and put their profits into stock buybacks that enrich executives.

There’s also a good chance that, while Democrats plead poverty on funding other programs to help low-income families, they will also move to make sure wealthy homeowners in affluent coastal congressional districts get wildly regressive new tax breaks they don’t need, and then claim the giveaway is really all about helping the middle class (it’s not).

After weeks of inexplicably refusing to make clear demands about what they wanted in the reconciliation bill, the Congressional Progressive Caucus promptly surrendered Thursday (with only a performative process objection) — and they capitulated even though it’s not clear their party leaders are completely finished shredding the bill. Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the monsters who have rampaged through Washington and helped their donors whittle the bill down this far, haven’t actually endorsed the deal yet — so there may be still more pounds of flesh.

But the crime here is in what this framework already lacks.

If this was one of many pieces of legislation, then perhaps we could rest assured that all the urgently needed provisions left on the cutting room floor would be quickly taken up, debated, and passed. But because Democrats have refused to eliminate the filibuster, this reconciliation bill likely represents the last best hope for major legislation in Biden’s first term.

Thus, the things left on the cutting room floor are likely to remain there for the foreseeable future — which is exactly where drugmakers, the US Chamber of Commerce, the oil industry, and every other Washington power player want them to stay forever. Assuming the bill doesn’t change for the better (and there is still a slim chance it might), these corporate behemoths will have once again made clear that, while the Constitution officially vests the president with veto power over legislation, the real veto power in practice remains with the donor class.

No doubt, in the coming days, more and more corporate media reporters, pundits, and Washington think-tankers will assume their well-practiced role of playing tone police, sheepdog, and enforcer, working to marginalize complaints about the legislation, corral support for the gutted bill, and defend the professional politicians whose capitulations were written into the legislative text.

That’s always been their job when the industries that bankroll Big Media have been satisfied and when the Democratic-aligned DC nonprofit industry closes ranks. They’ll use all their hackneyed techniques, from insisting that nothing else is possible, to asserting that wanting anything more is unrealistic, to deflecting blame to the Rotating Villains, to using the old whataboutism trick — the one that cites Republicans’ even worse behavior as the reason we should all supposedly feel thankful for Democrats, even as they are betraying their promises.

Conveniently left out of this narrative will be any mention of the tactics Biden and legislative leaders could have employed to try to pressure recalcitrant legislators in their own party to support a better bill — tactics that have been successfully used by Democratic presidents in the past. And nobody will dare mention the taboo topic of Biden refusing to use his existing executive authority to do things like lower medicine prices, cancel student debt, crack down on union busters, slow fossil fuel drilling, oppose oil pipeline development, and more widely distribute government-subsidized vaccines during the pandemic.

All of that corporate media misdirection is carefully crafted to try to gaslight you — to make you feel that your outrage, frustration, and disappointment is illegitimate. It’s not, but your ire shouldn’t only be aimed at this one particular bill. It should be aimed at the system that guts or outright kills these kinds of bills on a regular basis. It is a system that doesn’t block all positive reforms — it just makes sure most reforms never alter the economy’s overall structure, even when society is facing existential emergencies.

This is likely why Biden so confidently promised his donors that “nothing would fundamentally change.” He is a corporate politician at the apex of corporate politics that reliably turns hope and change into more of the same.

The problem is, crises like climate change and the rise of authoritarianism mean that if nothing fundamentally changes in our economy, then everything could soon change for the worse. And the best hope to change our economy is to end the era of corporate politics — because the outer limits of possibility of corporate politics are not adequate to combat the many crises at hand.