You don’t hear much from us centrist Democrats. Many of us don’t like partisan politics. Let’s face it, it’s not exactly the home of humility and honesty. And people, if they disagree with you, are just plain mean. After a few minutes on Twitter, I feel like I need a cleansing ritual.
Nevertheless, I waded into Twitter and supported Sen. Joe Manchin. It’s not his fault Build Back Better didn’t succeed. It’s just a bad bill. A really bad bill.
There are at least four reasons. We have to keep in mind that Congress passes bills on different topics all the time. Plus giving out large chunks of change occurs in annual appropriations bills. Then Congress passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill (yes, with much intraDemocrat drama prior). So what was the need for this one again, and for it to be so grand and all-encompassing? Symbolic? A roundup of political payback? To whom? Certainly not to us moderates.
This bill looked like a jumbled together wish list for everything certain Democrats (they never asked me, for sure) wanted. First, there’s just too many topics for anyone to have a clear idea of what the bill means. Second, they didn’t involve the usual interest group suspects (in the case of the forest section, it was a Friends of Bernie show instead).
The bipartisan infrastructure bill had many parts as well, but it was strengthened by the usual interest groups, and involved Republicans. Third, with both climate and forest provisions, they didn’t take a step back and say “the bipartisan infrastructure bill has been passed, and it covers some of the same stuff, so let’s subtract that from the totals.” Why not? They were in a hurry. Yes, let’s spend trillions of dollars without looking carefully, because ... we’re in a hurry. Well, OK then.
Sure, I just followed the forest and climate provisions of this bill, but from what I’ve read, my experience was not unique.
Then there’s the profligate spending factor. In our forest sections, it looked like someone had thrown darts at $100 million, $500 million and so on, without talking to anyone about whether those amounts made sense. And agencies will never say “whoa, that’s too much money, we have no idea how to spend it wisely.” Especially in the Biden administration with a Biden-supported bill.
In the forest section, there are many good ideas in Build Back Better, but the amounts are way out of whack. For example, there’s $50 million to carry out “greenhouse gas life cycle analyses of domestic wood products.”
That’s a ridiculous amount of money. Say you get 10 top researchers at $150K a pop and give them five years. That’s maybe $8 million maximum. There’s a line item for $100 million “to provide for more efficient and more effective environmental reviews.” Of course, the Forest Service has been working on improving efficiency for years. That’s $100 million not to do NEPA, but to think about how to do it better. Again, it’s like someone pulled numbers out of a hat.
Now you might say “that’s just the forest part of the bill, and the rest was great.” But wasting federal dollars is still wasting federal dollars, even if the rest was perfect. So please don’t blame Manchin for not voting for this bill.
Start over. Take each piece separately. Involve the usual interest group suspects. Take into account that the bipartisan bill has passed.
We’ll already be getting some feedback from agencies as to how they can spend those ginormous chunks of change in that bill and what else they will need. Be humble. Be honest. Talk to moderate, knowledgeable Republicans.
And start listening to Joe Manchin and the rest of us moderate/centrist Dems sooner rather than later.
Sharon Friedman worked in D.C. for the Forest Service in research and NEPA. She is now the editor of The Smokey Wire, a blog on forest and federal land policy, and is a resident of El Paso County.