January 18, 2022

COLUMN: Democrats should get off the (omni)bus and walk

In mid-December, US Senate Democrats cried “uncle,” at least temporarily, pulling President Biden’s $2 trillion “Build Back Better” agenda out from under the Christmas tree. If the bill makes it to the Senate floor for an up or down vote, it won’t be this year.

I’m a big fan of gridlock, and not a fan at all of Biden’s Big Basket of Boondoggles, so I can’t say I’m terribly unhappy about this. Thanks, Joe Manchin.

On the other hand, it seems to me that Democrats are missing a chance to save themselves a savage beating in next November’s midterms. Which, as much as I dislike the Republicans too, might not be a bad thing from the “gridlock is good” standpoint, but let’s look at it as a nuts-and-bolts problem.

Build Back Better is what’s commonly called an “omnibus” bill. Put simply, Democrats threw in the kitchen sink and plunked down 2,000+ pages of everything any Democrat might want.

The point of an omnibus bill is that it lets the members of the majority party bring pressure on each other to get unanimity.

Congresswoman X wants, say, a child tax credit, but doesn’t want to expand Medicare to cover hearing aids (both of these are in Build Back Better).

Congressman Y wants the hearing aids but not the child tax credit.

If both things go in the omnibus bill, Congresswoman X and Congressman Y must both support what they don’t want to get what they do.

But that pressure can run in both directions. If Congresswoman X hates the hearing aid provision so much that she’ll give up the child tax credit to avoid supporting it (and Congressman Y vice versa), the bill dies.

Democrats are looking at two plausible plays for support next year.

One is to get Build Back Better passed so that they can brag on how much they got done, and ask voters to expand their mandate.

The other is to blame those darn Republican obstructionists (or Joe Manchin) for the fact that they got nothing done, and ask voters to give them more seats. That approach frankly doesn’t work too often or well.

There is, however, a third option.

There are probably a few reasonably popular -- even “bipartisan” -- things in Build Back Better. Why not break these popular items out into single-issue bills that can actually pass? I don’t support the child tax credit, but I bet some Republican votes could be found for some version of it.

There’s a good argument to be made that this is how Congress should handle everything. “One subject per bill” would substantially reduce gridlock.

It would also give congressional Democrats a third, better campaign pitch for midterm voters: “We got some stuff you like done -- reward us!”

If Democrats step off the omnibus and walk those individual bills up Capitol Hill, they might staunch their bleeding campaign wounds and do reasonably well next November. That might or might not be good for the country, but it would be good for them.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism.