Odd couple Sanders and Manchin are 630 centuries apart

Gulf between senators encapsulates disarray of Democrats’ agenda

Washington has perhaps never seen two members of the same party as far apart in their economic beliefs and priorities as Sens. Bernie Sanders, left, and Joe Manchin, Winston writes.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Washington has perhaps never seen two members of the same party as far apart in their economic beliefs and priorities as Sens. Bernie Sanders, left, and Joe Manchin, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 29, 2021 at 6:00am

There are lies — little lies, white lies, lies of compassion, lies of convenience — and then, in its own category of dissembling is what we call political spin. It can be effective or, taken to the extreme, divisive with negative consequences.  

That’s where Joe Biden and congressional Democratic leaders find themselves today, divided and dissembling, as they try to peddle the fiction that the president’s “transformational” $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill will add nothing to the deficit. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. 

Pushing this bill of goods is a heavy lift, even for the best of spin doctors.

White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain got the ball rolling last week when he told a group of financial movers and shakers at the SALT conference in New York, “The truth is the cost of the Build Back Better plan is zero.” 

On Saturday, Biden tweeted, “My Build Back Better Agenda costs zero dollars. … And it adds zero dollars to the national debt.” But he isn’t going at it alone.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi weighed in Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” claiming, “This will be paid for, so when some say, ‘Oh well, what about inflation?’ It will be paid for, and that’s the beauty of it, by having those in our economy and society who have not paid their fair share paying their fair share.” She then demurred, “Let’s not talk about numbers and dollars. Let’s talk about values.”

Of course, when the bill hasn’t even been completed, it’s hard to talk about dollars and cents or whose financial ox is going to be gored. And when Democratic moderates and progressives are at each other’s throats over the cost and the legislative content of the bill, “values” is the easy, go-to talking point that changes the conversation and gives a moral imprimatur to the effort.

Even The Washington Post’s fact checker, Glenn Kessler, couldn’t swallow the “zero dollars” narrative, writing that “for Americans not steeped in budget arcana, the president’s claim is misleading. For now, Biden earns Two Pinocchios — a number that could grow higher.” 

But you’ve got to give all of them an “A” for effort, or maybe audacity, given what’s ahead in the next week:  the debt ceiling looming; Chuck Schumer still trying to lift the cap on the state and local tax, or SALT, deduction for the wealthy and which some progressives hate; the “squad” and other House progressives continuing to balk at Pelosi’s decision to separate the infrastructure bill from the reconciliation vote. 

What’s a few trillion?

Meanwhile, back in the Senate, Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders insists that the $3.5 trillion reconciliation price tag is a floor, not a ceiling, while centrist Sen. Joe Manchin says $1.5 trillion is closer to the topline figure he has in mind. 

Washington has perhaps never seen two members of the same party further apart in their economic beliefs and priorities. Yet Sanders and Manchin are tied to each other in fast-moving negotiations with vastly different goals. To provide some context as to how far apart $2 trillion is, think about this analogy.

The next million seconds is about 11 days; the next billion seconds is about 31 years; the next trillion seconds is about 315 centuries. At a rate of a dollar per second, a $2 trillion difference is the equivalent of about 630 centuries.

So, from a spending perspective, Manchin and Sanders, the Senate’s odd couple, are 630 centuries apart. And the House Democratic Caucus has a similar time and space problem. 

To make matters worse, literally as I write this, Sanders has thrown a monkey wrench into Pelosi’s plan for Thursday, urging his House colleagues “to vote against the bipartisan infrastructure bill until Congress passes a strong reconciliation bill.”

Fair for whom?

What’s amazing about Democrats’ disarray on the Hill is that their entire economic agenda is based on the concept of “taxing the rich,” forcing the wealthy and corporations to pay their “fair share.” Who isn’t in favor of everyone paying their fair share? Ask almost any Republican, and you won’t find any real disagreement.

But where it gets trickier is another, bigger question. Exactly what is the definition of “fair share” and who gets to decide? First, some context. For the reconciliation bill to end up at “zero dollars,” $3.5 trillion in new taxes would be about equal to the total receipts the Office of Management and Budget estimates the federal government will take in this year. Interestingly, without any changes at all, the feds estimate they will likely see a $1.1 trillion increase in receipts in 2023. To suggest that only tax increases on the wealthy are needed to fund this trip over the fiscal cliff goes way beyond spin and into disinformation territory.

But, beyond the spin, who is really paying most of the taxes in this country anyway? According to a study done by the Tax Policy Center, an Urban Institute/Brookings joint venture, the top 20 percent of earners paid 78 percent of all federal taxes in 2020.

Sixty-one percent of earners paid no federal income tax at all in 2020.  Maybe it’s time, as the debate over tax policy rages, for the Democrats to tell us exactly what their definition of “fair share” really is. If 78 percent isn’t enough, what is? Eighty-five percent? Ninety percent? And why do Democrats think they have the kind of mandate to singularly define “fair share” in order to push through legislation as controversial, divisive and fiscally irresponsible as the Build Back Better reconciliation bill?

An Irish novelist once said that the great task in life is to find reality. Good advice for Democrats this week. 

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as an election analyst for CBS News.