In Budget Bill, Democrats Bet the Temporary Will Become Permanent

The authors of the sprawling legislation believe that even if the new programs are temporary, their benefits will become so popular that Congress will keep them. History shows they are probably right.,


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WASHINGTON — Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, a foe of the ambitious safety net legislation that President Biden has proposed, recently issued a warning on Twitter about the fleeting nature of the bill’s key components.

“Don’t be fooled,” wrote Mr. Romney, a Republican. “Democrats’ plans for free child care and universal pre-K expire in a handful of years — they aren’t permanent. It’s wrong to let families start planning for and relying on these programs only for them to disappear.”

Mr. Romney is likely to be correct; budget rules and resistance from some conservative-leaning Democrats to the cost of the multitrillion-dollar bill mean that many of the programs established under the measure are likely to come with an end date. But he might be wrong about the ultimate fate of those benefits, because Democrats intend for them to become so popular and ingrained in American life that they never disappear.

As they work to shrink the price tag of Mr. Biden’s bill to ensure its passage, Democrats are in essence making a bet that even if some benefits must be made available only temporarily, they will become very hard to rescind. History shows that Democrats are probably correct. Federal benefits are rarely taken away once given.

The Affordable Care Act, anyone?

“You build a constituency,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat. “If people have experience with these programs and value them, taking them away is a political gamble.”

The wager is not without risks for Democrats, who are calculating that they can win a showdown in a few years, when the programs must be renewed. But by reducing the lifetime of a program like community college tuition aid, they can also cut back on the overall cost of the measure while still retaining the core elements that they see as essential.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi referred to the approach this week when she said that in trimming the bill, Democrats would focus on “timing — that the timing would be reduced in many cases to make the cost lower. But it only would be in such a way that does not undermine the transformative nature of it.”

The emerging budget bill is an example of how Congress rarely allows a popular program to die. Democrats want to use the measure to extend the child tax credit that was put in place this year as part of Mr. Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief measure.

The tax credit has led to millions of families receiving thousands of dollars in monthly payments deposited directly into their back accounts, and it is considered a chief factor in significantly reducing child poverty. Democrats propose to keep it for several more years in the new legislation, effectively daring Republicans to end it.

“The idea is that these initiatives will get a good foothold in this legislation, and we can extend them,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland. “Take the child tax credit. That is something that has been in effect just a few months now, and is already making a huge difference, and is enormously popular.”

Democrats have argued for months that Americans will embrace the safety net proposals and other provisions of the legislation once they realize what is in it for them. They say that the infighting among Democrats, attacks by Republicans and focus on the procedural battles have obscured the popular aspects of the measure, explaining recent polls that have shown that most Americans do not know what is in the package. Also clouding the picture for voters, Democrats have yet to produce a final version of the legislation because of differences over cost and scope.

“I have long felt that when they see the changes and reform that really matter to them in their kitchens and in their living rooms, that changes the D.C. debate dramatically,” said Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and the chairman of the Finance Committee.

Republicans have also reaped the rewards of lawmakers’ hesitancy to reverse popular policies that were initially put in place temporarily, such as the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. Those were ultimately extended despite deep Democratic resistance and years of fiscal battles, because enough members of Congress were reluctant to be accused of raising taxes.

Given how they fell short in their yearslong drive to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Republicans also realize that allowing Democrats to make safety net programs a reality for even a relatively brief window will make it extremely hard and politically risky to let them die.

But the legislative dynamic will be different with the safety net programs enacted for a defined period of time. In the case of the health law, which was a permanent policy change, Republicans had to assemble the votes to repeal it and repeatedly failed. With the programs in the budget bill, if Congress were to do nothing, they would merely expire, putting the onus on Democrats to find the votes to renew them.

One of the rare social support programs to be repealed was the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act of 1988, at the end of the Reagan administration, with broad bipartisan backing. It was repealed one year later, in a shockingly quick reversal.

The main reason was that it turned out that the intended beneficiaries — older Americans who reliably troop to the polls — neither wanted the program nor wanted to pay for it by themselves.

They also thought they had been subjected to false advertising from Congress. Lawmakers branded the legislation as providing relief from “catastrophic costs,” but it did little to lower the long-term care expenses that many Medicare beneficiaries were most worried about.

Congress then stuck those 65 and over with incomes above $35,000 with a new surtax to pay for benefits that many of them already had through private retirement plans.

The reaction was swift and politically brutal. It was famously captured in the spectacle of a group of angry older people, jeering and waving signs, surrounding Representative Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, the architect of the bill, as he sat in his car in Chicago. They followed him down the street shouting insults at him.

“I don’t think they understand what the government’s trying to do for them,” Mr. Rostenkowsi, then the Democratic chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, said at the time.

Democrats say they do not believe such a reaction would materialize this time, especially since most of the proposed aid would be paid for through tax increases on the most affluent Americans. Instead, they argue, once people get a taste of the new benefits, they will demand that they be kept in place or take out their unhappiness on politicians who dare to do away with them.

“There was a time when people debated the future of Social Security,” Mr. Durbin noted. “Not so much anymore.”

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