For months, Democrats sold a lie to the nation: that their multi-trillion dollar "Build Back Better" welfare spending agenda would be "fully paid for."
This month, that lie collapsed, and with West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin's withdrawal from negotiations with President Joe Biden, the bill has been shelved—for now.
Thank goodness. Manchin’s demands imposed a $1.75 trillion cap on the bill’s overall footprint. But Democrats hoped that this budget constraint was merely a talking point rather than a real limit on their spending ambitions. Instead of cutting programs out of their bill, they aimed to hide the real costs of their full agenda, hoping that through manipulation of the budget scoring rules they could squeeze nearly $5 trillion of actual spending into a $1.75 trillion budget scoring straitjacket.
The most egregious of the gimmicks they employed to satisfy Manchin was the arbitrary "sunset" of several of the bill’s most important provisions, from its child care program for two-earner households to its expanded ObamaCare spending and subsidies for high-tax state governments.
A similar sunset applied to one of the bill’s signature programs, an expanded child tax credit to cover non-working families, including illegal immigrants.
This expanded child tax credit, now made refundable to families without tax liability, converts the benefit into a permanent welfare program. However, without the artificial sunset, the proposal would have exploded the bill’s budget score.
So instead, Democrats pretended it was a temporary program, hoping that Manchin and their allies in the media would acquiesce.
Washington budgeting can be complicated, but a sunset gimmick is simple arithmetic. Congress estimates legislative costs using ten-year scoring windows.
A program with a sunset is counted as ending prematurely. Hence, a "sunset" five-year program counts against ten years of taxes, even if the program is likely to be reauthorized to continue beyond its initial termination date.
Democrats alleged no deception. They argued these sunset programs could always be reauthorized in tandem with spending cuts elsewhere in the budget. But skeptics, Manchin among them, recognized the most predictable reality of politics: there is nothing harder to kill in Washington than a new spending program.
Once enacted, programs like their camouflaged welfare spending would likely have become permanently entrenched in the federal budget, financed either by higher deficits or by greater tax burdens on working families.
Honest accounting of Build Back Better would have acknowledged such likely costs, and an honestly "paid for" bill would have told the American people which taxes they would bear to cover them. This month, before Manchin’s announcement, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a new report confirming the scale of Democrats’ deceptions, revealing that Democrats had been undercounting Build Back Better’s costs by trillions of dollars.
As guessed, the aforementioned child tax credit scored as $185 billion in spending with a sunset after only one year. Extended permanently, CBO revealed costs an order of magnitude greater: $1.6 trillion. The bill’s childcare and preschool programs would have doubled in cost without sunsets, from $381 billion to $752 billion. Its ObamaCare subsidies would have tripled, from $74 billion to $220 billion. And the deceptions went on.
In nearly every section of the bill -- its spending for home care, higher education, Medicaid, summer food stamps, and even a journalist compensation program – Democrats had been forced to hide programs’ true costs to evade scoring constraints that impose budget balance.
That’s $3 trillion in future taxes Democrats refused to identify or $3 trillion in future deficit spending in an economy already reeling from crippling inflation taxes on Americans’ savings.
It was a fiction too great a lie to sustain.
Democrats promise to revisit Build Back Better next year, and they may yet find ways to earn Manchin’s vote. Whether they succeed or fail, we should all expect better from those who write our nation’s budgets than Build Back Better gave us, and hope that the death of Build Back Better 1.0 represents the death of sunset gimmickry.