President Biden and his team have tripled down on the claim that his Build Back Better agenda "costs zero dollars" despite loud condemnations from the Washington Post fact-checker, budget analysts and at least one columnist who supports the infrastructure bills associated with the agenda.
"My Build Back Better Agenda costs zero dollars," Biden's Twitter account tweeted last week, claiming that the agenda "adds zero dollars to the national debt." White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki repeated the claim in a news conference the following Monday, saying, "This reconciliation package would cost zero dollars." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also insisted that the cost is "zero."
Cedric Richmond, Biden's senior adviser, repeated the claim on Sunday, saying the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill – which Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have stalled – will cost nothing. "I think what's important for people to understand is that this piece of legislation costs zero," Richmond said. "We're going to pay for it all by raising taxes on the very wealthy and big corporations."
Yet multiple analysts have rebutted the claim. The Washington Post's fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, noted that lawmakers "play all sorts of budget games to achieve that mythical zero within the 10-year budget framework." He called Biden's claim "misleading," giving the president "Two Pinocchios" and noting that the number of Pinocchios "could grow higher."
Biden bases his "zero-cost" claim on the idea that his infrastructure plan will add nothing to the federal deficit because the multitrillion-dollar cost will be offset by tax increases and other revenue-generating schemes. Yet Kessler noted that the legislative sausage-making process has made that claim – dubious from the start – even less credible.
The agenda now consists of two bills: a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill with Republican support and a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, which would pass the Senate if every single Democrat voted for it (Manchin and Sinema are currently holdouts). The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the bipartisan bill will would add $256 billion to the deficit over 10 years, but the Committee for a Responsible Budget noted that numbers in the CBO report suggest the bill would actually add $398 billion. Much of the funds that cover the bipartisan bill come from a previous COVID-19 stimulus bill.
Biden now claims that his Build Back Better agenda does not include the bipartisan infrastructure bill but only the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, even though Democrats have attempted to use the former to pass the latter.
While Congress' Joint Committee on Taxation predicted that the reconciliation bill will raise $2.1 trillion in taxes over 10 years, this likely will not cover the $3.5 trillion cost. The Wall Street Journal editorial board poo-pooed the $3.5 trillion figure, arguing "that amount is based on budget gimmickry including entitlement phaseouts and phase-ins, and the real cost will be at least $5 trillion, probably far more." Kessler claimed that the bill's impact on the deficit could "be as low as zero or as high as $1.75 trillion over 10 years."
The legislative process has already resulted in one bill that will raise the deficit and another that seems likely to do so, Kessler noted. He predicted that "a deficit score of zero would only be accomplished with some dubious gimmicks that help disguise the true cost of Biden’s agenda" and that "for Americans not steeped in budget arcana, the president’s claim is misleading."
The Post fact-checked this claim last Wednesday, but Team Biden has continued to repeat it.
In August, FactCheck.org analyzed similar claims from Democrat and Republican senators that the bipartisan infrastructure bill is "paid for" without raising taxes. Analysts claimed the senators had used budgetary "gimmicks" to account for the cost of the bill, and the CBO report confirmed that the bill would indeed add to the federal deficit.
Joe Concha, opinion contributor at The Hill, faulted the reporters at Psaki's Monday news conference for failing to challenge "the president's laughable claim" when she repeated it. "Fortunately, numbers are numbers and math is math, and therefore they can't be spun so easily," he added.
"We didn’t know that when you pay for something that makes it free. But the White House apparently thinks it has a winner" in that talking point, The Wall Street Journal editorial board commented wryly.
Similarly, Fox News host Chris Wallace pushed back on Cedric Richmond's claim on "Fox News Sunday."
"I've gotta stop you there, it doesn’t cost zero," he said. "Now, you can pay for it either by borrowing it or you can pay for it by raising taxes on corporations or the wealthy, but it doesn’t cost zero."
"Your comms person is economically illiterate," Erielle Davidson, a senior policy analyst at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, wrote in response to Biden's claim.