Put The Reconciliation Bill's Numbers In Perspective

[ Posted Tuesday, September 28th, 2021 – 16:34 UTC ]

Sadly, the public debate over the budget reconciliation bill in Congress has so far usually been reduced to a single number. I say "sadly" because what this means is that while the media (and, also sadly, too many Democratic politicians) obsess over that one number, it means they seldom (if ever) talk about what is actually contained within the bill itself. Perhaps Democrats can pivot to having this discussion if the bill ever actually passes. But for now, I'd like to put that big, scary $3.5 trillion number into some necessary context.

The first thing Democrats should do when asked the question (over and over again) by journalists is to insist on always pointing out "...over ten years." This is actually happening with more and more frequency, and should be encouraged. Talk about "$350 billion per year" rather than the ten-year figure. Because that is a much more relevant number to any discussion about annual budgets.

I have also heard some Democrats make the following contrast: "We're talking about investing in $350 billion per year on human infrastructure. The annual military budget is over $700 billion per year. All we're saying is it would be worth spending less than half of what we spend each year on the military on things like free preschool education, tuition-free community college, expanding Medicare to include dental and vision and hearing aid coverage, caring for the elderly, and finally doing something about climate change. I think it's worth it to make those investments -- again, which would only cost half as much as we spend each year on the Pentagon." This sounds much more reasonable to most people.

This is indeed the proper context to use. It gives the numbers some real meaning, instead of just being a big, scary "$3.5 trillion." But there are other contrasts to draw as well, to show the American people the true scope of what is being proposed. Other federal outlays could be used in place of military spending, such as the $769 billion we spend each year on Medicare. Taken together with Medicaid, we already spend $1.2 trillion per year on healthcare through just two federal programs. Is the price tag of $350 billion a year for the entire reconciliation package really "too much" when you measure it up like that? We also spend $1.1 trillion on Social Security -- which could easily be called "human infrastructure investment." So why not spend a little more on things that help average people out?

Or you could compare it to the overall federal budget. Going back to the 2019 budget (to avoid any COVID pandemic anomalies), the total spending proposed was $4.4 trillion. Divide it out, and $350 billion is less than eight percent of the total spending. That is what is being proposed in the reconciliation bill -- an additional eight percent in spending. That's a lot of money, to be sure, but it is nowhere near what the bill's opponents would like you to think.

You can get an even smaller number by comparing the proposed new spending to the economy as a whole. With a $21 trillion gross domestic product, the new spending is a mere 1.7 percent of the economy as a whole. Which seems pretty reasonable to me, especially considering all the good the new money will do.

Democrats need to make this case, every chance they get. All the media wants to talk about is "$3.5 trillion" and whatever number Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema will talk the rest of their party down to. But this means the eventual number will be even less scary, when put into the proper context. Comparing (for instance) $250 billion a year to the Pentagon's budget gets closer to only spending one-third of the annual military budget, instead of one-half.

Of course, the media doesn't deserve all the blame for the tunnel vision on the number. Manchin and Sinema themselves bear a lot of it too, for endlessly playing coy with what number they might accept. President Joe Biden -- and every other Democrat -- are about at the point of being down on their knees begging Manchin for a solid number. So far, he hasn't provided one, and time is fast running out. So whenever he does actually announce what he'll support, it will instantly become the center of the media story once again.

As I said, though, eventually either all of this will fall apart and end in failure or eventually some budget reconciliation bill will pass. If and when it does, Democrats really need to get immediately beyond the relentless focus on the topline number. They need to begin the process of educating the public (starting with members of the media) on what exactly is in the bill.

One of the problems they'll face is that the bill truly has an embarrassment of riches. There are just so many good things the bill will do that it'll be hard to provide enough focus and attention on each of the myriad parts. That'll be up to each individual Democrat, who will assumably tout the new programs they think their own constituents will like the most. With enough diverse districts and states, hopefully the most important accomplishments will indeed reach the public's consciousness.

But for now, with the focus stubbornly staying on that one big number, Democrats really need to cut it down to size. Talk about the yearly number, not the 10-year one. It's more relevant and it's easier to contrast to other things the government spends money on. After all, $350 billion a year (or $250 billion, or whatever it turns out to be) really isn't all that much in the grand scheme of things.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


8 Comments on “Put The Reconciliation Bill's Numbers In Perspective”

  1. [1] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    These are all valid points. I, too, am mystified as to the lame Democratic messaging to date.

    I'd include after almost every paragraph the fact that

    all these benefits for regular Americans are paid for by only undoing some of the ridiculous tax cuts the rich just got. Not a penny added to the deficit!

  2. [2] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    It's time that American tax policy benefits regular Americans, especially because we're still dealing with another GOP mess!

  3. [3] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Don't get me going.

    Hey Elizabeth, your Blue Jay's fell to the hated Yankees this evening. Cost me 1.25 units on paper. Chin up, your boys will vanquish them and make the Playoffs.

  4. [4] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Like half of metro NYC and civilized peoples everywhere, I hate the damn Yankees.

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Hate is a wasted emotion.

  6. [6] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    From the POLITICO article White House gives a wink to progressives as they threaten Biden’s infrastructure bill, which says the WH is fine with Progressives pressuring Moderate Democrats.

    It will be moderates who suffer. We will lose moderates if we’re running on a record that is not attractive enough to voters,” Matt Bennett, of the centrist Third Way, said matter-of-factly.

  7. [7] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    MtnCaddy -

    I was at a Netroots in my Orioles cap in Providence, RI, so there were plenty of Red Sox fans in attendance. They would rag on me for the cap, but we would soon meet on our common ground -- hatred for the Yankees. I mean, everyone can agree on that one, right? Kumbaya....



  8. [8] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    am i the only yankee fan here? we've let other teams win the world series for over a decade. where's the love?

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