Talking Points

The CBO smacked down Biden's claim that his agenda is 'free.' Can it still pass the Senate?

The Congressional Budget Office dropped a bomb in the middle of President Biden's agenda and Democratic lawmakers' fragile unity.

Per the CBO estimate released Thursday evening, Biden's Build Back Better plan will add around $367 billion to the deficit over the next decade (absent additional tax revenue) — while, at the White House, the message has been that the $1.85 trillion social welfare and climate bill is either "free" or paid for by taxing the wealthy and going after rich tax cheats. There is, of course, an important distinction between something being free or paid for. But that fine print isn't kind to the argument the administration is trying to make.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) likewise doesn't want to give Democratic moderates much time to pore over these details. That tactic could work — in the House. Biden and Pelosi claim their agenda is popular, and certainly there are provisions of this bill that poll well. But that was true of ObamaCare too, and the Affordable Care Act remained a net negative for Democrats for seven years after it passed, Only a failed repeal effort finally got voters to focus on the law's benefits as opposed to its costs. 

Here, the entire debate between Democratic moderates and progressives has focused discussion on the top-line number rather than specific policies like the child tax credit or cutting child care costs. We've heard about $6 trillion, $3.5 trillion, $1.85 trillion, $1.75 trillion — and people who think the federal government is spending too much money to the detriment of the economy are outraged by the Democrats-only bill.

That's why, for all Democrats' insistence that their agenda is popular, they're not acting like it. Biden is going on the road to promote not this Build Back Better plan but the bipartisan infrastructure package that has already been signed into law. For internal Democratic politics, the problem is more acute: If the moderates don't stick to their guns on budget gimmickry, the party loses whatever hope it has of holding on to some of its most competitive seats next year; while if the bill gets tanked by Democratic defectors, most likely in the Senate, liberals will feel double-crossed by infrastructure's passage, and those on the left who trusted Biden and Pelosi over the Squad will look incompetent.

In politics and fiscal policy alike, nothing is truly free.