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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and a handful of right-wing Democrats pose a potentially existential threat to the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act, a sweeping budget reconciliation package that, if passed, would fund robust climate action. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Our Long Neoliberal Nightmare: Congress Should Not Begrudge $3.5 Trillion Reconciliation Package for the People

To set themselves apart from Republicans, Democrats must demonstrate the political will to choose the common good over allegiance to corporate wealth.

Michele Swenson

A half century of neoliberal economic policy unleashed by the Reagan administration to enhance corporate wealth while effectively crushing unions and flattening workers' wages, has exploded massive U.S. wealth disparity. A 2020 Rand Corporation study reveals a stark truth: $50 trillion of U.S. wealth has been transferred from the bottom 90 percent of U.S. workers to the wealthiest 1 percent over a little more than four decades. Simultaneously, self-professed deficit hawks have ballooned deficits in order to benefit corporate elites with deregulation and huge tax cuts, like Trump's 2017 $1.5 trillion corporate tax cuts, even as they invoke deficit-cutting as a means to eliminate social programs in which workers are invested, such as Medicare and Social Security.

Failing to prioritize the public good, Democratic legislators not only risk losing the congressional majority in 2022, they will have missed a critical opportunity to reclaim democracy for the people.

Neoliberal economic policy is marked by huge tax breaks and deregulation benefitting corporate elites. Health care policy, too, is written to prioritize health industry profits over healthcare access. The 2021 Commonwealth Fund analysis compared health systems of 11 high-income countries, rating the U.S. last overall on access to care and health outcomes, despite spending the most of any nation on health care as a share of GDP. Already immense, insurance company profits soared billions of dollars during the pandemic, as less health care access reduced payment for medical procedures. Consequently, UnitedHealth Group doubled its net income from $3.4B to $6.7B in the second quarter of 2020. Profits of Anthem, Aetna and Humana also grew two-fold.

Deconstruction of Democracy

Concurrent with massive wealth transfer upward have been concerted efforts to deconstruct democracy. In 1971 soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell issued his corporate manifesto mobilizing large business interests, a blueprint for what has been called a 40-year "capitalist coup," dedicated to concentration of private capital and power in service of political dominance. Simultaneously, ultraconservatives have mobilized large sums of corporate, often dark money toward expansion of corporate-friendly think tanks, media groups and SuperPACS that have agitated for deconstruction of democratic institutions, including elections, legislatures, and the judiciary. Affiliated with Republican efforts are such corporate allies as the Business Round Table, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the drafters of early voter suppression laws, all abetted by court-packing efforts of the Federalist Society.

Reconciliation Package

Working people have lost jobs, homes and healthcare, exacerbated by the pandemic. The 10-year $3.5 trillion Reconciliation Bill is the minimum required to redress long-neglected social infrastructure needs of people. Washington should reverse long-standing economic policies prioritizing expansion of corporate wealth, even as trillions in COVID recovery dollars have been re-directed to Wall St. and corporations. The pandemic became another windfall for U.S. billionaires, amplifying their wealth by 62%—$1.8 trillion—more than half the amount of the proposed 10-year $3.5 trillion Reconciliation Package. Even as Jeff Bezos profited tens of billions to become the world's richest man, for at least two years Amazon paid zero federal income tax, its workers were denied hazard pay, and the stingy billionaire urged Whole Foods employees to "share" their paid sick leave.

Greed prevails among Washington actors who protest raising taxes on the wealthy to pay their fair share—or anything at all. Too many Republican and Democratic Congress members are firmly planted in the pockets of corporate lobbyists. Bound to lobbyist cash, legislators abandon consideration of the common good. In a Sept. 15 vote three Democrats, each the recipient of thousands of dollars from Pharma lobby, joined all Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to preserve Pharma's favorite loophole by voting "No" on negotiation of bulk drug rates by Medicare. Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema is among legislators accepting funds from Pharma-aligned PACs and acting in league with health industry lobbyists, assuring that Americans will continue to lack health care access, while bearing excessive health costs.

Opposing the $3.5 trillion Reconciliation Package out of professed concern for the debt of "future generations," West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin protested that climate-related provisions are "very, very disturbing," even as his multi-million dollar fortune derives from large fossil fuel industry investment. He further depicted the 10-year $3.5 T Reconciliation Package to restore social infrastructure the precursor to an "entitlement mentality"—failing to acknowledge that billionaires who reject paying their fair share of taxes are an "entitled" class. Manchin led the congressional chorus in 2008 demanding a massive Wall St. bailout of billionaire bankers, even as the banks tanked the global economy and spawned mass home foreclosures. Banks that lost tens of billions of dollars in 2008 paid themselves billions in huge government-subsidized bonuses. Even as he begrudges people a 10-year $3.5T social infrastructure plan, Manchin has voted for every bloated military budget, totaling $9.1 T over the past decade.

To set themselves apart from Republicans, Democrats must demonstrate the political will to choose the common good over allegiance to corporate wealth, and to bypass the Senate filibuster if necessary to restore voting rights and the semblance of an economy for the people. Failing to prioritize the public good, Democratic legislators not only risk losing the congressional majority in 2022, they will have missed a critical opportunity to reclaim democracy for the people.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Michele Swenson

Michele Swenson

Michele Swenson, a former nurse, has researched and written about the history of women’s health care, as well as religious fundamentalist and gun-centered ideologies. Her book "Democracy Under Assault: TheoPolitics, Incivility and Violence on the Right" (2005) is an in-depth examination of the fractured church-state divide, assaults on the independent judiciary, as well as resurgent 19th-century science, socioeconomic Darwinism, corporatism, and Christian nativism.

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