Politics & Policy

For Democrats, Money Is Just a Number

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer walks with President Joe Biden after a lunch with the Senate Democratic Caucus at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., July 14, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Why stop at $3.5 trillion? Why not $5 trillion or $10 trillion?

The Democrats just unveiled a new $3.5 trillion spending package that, when combined with the $600 billion bipartisan proposal tentatively in place, adds up to a lot of money. However, the American people have not been told in specific terms why we need the largest spending package in American history. This new “deal” is part of a suspicious trend with Democratic policies, which seem to focus on getting the maximum amount that can pass through Congress.

We don’t know how or why Senate Democrats arrived at $3.5 trillion as the ideal amount of government spending. We can take an educated guess, though. The deal is less than many progressives had hoped for. Bernie Sanders, for example, wanted a $6 trillion infrastructure and health-care package, but that was considered politically impossible because any spending bill would need to pass with support from moderate members. As Axios reports:

The roughly $3.5 trillion could get shaved down further once the full Senate — including centrists like Sens. Joe Manchin (D- W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) — extract their own demands.

Importantly, Senate Democrats have not come out and said that Bernie’s plan is wrong and that $3.5 trillion would be better for the country. Instead, Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee, led by Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, have come to an agreement to borrow and spend as much money as politically possible. Politico reported on how the bill came to be:

Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee reached agreement on the overall total for their party-lines spending plan during their second meeting this week with Schumer and White House officials in the Capitol. Their next step is ensuring all 50 Democratic caucus members can support the $3.5 trillion figure, said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the budget panel.

“The goal is for the Budget Committee to all be on the same page and then sell it to the caucus,” he said. “Once the Budget Committee is on the same page, numbers will start to come out. But we still have a little ways to go to get there.”

When Senate Democrats say the bill will be “sold” to the rest of the caucus, we should take them at their word. Bernie Sanders got some of what he wanted: greater spending for senior medical care. We will see whether Joe Manchin gets revenue offsets, but the lower spending tag is undoubtedly geared toward getting his approval.

Unfortunately, this is precisely the opposite of how good policy is crafted. To intelligently address problems, one should look at the problem first and then design the solution. That’s how any sensible company would conduct its business. In Congress, though, politicians find a dollar amount they can agree on and then figure out afterward how to spend the money. But if they are just arbitrarily arriving at spending numbers, why stop at $3.5 trillion? Why not $5 trillion or $10 trillion? At least those would be nice round numbers. Yes, they’re worried about the Manchins of the Senate, but $3.5 trillion is absurd, too.

To be clear, Republicans are complicit in this line of thinking as well. All one has to do is look at military spending to find this kind of backward logic at work. At one point, the Pentagon had to tell Congress to stop allocating money for equipment it didn’t want and couldn’t use. While all instances of unnecessary government spending are frustrating, Senate Democrats are employing the strategy of “spend as much as politically possible” more brazenly than ever.

The new deal struck by liberal and moderate Senate Democrats was not based on extensive policy research that found that $3.5 trillion is the precise amount of money necessary to solve our health-care and infrastructure problems. The fact that everyone knows virtually no study was conducted shows how inured we’ve become to these types of proposals. But it bears repeating that $3.5 trillion is a political number, not an economic one. If this bill passes, it will be because moderate Democrats can stomach spending that much. However, the American people should be unwilling to stomach this wasteful and arbitrary process of spending borrowed money.

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