There’s a famous saying that laws are like sausages, in that you never want to see them being made. It was supposedly coined by Otto von Bismarck, or perhaps Mark Twain, or (for all we know) Homer Simpson. But no matter who said it first, it rings true these days as Democrats try to come to an agreement on their Build Back Better plan, the centerpiece of President Biden’s domestic agenda.
When he first proposed the bill, it included everything from free community college to expanded health care access to significant steps to combat climate change. The total cost of the bill was $3.5 trillion over 10 years, offset by increases in corporate tax rates and increased tax rates for high-earning individuals.
But with razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate, and Republicans uniformly opposing the plan, the White House has had to navigate carefully between the progressive and moderate wings of the party. Most notably, Biden has had to convince Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) to support the plan. With just 50 Democrats in the House, both Senators would need to vote yes to pass the bill, but both have balked at a number of provisions in the plan as well as its overall price tag.
So for the last couple of weeks, Democrats have been working to whittle down their $3.5 trillion package to something in the $1.75 trillion range in order to secure the support of Manchin and Sinema – while at the same time not alienating progressives whose votes also are needed. Although nothing is set in stone, it appears that some of the biggest items are out of the plan, including free community college.
In addition, Democrats are scrambling to come up with provisions to replace the cornerstone climate language in the bill, a clean electricity program proposal that sought to rapidly replace the nation’s coal- and gas-fired power plants with wind, solar and nuclear energy. Manchin, who represents coal-rich West Virginia, is believed to have blocked that idea, and so Democrats are looking at a mix of ideas to promote clean energy without targeting fossil fuels. The plan also will likely jettison increases in corporate tax rates due to steadfast opposition from Sinema, Instead, the plan may institute a wealth tax on the country’s nearly 1,000 billionaires.
At this point, it is not clear if the bill will contain – as initially proposed – an additional $75 million for historic preservation programs at the National Park Service. ACRA and its allies are continuing to press the case that historic preservation funding is not only good for the nation’s heritage but is needed to support the work of state and tribal historic preservation offices as they handle an influx of projects funded by the infrastructure bill.
Democrats hope to finalize the bill soon so they can pass it along with a companion $1 trillion infrastructure bill by the end of the month. But those negotiations may take longer to finish. Sausage-making is not easy.
Even as work continues on the reconciliation bill, Congress is taking steps to address additional cultural resource issues. Two weeks ago, the House Natural Resources Committee unanimously approved ACRA-backed legislation, the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act of 2021. The bipartisan bill would prohibit the exporting of sacred Native American items and increase penalties for stealing and illegally trafficking Tribal cultural patrimony. The next stop for the bill is the House floor, where it is likely to pass. ACRA continues to advocate to policymakers on both sides of the aisle that protecting our nation’s cultural heritage transcends partisanship.