Joe Biden’s presidency is not even three months old, yet it’s already become clear that he prioritizes bigness—specifically, big federal largesse—for its own sake. Biden seems to believe that bigger government is definitionally better government, almost independent of the policy specifics, so he’s pushing for bigger government just about any way he can.
Biden’s first big piece of legislation, the American Rescue Plan, was a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that had almost nothing to do with coronavirus relief. But Biden made the explicit argument that it was good because it was big and not small:
Let me be clear: The risk in this moment isn’t that we do too much — it’s that we don’t do enough. Congress must pass the American Rescue Plan to change the course of this pandemic and start our economic recovery.
— President Biden (@POTUS) February 3, 2021
Similarly, Biden argued that a $600 billion Republican counterproposal—still fairly large by historical standards but small when compared to Biden’s $1.9 trillion—was simply too small. Bigger was better. Smaller was therefore worse.
This notion that bigness, especially when it comes to federal spending, is inherently good, has now become Biden’s topline negotiating position for his infrastructure plan, which as currently construed would cost about $2.3 trillion.
In a speech yesterday making the case for his new proposal, Biden indicated that he’d be willing to compromise on some of the particulars of the plan. But the one thing he wouldn’t accept is doing a lot less.
“Compromise is inevitable,” Biden said. “We’ll be open to good ideas in good faith negotiations. But here’s what we won’t be open to: We will not be open to doing nothing. Inaction, simply, is not an option.” Relatedly, he mentioned that his main objection to the Republican counterproposal on the earlier recovery plan was that it was simply too small. He might have been willing to go somewhat smaller, he suggested. But not too much. Because less spending, in his view, would have been inherently worse.
He didn’t quite say he wouldn’t sign a smaller infrastructure bill, and it’s possible to imagine a somewhat pared down package passing. But he was reasonably clear that a large topline spending number was a major priority. Biden doesn’t care all that much how the government spends $2.3 trillion, just as long as it spends about $2.3 trillion on something.
Put differently: He’s not all that concerned about the merits of the policies and programs that this money would fund.
This helps explain how Biden ended up proposing a giant infrastructure plan with $1 trillion or so in spending that plainly has very little to do with infrastructure.
It’s also why one of the biggest chunks of money in the plan is a $400 billion lump fund to home health care through the Medicaid program that has essentially no programmatic specifics attached. As Matthew Yglesias writes in his newsletter this morning, it’s a $400 billion “black box.”
It’s $400 billion because $400 billion is a big number, not because any policy wonk has identified a specific set of reforms that demand this particular number. It’s not that there are no issues with long-term care, but there’s no real theory behind Biden’s call to spend this particular amount rather than another. A wonky theory, to be clear, wouldn’t necessarily make it a good policy; but this doesn’t even rise to that level of debate or analysis. This is just spending without a theory other than that spending is good. It’s one more way throw a lot of money out the door.
To the extent that there is a discrete objective here, it’s to funnel money to Biden’s political allies in labor, specifically the Service Employees International Union, which represents many home health aides and would see a substantial boost from Biden’s boosted spending.
Less than two months into his presidency, Biden increasingly sees himself in historic terms. That’s driving his legislative strategy. The president recently held a secret White House meeting with historians, Axios reported, “that included discussion of how big is too big—and how fast is too fast—to jam through once-in-a-lifetime historic changes to America.” Lo and behold, both Biden and the historians agreed that this was the time to go big: “The historians’ views,” according to Axios, “were very much in sync with [Biden’s] own: It is time to go even bigger and faster than anyone expected.”
Even at this early date, I think it’s fair to say that Biden’s presidency will be a big one. But that won’t make it a good one.
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