How to Fix the Democrats’ Build Back Better Plan

This is a recipe not only for significant public funds siphoned into corporate treasuries but also for endless frustration and hassle, much like our private health insurance system. And all this for just four weeks of paid leave (the length presently being considered), a fraction of what every other industrialized nation offers. It’s not enough to pass something that can merely be called “paid leave” if its primary function is to anger people who want to take time off from work.

Unfortunately, much of the bill now works this way, thanks to demands made by the likes of Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, among others. Means testing in the child care program creates similar bureaucratic hurdles, and a money-saving phase-in of subsidies keeps some middle-class families out of the program for the first three years, and maybe permanently with the rumored income cap. Funding for elder care and housing has been slashed by about half of what was previously proposed. Mr. Manchin wants a cap on the advance-payment Child Tax Credit at $60,000 in family income as well as work requirements. And instead of adding a dental benefit to Medicare, seniors might get an $800 coupon.

These policies aren’t worth selling to a skeptical public. After grinding an expansive agenda into paste, Democrats should not expect voters to re-elect the pastemakers so that they can sculpt the paste into something useful.

Mr. Manchin actually understands how to create policy that the public rallies around. He has put no means-testing restrictions on the universal prekindergarten provision, allowing all families to get two years of early development and instruction for their children. Why? Because he instituted a similar program while he was the governor of West Virginia, and he knows that making it complicated or exclusionary doesn’t sell well.

That model of hassle-free, permanent programs should animate the entire project. All of the hazardous choices in this bill are fixable, but these fixes would make it cost more. And if cost is an insurmountable political barrier to passage, then the only way to rebuild faith in government action is by embracing fewer programs, freeing funds to enact them in the simplest and best ways possible.

Democrats could subsequently run on a record of actually solving problems, rather than gesturing in their direction. If all the programs were functional yet time-limited, there could be an argument for trying to win elections on extending them. But the path Democrats are going down now, hoping to mobilize voters around poorly designed programs that lock out many of the middle-class suburban voters they have just started to attract again, is a much bigger risk.

Even if Congress manages to renew the half-measures it’s currently working on implementing, typically, permanent programs are the only ones that can actually get repaired in Washington. Temporary ones can’t, because the fight is always focused on the program’s survival, not its merits. The Affordable Care Act’s permanence has made it harder to dislodge and easier to rejigger; there’s an effort to do so in this bill, by increasing the act’s subsidies. By contrast, Republicans allowed the 10-year federal assault weapons ban to expire in 2004 and paid no price at the polls. And that wasn’t a program that made citizens traverse dizzying bureaucracy.

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