Democrats Love Their $3.5 Trillion Bill-Whatever You Want To Call It

  • In Politics
  • 2021-09-16 08:41:46Z
  • By The Daily Beast
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photos Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photos Getty  

For months, Democrats in Congress have been working tirelessly on a sweeping, multi-trillion-dollar spending package. And yet, they still don't know what to call the thing.

That may seem like a minor issue. Democrats, after all, can't stop talking about what is in the bill, from huge expansions of Medicare programs to tax cuts to new child-care benefits. But the ill-defined branding may warn of political challenges ahead.

If you ask six Democratic senators what to call the legislation-as The Daily Beast did this week-you'll get six different answers.

Keeping it simple, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) said he calls it the "budget bill."

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said he sometimes calls it "infrastructure"-the framing President Joe Biden had mostly used for this package-but also confessed that he hates the word infrastructure.

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"I try to talk about physical assets and human assets rather than infrastructure," Blumenthal said. He also said he never refers to it as the "reconciliation bill," the now widely used tag that describes the convoluted phrase by which Democrats plan to pass the bill.

"Nobody knows that phrase," Blumenthal said.

Others, apparently, did not get the memo about avoiding the words "reconciliation bill."

When The Daily Beast asked Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) what he called the bill, he first jokingly referred to it as, "That monster!"

"No, that was a joke, don't print that," he said. "I just refer to it as 'the reconciliation bill,' or 'the recon bill'… I'll often refer to it as the Jobs Act, depends on who I'm talking to, I guess."

The chairman of Senate Democrats' official campaign arm, Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), said he was "just talking about the legislation we're doing to help families and invest in 21st century infrastructure, which includes human capital, the investments in families, and individuals."

"We're working,' said the second-ranking Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), "on the elements that resonate the most."

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Just one senator out of six used the party's emerging official branding to describe this specific bill, which also happens to be the branding for Biden's 2020 presidential campaign and, broadly, his entire domestic agenda.

"I usually refer to it as 'Build Back Better,' and then make clear we're talking about the budget reconciliation piece of that," Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) said. "We should call it 'Build Back Better' because people intuitively get what that means."

The apparent mixed messaging among Democrats on what exactly to call the bill-which has uncertain support in Congress just days before a soft, Sept. 27 deadline to pass the bill-reflects a broader communications challenge.

There is so much in the package that Democrats like, and that they believe voters will like, but the bill is shaping up to be so sweeping, each plank so potentially impactful, that coming up with a unified branding that encapsulates the whole thing is virtually impossible.

Some Democrats concede it might be helpful to get the party on the same page when it comes to every aspect of communicating about what they intend to be a defining policy and political win.

"It is a challenge. I recognize the criticism, 'Oh, you guys aren't doing good messaging,'" said Blumenthal, who compared the task of messaging around this bill to talking about the space program before the launch of its first rocket. "But I think we need to do better, and we will."

Republicans, meanwhile, have been quick to roll out their own branding for the package-the "$3.5 trillion reckless taxing and spending spree"-and they have dutifully stuck to it.

When The Daily Beast began to mention the Democrats' legislation on Tuesday, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) quickly interjected: "the $3.5 trillion tax and spending spree." But Cornyn, a former chair of Senate Republicans' campaign arm, acknowledged that Democrats have a "communications challenge" in figuring out how to frame it.

"I'll be interested in what they call it," he said, "but it's still bad news, no matter what they call it."

To many Democrats, however, the question doesn't really matter. What does, they argue, is when, where and how they talk about the different components of the bill-a vast array of social safety net programs that could have an immediate impact on many Americans' lives if passed.

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"I don't care if you call it 'Frosted Flakes' or 'Captain Crunch,' talk about what's in the box, and how it's going to help your district," said former Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), who chaired House Democrats' campaign arm from 2011 to 2015, and then became the first chairman of the messaging arm for House Democrats. "No one's going to remember what you call it. They're going to remember if your position was good or bad for them."

It was not always obvious that Democrats would take Biden's campaign mantra and attach it to their signature legislative priority. Its branding has gone through several iterations in recent months, as the political process has shaped the legislation's course since it began moving this spring.

After passing a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill in March, dubbed the American Rescue Plan, the White House quickly moved to roll out the framework for achieving Biden's broadly defined infrastructure goals.

They divided it into two prongs through a widely covered public rollout in March. The American Jobs Plan would cover investments in roads, transit, and other traditional infrastructure targets, like universal high-speed internet. The American Families Plan would cover everything else, the stuff they framed as "human infrastructure"-investments in care and education systems that might make it easier for Americans to live and work.

But an unexpected cross-aisle deal over the summer on "hard" infrastructure-the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act-scrambled that branding. References to the American Families Plan started to disappear, as did the once-touted phrase "human infrastructure," which Republicans publicly mocked and some Democrats privately disliked.

As Democrats moved to lay the groundwork for the broader legislation containing their social and economic priorities, it increasingly got described using the language of the process, like "budget" and "reconciliation," referring to the process by which Democrats can advance bills in the Senate with 50 votes instead of 60. More often than not, the bill has simply been tagged with its potential price tag: $3.5 trillion.

That branding is particularly perilous for Democrats. They could end up negotiating against Republicans, the public, and moderates in their own party who have framed the bill simply by its massive price tag. The middle position-between $0 and $3.5 trillion-could quickly become $1.75 trillion, which is a bill that simply wouldn't pass muster with progressives in the House, who prefer the $6 trillion topline that was advocated by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

At the same time, if Democrats are simply defining the bill by the pricetag, they're not talking about the programs the legislation would deliver, like child care, elder care, housing help, new Medicare provisions for dental and vision, climate change proposals, free pre-kindergarten, paid family leave, and literally hundreds of other provisions.

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Instead, it's just defined by that $3.5 trillion number, which critics can quickly deride as "too expensive," while not addressing the specific proposals they oppose.

At the same time, relying on a wonky name like "the reconciliation bill" also has its problems. Only 46 percent of Americans know that each state has two senators; hardly any regular person understands the ins and outs of budget reconciliation-or what that really means.

But the jargon of Congress is apparently hard to dislodge in Congress-and even the White House. In a tweet on Tuesday, press secretary Jen Psaki went through a list of popular components of the bill with the tagline, "shorthand reconciliation."

Some party aides are upfront about the lack of defined packaging for the bill. "There is no branding for it," said a Democratic aide. "I don't even have spin for you on that."

There has been confusion within Hill offices about what to call it in official communications, the aide said, speaking anonymously to candidly discuss strategy. They told The Daily Beast they recently wrote a list of talking points that used the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan language, only to be told by their boss to scrap them. "No one uses them at all," the aide said, "which is mind-blowing to me."

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Other press aides said they don't have a set policy on what to call it, while others said it has been clear since the August recess that they are supposed to use the Build Back Better language. Confirmation of that came without much fanfare this week, as House committees began debating and amending the $3.5 trillion bill in hearings. Its name: the Build Back Better Act of 2021.

That branding has its fans, like Heinrich, who said that it encapsulates the idea behind the bill-not just its parts-which he argued was the only way to convey its impact. "People understand the concept of, 'OK, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to not just make things like they used to be, but actually do something more,'" Heinrich said.

But other Democrats are less sold. A Democratic pollster told The Daily Beast that "Build Back Better is kind of a dumb name, but it's what he ran on in the campaign," and believes that the exact branding of the bill is not important in shaping public opinion around it.

Nevertheless, Democratic Party infrastructure is starting to come to life in hopes of making the branding stick. Biden allies have launched a nonprofit advocacy organization called Building Back Together to gain support and shape the debate around the bill as it makes its way through Congress.

On Tuesday, leaders of the group held a press call in which they repeatedly referred to the "Build Back Better Agenda." They cited reams of polling indicating public support for the legislation, hammering home the party-wide belief that most of the legislation's components are individually popular-which will make it easy to message the entire bill, despite its scope and size.

"For me, I sell what it does, and that gets the better reaction than using any particular name," Kaine told The Daily Beast. "When I say to audiences, this can do for American children what Social Security did for American seniors, then their ears perk up."

Democrats remember when they failed in the early days of the Obama administration to communicate why the public should have supported their 2009 stimulus bill and the Affordable Care Act.

Israel, the former DCCC chair, said the underlying problems are still there, even if there's great wariness about repeating the mistakes of those days.

"This is the problem with Democrats: Republicans will give the three things that hit the gut, and Democrats will give the 42-point plan," Israel said. "Pick three things in the bill that are most beneficial to your district, and focus on those three things, and don't worry what you call it."

As long as what they're calling it is not "reconciliation," Israel added. "When I was DCCC chair, I'd say if I ever heard a candidate use the words 'motion to recommit' or 'reconciliation,' I'm pulling all your money," he said. "You cannot make this about process. You've got to make this about making people's lives better, and quicker."

-with reporting from Jackie Kucinich

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