There is an interesting counterfactual scenario for Biden’s now agitated presidency where the president responded to the initial success of his bipartisan infrastructure push – all those Republicans in the White House, pledging billions in new spending – by going out immediately and saying, do the same for family policy.
In this scenario, instead of letting his administration’s big ideas to help families – paid parental leave, extended child tax credit extension, new spending on child care and kindergarten – end up in the omnium collectum of a multibillion-dollar reconciliation bill, Biden invited all Senate Republicans who have ever worked on family policy, from moderates like Mitt Romney and Bill Cassidy to populists like Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio, and came up with a proposal that could gain some Republican support.
There are several reasons why this may not have worked. Some of the Republicans most interested in family politics in theory have the most incentive (ie, the desire to be president someday) not to work with Democrats in practice. Mitch McConnell blessed the infrastructure deal as part of a strategy to derail other Democratic priorities; there is no reason to assume he would do it twice. The legislative timetable could have made another bipartite negotiation difficult; the progressive wing of the Democratic Party might have made that impossible.
But Biden and his party ended up conducting the same type of negotiations as under this assumption, except that instead of negotiating with Republicans, they primarily negotiate with Joe Manchin.
Family policy isn’t the only issue in reconciliation bickering, but it is an important issue, and Manchin articulated what would have been Republican points in a bipartisan negotiation – that the progressive view spends too much money and that it is a mistake to subsidize parents who do not work at all. Meanwhile, progressives are attacking Manchin in the same way they would attack a family policy deal brokered by (say) Marco Rubio and Kyrsten Sinema: “Biden’s women-centered economic agenda is destroyed by Joe Manchin” recently made the front page of Mother Jones.
If this is fundamentally what is happening – a center-right-center-left negotiation, with the center-right embodied by a Democrat – what would a reasonable compromise on family policy look like? As for the best polls, one possibility is suggested by David Shor and Simon Bazelon, writing for the spongy-moderate newsletter Slow Boring: Who Made Family Policy Cheaper By Ensuring That The Benefits Go Mainly To The poor and lower middle class.
Unfortunately, I think in terms of policy the optimal deal is somewhat different. This is because I am a birth rate obsessive, concerned that the fertility collapse in the United States is depressing our economy and darkening our society for generations to come. But if I’m right to worry about that future (spoiler: I’m right), then finding the cheapest family policy deal is a mistake, as the best evidence suggests that the significant increase in training family is not cheap.
Instead, the best family policy deal would give progressives more money than they want to spend and give conservative ideas more influence over how that money is spent. For example, Conservatives tend to argue that direct spending on child care discriminates against stay-at-home parents, as well as parents who prefer to use relatives as caregivers. They are right: to the extent that Manchin is asking his party to choose between its different political ideas, they should choose what spending goes to parents over programs.
Conservatives also tend to be reasonably concerned about how social spending incentives may discourage marriage, if benefits decline when couples marry. Currently, the reconciliation bill would create a harsher “marriage penalty” than the existing law, which any compromise would have to correct.
Finally, the Conservatives are worried about how spending encourages parents not to work at all, effectively trapping families in intergenerational poverty. I think that worry is overestimated and that the Biden Tax Credit avoids some of the work disincentives of past welfare programs. But the concerns have reasonable points: For example, this week brought a new paper that felt Biden’s credit could cause more parents to leave the workforce than the previous analysis suggested, thwarting some of his cuts in labor market participation. child poverty.
A possible compromise here would attach a work requirement to credit for parents with children over 1 year old, while still offering the money without strings to parents of infants. This would especially encourage single mothers to return to the workforce as their babies grow older, without forcing them to return at a time when they are particularly vulnerable and when children are entitled to a parent at home.
Add these ideas together and you have what Manchin’s demand should be: a family policy that spends generously without disadvantaging marriage, work, or households that do not use daycare. In a better world, that’s what Republicans and Democrats would negotiate together, but even in this one, it’s not out of reach.