The Danger of Overhyping Lackluster Legislation … Let’s fix the Build Back Better Act.
At around 9:45 AM Eastern on Friday, November 19th, from the moment that Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced, “the Build Back Better Bill is passed!”, the floor of the US House of Representatives erupted in triumphant jubilation. Chants of “Nancy, Nancy!” sounded from the 220 Democrats who had outvoted 212 Republicans and 1 fellow Democrat to pass HR 5376, the $1.75 trillion-with-a-T spending plan, through the House. Over half of our nation’s Congressional representatives felt ecstatic that this bill, which invests in diverse areas of American society from childcare to clean energy, had taken one step closer to becoming law.
I wish I could say that I shared their joy. Unfortunately, as a fourteen-plus-year veteran of education reform advocacy, I couldn’t help but sense that the victorious spirit on the House floor last week reminded me of the misguided triumphalism that many Illinoians felt towards the enactment of the Illinois State Lottery’s education funding policy.
Remember when that policy became law? In 1985, former Governor Jim Thompson signed legislation ensuring that all lottery proceeds go directly to the state’s Common School Fund to finance public education. To this day, the lottery touts the support that it provides to Illinois’s education system as groundbreaking. Many Illinoians have heard its claim that “twenty-five cents of every dollar spent on the lottery goes to fund public education, infrastructure projects, and other special causes”.
If you haven’t heard about this, no need to worry. You still probably know everything you need to know about what this policy does to empower Illinois students — which is not much. At the end of the day, the lottery funds only a small fraction of the state’s total public school budget (6.6 percent in 2019), and given the state’s school funding structure, all lottery-derived funding goes towards teacher’s pensions, not students. Since the amount of lottery proceeds going towards education was capped at 2009 levels (with any surplus going towards capital projects), this fact is unlikely to change. And as lottery money was flowing into the education coffers, other resources were moved to the General Fund… so the education system lost some funding as a result of this policy. Yet for decades, many Illinois residents remained falsely comforted by the idea that our education system is well-supported in the hands of the state lottery, when in fact it continued to suffer from underfunding and socioeconomic inequities. The impact of the false hope created by the scheme in Illinois remains.
See the parallels yet? If not, let me paint a clearer picture.
The Build Back Better Act has been hailed by the White House as “the most transformative investment in children and caregiving in generations”, “the largest effort to combat climate change in American history”, and other superlative-laden descriptors. And perhaps in the bill’s original, $3.5 trillion pre-negotations form, these assessments would have made sense. But the revision process stripped it of its most powerful elements. Measures to close the carried interest tax loophole were traded in for modest reforms that ultimately leave it in place. Through this loophole, private equity and venture capital fund managers can lower their tax bills by turning their compensation into capital gains that are taxed at lower rates, thus allowing them to pay lower labor income rates than many school teachers. The original bill included universal free community college. That’s also gone.
And the initiative to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices was dropped from the Build Back Better Act altogether. This policy would have drastically lowered the cost of prescription drugs, on which Americans currently spend an average of $1,200 per person per year, which is more than residents of any other country. And it is the most popular Democrat policy proposal of the past fifteen years, not to mention a well-supported idea on both sides of the aisle, with the approval of 95 percent of Democrats and 71 percent of Republicans, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll from last month.
Instead, what’s left in the bill includes a new childcare policy that will nearly double the cost of childcare for middle-income families for the next three years and strangle small daycare businesses, as well as tax cuts of upwards of $80,000 for millionaires and billionaires in states such as New York and California.
Granted, the bill does include some programs that will be beneficial to American families, such as free preschool. But all of these programs are due to expire by 2028 or earlier, which means that, like the child tax credit increase, future representatives could choose not to revive them, so their impact will be short-lived. And given the bill’s fixed top-line cost, Democrats could have taken a “less is more” approach in negotiations, offering fewer programs but maintaining their original robustness. Instead, they drastically weakened most of these programs, especially in the areas that middle- and working-class Americans needed most, whilst doing as little as possible to inconvenience large corporations and wealthy elites. In the end, this bill’s impact on Americans’ lives will be minimal; Biden’s promise to “build back better” really just looks like more of the same at best.
But with the praise-filled publicity that the bill currently receives, few Americans will realize how little good it does until it’s too late.
I know this because that’s what happened to Illinoians’ understanding of the lottery’s impact on education. In the early 2000s I led an organizing effort to get people across the state to demand adequate and equitable funding for education in Illinois. As I traveled around the Land of Lincoln talking to people in Chicago and in the suburbs, in rural communities, and in industrial towns, I encountered a common response to my urging to get involved. People in every place and from every walk of life would ask with curiosity and a hint of sarcasm, “didn’t they already fix that with the lottery?”
As I laid out to them the many flaws and injustices that remained a part of the system, I quickly learned that my job wasn’t to inform people so that they would desire a better system, but rather to inspire people who had been demoralized by oversold solutions. How could a policy that’s been marketed as helping to solve all of our education system’s problems leave so much brokenness in place? Many people had begun to doubt that the government would actually do much to improve our school funding in Illinois.
That’s the danger of overhyping mediocre policies. By misleading the public about the Build Back Better Act’s capacity to solve our problems, all we’re doing is setting up hardworking Americans for disillusionment and disengagement with our political system. As advocates and activists like me know, the last thing we need if we want to make real, meaningful change is to lose engagement and support from the very people who are most impacted by the issues that we care about: parents, students, workers, small business owners.
So Americans desperately need to know that the fight isn’t over. Our healthcare, education, childcare, and tax systems still have a long way to go before they actually provide the level of support and empowerment that working- and middle-class families deserve. And to get where we need to be, we will need to elect representatives who will actually stand up for us instead of trading real improvements away for lackluster legislation. We need to set aside petty ideological rivalries and work together to make true change happen.
That’s the kind of movement I’m building as I run for Congress.
And I’m hoping that you’ll join me.
In Congress, I’ll fight for bold plans for concrete improvements for our families and communities, not just sporadic aid and temporary fixes. If you want to see the Illinois 1st District truly flourish, get involved in the Chris Butler for Congress community! Help us fight to get our voices heard by joining our mailing list, donating to the campaign, volunteering for the campaign, and more.
We may not be the largest or the wealthiest district, but our voices and our values are worth fighting for. We deserve a Congress that will not settle for anything less than consistent, permanent solutions.