They Can Always Find More Money for War

The gargantuan military aid bill that passed last week and the Democrats’ Build Back Better package relied on similar legislative strategies for passage. The party saw the strategy through to secure money for war while abandoning it to fund social programs.

President Joe Biden speaks after signing the foreign aid bill at the White House in Washington, DC, on April 24, 2024. (Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images)

There’s a quote (allegedly) from his father that President Joe Biden likes to use: “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” We could just as well tweak it: “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me how hard you fight for something, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

If we look at the contrast between the mammoth military aid package funding a trilogy of global conflicts the president signed into law last week, and the ambitious social safety net expansion that faded into oblivion in December 2021, it is hard to come to a different conclusion than this: Biden, and by extension the US Congress, simply didn’t consider the passage of this progressive wish list a priority, and cared far more about shipping nearly $100 billion off for foreign wars.

Consider the military aid package that just passed and how it got over the line. Further military aid to Ukraine, a top priority for the White House, had been stalled for the better part of a year thanks to divisions within the Republican caucus on the issue. Israel’s war on Gaza provided an opening to get it done: Biden, Democrats, and GOP backers of the Ukrainian war effort like Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell would capitalize on bipartisan support for Israel and the urgency of the war to pair aid to both countries together, and “daring lawmakers,” as the New York Times put it, opposed to the Ukraine aid to vote down the aid to Israel, too.

To pass one, in other words, members of Congress would have to pass both. Republicans opposed to Ukraine aid were annoyed at the corner they’d been painted into. “I don’t think that’s a fair way to do it,” said one.

Biden and the Democrats stuck with this strategy for half a year, even as obstacle after setback reared its head: first the lack of a House speaker, then a speaker who refused to bring it to a vote, then dragged out, stalled negotiations, as well as the complexity of the package itself. One doubtful Democrat called it a “triple bank shot.” A Republican involved in the negotiations complained there were “too many moving parts.”

Yet the White House stuck with it, even as it was pronounced “as good as dead” in February and influential voices called on him to just split the bill up. The president and other officials insisted that the two parts of the aid package had to stay together as Republicans, including newly elected house speaker Mike Johnson, tried to decouple them, with Biden having devoted only his second prime time Oval Office address to the subject, and making clear he would veto a standalone Israel aid package brought forward by Johnson and passed by the House. At the same time, the president gladly acquiesced to several sweeteners to get as many reluctant lawmakers on board, including far-right immigration reforms.

The White House’s patience paid off, after Iran’s strikes on Israel this month gave the push for military aid new urgency and momentum. After Speaker Johnson was persuaded to come on board backing the bill — and as the White House added more Republican concessions to the package, including a TikTok ban — the bill then cleared Congress thanks to some ingenious legislative maneuvering: a special rule allowed the bill to be broken down to its different pieces in the House — where they could only pass by being split up — before being reconstituted back into a single package in the Senate, where it could only pass by being kept together.

And just like that, after half a year, the president signed into law a military aid package worth almost a tenth of a trillion dollars — a package, it has to be noted, that Americans are not particularly enthusiastic about overall.

Now let’s think back to the heady days of 2021 when the president unveiled his $4 trillion infrastructure package, the centerpiece of his presidential agenda and whose constituent parts were overwhelmingly popular across partisan lines.

Just as over the past year, this package faced a divided Congress — due, in this case, to every single Republican in both the House and Senate refusing to support the bill, and to a barely existent Democratic majority in the Senate threatening to unravel at any moment thanks to two Wall Street–backed candidates, Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. And just as with the military aid bill, Biden and the Democrats had to keep the bill together as one to have the best hope of getting it passed.

The sprawling bill consisted broadly of two large parts. There was the physical infrastructure portion, eventually costing $1 trillion, which was desired by the same Wall Street and corporate America that funded Sinema and Manchin, was broadly supported across the political spectrum in their home states and even contained specific bribes to get the latter on board. The other was the $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” portion that featured many of the social programs Biden had campaigned on — Medicare expansion, universal pre-K, subsidized childcare, free community college, and more — and which right-wing Democrats like Sinema and Manchin and their campaign donors opposed.

In this hostage-like situation, Manchin, Sinema, and their ilk could vote down the bill over their distaste for its progressive social programs and the tax hikes it would impose on their corporate benefactors. But in that case, those benefactors, as well as their local business and voting constituencies back home, wouldn’t see a cent of profit or any tangible benefit from the trillion dollars of infrastructure funding. (Remember that before Biden’s inauguration, Manchin had wanted an infrastructure bill that was four times as large as this).

The president would effectively have been “daring” them to sink the whole thing because of their opposition to one part of it. By late March, with the Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson presidencies in mind, Biden was reportedly planning to do exactly this and simply jettison bipartisanship to pass a bill as large as $5 trillion as quickly as possible, given the narrow window of time and possibility. As Politico put it, “The president and his team believe the benefits of action far outweigh the perceptions of working across the aisle.”

It took less than a month for Biden and the Democrats to abandon this approach, deciding in early April to split the bill into its two broad parts — the one backed by right-wing Democrats and corporate America, and the one they opposed — and try and shoot for some kind of bipartisan sign-on after all, just as Manchin preferred. This was over progressives’ insistence on a “single, ambitious package” to “seize our chance” and “act urgently,” as they worried that Democrats would ultimately balk at passing a third massive bill that had less broad support in Congress. But it wasn’t just progressives: the Senate’s no. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin, likewise cautioned that passing the package in two steps like this would be a mistake because “we don’t have a lot of time on the calendar” and urged Biden to “keep everything together and move it in a package that works.”

But Durbin and progressives were overruled, and what they warned would happen, happened. Negotiations dragged on for months as Biden tried to get any Republicans on board for a show of  bipartisanship, while Manchin and Sinema used the newfound leverage they had once the bills were split to whittle both down even further. As early as June, the Washington Post reported, the president’s “relentless focus” on getting a bipartisan infrastructure bill was “dividing his party,” who feared the “drawn-out negotiations could derail” his presidency. Hope was only kept alive by Biden’s vow that the two separate packages would still proceed in tandem, and that he wouldn’t sign one into law if it meant giving up on the other.

But as months of inaction went by, a combination of worsening inflation, the media turning on the White House over the Afghanistan withdrawal, an onslaught of corporate lobbying against the bill, and an electoral rebuke to the Democrats in early November all led Biden to go back on that promise. Progressives called for the president to call Manchin and Sinema’s bluff “load [the bill] up with extra investment for West Virginia and Arizona, and dare them to vote it down.” But unlike the various Republican sweeteners they had loaded into the military bill last week, Biden and the Democrats didn’t even try to do this.

Biden quickly signed the physical infrastructure bill two weeks after the Democrats’ November election defeat, with Biden waxing poetic about how he had proven the parties could still work together. The “human infrastructure” package, no longer linked to that bill in any meaningful way, languished and died a predictable death, and most of its provisions haven’t been heard from again.

It’s hard to think back to this story — as well as look at the stubbornness with which Biden refused to split the military aid package last week, and the various lengths he was willing to go to get it passed — and not come to the conclusion that the president simply may not have been as committed to this spate of social programs as the progressive activists, pundits, and politicians who pushed him to adopt it in the first place were.

The president isn’t the only one who comes off poorly here. A large part of the reason getting the package passed was so difficult was that not a single Republican would back it, even though many of their own voters favored its provisions, which would have measurably improved working Americans’ lives. But many of those same Republicans jumped at the chance years later to spend $100 billion on multiple foreign wars.

That effort saw little of the GOP handwringing heard throughout 2021 about how the sum would be paid for and came complete with “rare scenes of Republicans and Democrats working together,” with Speaker Johnson (one of the same “MAGA Republicans” denying the 2020 election result that Biden and Democrats are always warning about these days) working hand in glove with the White House and House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries to get it done.

It’s the same old story, sadly: the US political system, whether the presidency or Congress, is simply unresponsive to Americans’ political needs and far more interested in mindlessly fueling mayhem around the world than fixing what’s wrong at home. This fact cost the US public their best chance in years to bring American life closer to the modern social-democratic standards of other wealthy Western democracies. But it will no doubt also feed cynicism and disillusionment that will extract bigger costs down the line.