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To win, Democrats need to end the backroom dealing

Updated: Nov 15, 2021

Opinion by Jeffrey D. Sachs |

November 5, 2021

Editor's Note: Jeffrey Sachs is a professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia Universit and president of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. His most recent book is "The Ages of Globalization" (Columbia University Press, 2020). The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion on CNN

(CNN) - The Democratic Party's legislation in Congress is being whittled away to small-bore spending here and there, totaling far less than one percent of America's GDP.

The corporate lobbies have been waging a relentless and largely successful battle against higher taxes on the corporations and the rich, even though the public supports increasing taxation on the wealthy to expand public spending on higher education, health care, families and the environment.

Ours is a political system in which money counts and big money counts the most. Members of Congress will likely perceive going with the flow of big money as the takeaway from the Virginia governor's race, in which more than $115 million was spent on the campaigns, with financier Glenn Youngkin (estimated net worth at $440 million) triumphing.

Since two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, are in agreement with the lobbyists against tax increases and other parts of the Democratic package (notably environmental protection in Manchin's case), the strong majority in the public for taxing the rich translates into a minority in the Senate.

The result -- lobbyists triumphing over the public -- is also occurring on paid family leave, health coverage and needed action on climate change.

On Tuesday, there was another typical announcement by the Democrats that a budget deal is imminent, with word that action to lower prescription drug prices -- highly popular with the public -- is back in the package after being taken out previously. On Wednesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she is putting a paid leave provision back into the House bill even though its future may be dim in the Senate. Like everything else about the package and the ostensible deal on drug prices, negotiations are behind closed doors -- which is the lobbyists' paradise, precisely where they can have maximum leverage.

Americans understandably have very little confidence in Congress. In September, just 37% of the public accorded Congress a "great deal" or "fair amount" of confidence, compared with 71% back in May 1972, the earliest date reported by Gallup on this question. The skepticism is justified. There has been far too much backroom dealing, corporate lobbying and corporate funding of campaigns to have faith in Congress.

Even though the original Democratic package was of profound benefit for working families -- on health care, paid leave, taxation, environment, energy and more -- the public was not provided with basic information about the proposals, though the lobbyists swarmed over every detail in the backrooms of Congress. There have been few policy papers, little or no testimony in Congress, and few assessments by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

While 100 Senators ostensibly represent 331 million Americans, we hear daily only about two -- that Manchin doesn't want this and Sinema doesn't want that. Suddenly, one day, higher corporate income taxes -- important and popular with the public -- are off the table because Sinema opposes them. Manchin scuttled President Joe Biden's clean power policy without public debate.

Yet it's the Democratic Party's job, and Biden's job in particular, to beat a highly unpopular lobby that has poisoned the planet, not to surrender to it. Manchin says he acts to benefit the people of his state, but it's their true interests he should be serving.

Manchin is utterly failing to do that. There is no state in the country more in need of Biden's transformative investments than West Virginia, the state with the lowest life expectancy in the country, and among the worst in educational quality. In a normal world, not America's corrupted politics, Manchin would be railing against corporate privileges and leading the charge against the super-rich, so that his state could have a decent future.

We are told daily that since Biden has only 50 Democratic votes in the Senate, Manchin and Sinema hold all the cards, and that in effect the lobbyists have triumphed. Yet that is a disastrously defeatist perspective.

It means surrendering on crucial measures without a fight, which is what Biden and the other Democratic leaders seem to be doing. Yet would Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman or Lyndon Johnson have folded their hands because a couple of Democratic senators were siding with lobbyists?

Where are Biden's trips to West Virginia and Arizona to rally support for his legislation? Where are the fireside chats with the American people? Where are Biden's attempts to corral votes among the Republican Senators on highly popular issues including paid family leave, lower drug prices and a clean-energy future?

For decades, the insider game in Congress has been the only game in town. That's why today we have the lowest corporate tax rate in America's modern history, the highest drug prices in the world, and have had 30 years without decisive Senate action on climate change. Alas, Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer seem to be at home in the backroom, even as the Democrats squander the opportunity to break the plutocracy -- government of, by, and for the super-rich.

We need a new politics, in which policies are openly debated in Congress, the public is kept well informed, and the people's representatives stand up for their constituents' needs rather than for the corporate lobbies.

It may seem naïve to believe that America could achieve this kind of politics, so deep is the role of money in politics, once again exposed in Virginia's expensive election. Yet we must try. The lobbyists are leading us to a nation starkly divided between rich and the poor while companies have free rein to trash the environment. We must fight back and reclaim politics for the common good.



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