Over at Slow Boring, Matt Yglesias has a piece in which he argues that the Democratic policymaking system focuses too much on cultivating team players and coalition-building and not enough on crafting technically sound policy ideas. Left-of-center policy advocates rarely make criticisms of the policies that come out of major liberal organizations, and even when they do, it is very difficult for those criticisms to get a fair hearing in the media or in the halls of Congress because journalists and staffers are naturally skeptical of anyone saying that the overwhelming consensus of dozens of policy analysts across multiple major organizations is simply wrong.
I speak from a place of experience on this. As Yglesias notes in his piece, I spent a couple of months last year pointing out that the Democratic childcare proposal would dramatically increase childcare prices for middle-class families right above the subsidy cliff. At the time, I was the only one publicly saying this (unless you also count the DC city government, which published a report saying the same thing). And I got a crazy amount of backlash for doing so.
Email blasts went out across the Hill telling everyone I was wrong. The Center for American Progress (CAP) ran a social media campaign claiming not only that I was wrong but also that the childcare proposal didn’t even have a subsidy cliff (it did). Childcare advocates got Politico’s Eleanor Mueller to write an attack on me that lined up quotes from Rasheed Malik of CAP, Melissa Boteach of the National Women’s Law Center (formerly at CAP), an anonymous “Democratic aide,” and even Senator Patty Murray, all saying in so many words that I was way off base.
All of this was bullshit. One of Yglesias’s think tank sources told him that this was a known problem with the childcare plan well before I pointed it out, but that the problem had nonetheless been suppressed for political reasons.
But how was it that nobody noticed this problem until Bruenig? I heard from someone who used to work at a well-regarded center-left think tank that one of her colleagues noticed this exact problem earlier. But when she raised the issue, she was told to keep quiet because the care groups have always been supportive on other issues.
In his piece, Yglesias also discusses the widespread ignorance among the media and members of Congress about what the party’s signature paid leave legislation, the FAMILY Act, actually did. In popular messaging, it was presented as a program to give new parents money and time off after they have a kid. In March of 2020, I began trying to get people to understand that this widespread understanding was wrong. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), only one-third of the benefits in the FAMILY Act go to new parents (almost all of the rest go to a kind of sickness leave), and 30 percent of new mothers aren’t even eligible for those benefits.
When the Build Back Better discourse got going, I resumed talking about this issue with the proposal on social media, including with various journalists who wrote about it. According to Yglesias, around this time he asked people — journalists, members of Congress, chiefs of staff — in private whether they knew about these strange details, and half of them apparently had no idea.
I experienced a few other instances of this policy dysfunction during the Build Back Better debate that Yglesias’s piece does not touch on.
In one case, right after a new draft of the BBB legislation was published, I pointed out on Twitter that the paid leave program had become more restrictive. Whereas previously someone was eligible provided they had worked at any point in the few months prior to taking leave, now they had to have done that and earned at least $2,000 in the prior two years. This new restriction was aimed at denying eligibility to the poorest workers in our society.
About an hour later, Eleanor Mueller, the same Politico journalist that the childcare advocates had lined up to write a piece against me, bizarrely said that I was wrong. She said instead that the new eligibility requirement “makes sure that people with erratic income can access paid leave even if they haven’t worked in the period immediately prior.” But this was false as a matter of basic reading comprehension. The $2,000 earnings requirement was on top of the requirement to have worked in the period immediately prior. It did not provide any new eligibility relative to the prior bill draft. It only restricted eligibility further.
More interesting than Mueller’s error, though, is contemplating how exactly she came to the point where she was rebutting me with a lie. I suppose it’s possible that she just saw my tweet (she doesn’t follow me) and, of her own volition, decided to rebut it. Perhaps she had already read the brand new statutory paid leave text and felt confident enough in her reading of it to say I was wrong. But the much more likely scenario is that the same people who fed her bullshit about my childcare analysis also fed her bullshit about this paid leave eligibility point. In other words, she was had by Democratic agents of policy misinformation.
In another case, I noticed in a new BBB draft that the Democrats’ pre-K plan had been dramatically scaled back relative to prior drafts. Whereas initially, the BBB called for the federal government to cover 100 percent of the costs of expanding pre-K in the first three years of the program, the newest draft of the BBB cut that to a fixed pot of $18 billion over three years, basically nothing.
When I wrote a piece about this, a significant member of Congress and their staff contacted me to talk about this development and, to my surprise, ask me how I even learned that the bill had been changed in this way. It hadn’t been reported in the media. The section-by-section fact sheet had not been updated to reflect the change. There was absolutely zero communication from anyone that the first three years of the pre-K plan had been basically eliminated. The only reason I knew it had happened, which I told this member, is that every time the BBB bill was updated, I would reread the entire statutory text of the childcare section (and a few other sections I was tracking) to spot changes.
It certainly looked like the small group of insiders responsible for shepherding the bill were hiding the ball even from other Democratic lawmakers.
Indeed, the information climate around the pre-K and childcare proposal funding got so bad that someone actually leaked to me an internal CBO document showing the CBO had assumed that a large minority of states would not participate in either program because the federal subsidies to do so were so minimal. Put differently, this document, along with the surrounding facts about the legislative history, strongly suggested that the Democrats were scaling back childcare and pre-K funding in subsequent drafts in order to get the CBO to conclude that a bunch of kids would never get any of the benefits, and thus the program would not cost very much.
This fact was not circulating in any national publication or policy circle. Imagine how desperate things must have gotten for someone to conclude that their best option for getting this information out was through me. This means that they had exhausted their internal options and had decided that dozens of policy figures and media figures far more prominent than me wouldn’t put it out there, or that it might otherwise imperil them professionally.
All of this points to a very sick policy environment. It’s also frankly antidemocratic. Rather than work toward creating the best possible policies we can through public debate, critique, and reform, the name of the game is messaging and information control, including within Congress. If this nightmarish process actually generated good policy that was put into law, maybe you could forgive people for engaging in it. But in reality, it keeps generating extremely broken policies that mostly don’t pass anyway and that fail to live up to expectations even when they do.
At People’s Policy Project, we sincerely do not partake in these kinds of games. Flawed policies get critiqued regardless of who presents them and who it upsets. This makes us a significant outlier in the policy world, which comes with its own challenges, especially when it comes to communicating with the media and lawmakers. Over the years, we have punched way above our weight when it comes to things like getting media hits, getting bills introduced or amended in Congress and state legislatures, and getting our ideas onto political platforms, including multiple presidential platforms. But it can still sometimes be difficult to convince a third party that it really is the case that some policy coming out of CAP or the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is trash when nobody is willing to say it.
The fact is that closing ranks and putting on a unified face is mostly an effective way to snow over journalists, staffers, and members of Congress, and that ultimately drives people to engage in this strategy. Many other motivations are present, such as career considerations, funder preferences, and general sociability with peers. But if the targets of these messaging campaigns, mostly media and lawmakers, were more skeptical and more willing to believe that the organizational juggernauts often put out badly conceived stuff, I think you’d probably see actors pursue other, more healthy policy-promotion strategies.