The recent congressional passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) once again proves the wisdom of favoring pragmatism over ideology. As The New York Times opined on 7 August after the Senate had passed the legislation, it reflected “the most significant federal investment in history to counter climate change and lower the cost of prescription drugs.”
Often I have written on LA Progressive about the dangers of being too ideological and of the need for pragmatic compromises. I quoted, for example, Pope Francis’s words to the U. S. Congress that the “pursuit of the common good…is the chief aim of all politics” and “a good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism.” (Apparently disagreeing with the pope’s advice and reflecting the continuing influence of climate denial, fossil-fuel lobbyists, and Trumpism, no Congressional Republicans voted for the IRA.)
I also cited former conservative Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch who praised Sen. Ted Kennedy, who although “a lion among liberals…never lost sight of the big picture and was willing to compromise on certain provisions in order to move forward on issues he believed important.” This last quote came from my September 2019 article entitled "A Tough Progressive Balancing Act: Passion, Tolerance, and Compromise." And about a year ago, my “What Congress Should Learn from Good Marriages indicated that partners in successful marriages know “of course, you sometimes have to compromise.”
What follows in this essay is not meant as a rebuke to any of my fellow progressives who have disdained compromise. As I realize, it is “a tough balancing act,” maintaining a progressive passion for justice while at the same time trying to pass legislation that will further the common good. Many senators do not even reflect that desire to balance such aims. I thought Ted Kennedy was one of the few who did; and in working out compromises with Senators Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (NY), with the blessing of President Biden, followed in Ted Kennedy’s footsteps. The main lesson Schumer took from the whole process was an important one for progressives—don’t storm off, cursing the likes of Manchin and Sinema, but keep persisting. “We kept persisting. We kept persisting with Senator Manchin. We kept persisting with Senator Sinema. And we got something, not everything everybody wanted, but something that's damn good.”
“Damn good”? To test the truth of that statement, let’s first look at the provisions of the bill, which are many. First, in terms of long-term global importance, are its climate stipulations. Our biggest climate-change problem is the increase of greenhouse gasses, which warm our planet. Compared to our pre-IRA policies, it is estimated that the IRA by 2030, as compared to 2005, would reduce such gases by an additional 15 percent—by 40 instead of 25 percent.
This goal would be achieved mainly by reducing demand for fossil fuels and increasing rebates, tax credits, and grants—and for longer periods—to encourage more people and manufacturers to purchase or produce electric vehicles and more energy efficient appliances and home improvements. (I know such policies work because in the early 1980s we solarized our front porch mainly because of a Michigan state tax credit.) Former Microsoft head Bill Gates, who has also written a book on climate change, is especially enthusiastic about the bill’s provisions to nudge U. S. manufacturing toward more climate-friendly behavior.
Although the bill is more aimed at incentives than punishments, the latter can also be found there. For example, it would fine companies for excess leaking of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) from oil and gas wells, pipelines and other infrastructure.
Perhaps the second most important aspect of the new bill relates to health care costs. One site summed up the changes regarding prescription drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries as follows, it “would lower at least some Medicare beneficiaries’ prescription costs on Part D, Medicare’s prescription drug program, and on Part B, which covers drugs administered in a doctor’s office, by:
- Requiring the federal government to negotiate prices for some Medicare drugs, 10 medications to start in 2026, rising to 20 in 2029.
- Capping seniors’ out-of-pocket costs at $2,000 a year for Medicare’s prescription drugs.
- Requiring rebates from drug companies if their prices increase faster than inflation.
- Expanding eligibility for prescription drug benefits in the Part D low-income subsidy program.
- Capping monthly insulin copays at $35.
- Making vaccines free, with no out-of-pocket costs.
- Limiting Part D premium increases.
In addition for those not on Medicare, the bill extends for three years the Affordable Care (sometimes referred to as “Obama Care”) Act’s expanded subsidies and greatly limits the rise of most out-of-pocket premium payments.
Another aspect of the bill provides over $60 billion to support low-income communities and communities of color that are especially affected by climate change. And still another provision provides roughly $21 billion for agricultural and forest conservation that would help reduce greenhouse gases. (See here for a detailed picture of the various bill provisions, plus the sources of revenue it would take in to pay for it.)
The main new way more than enough revenue would be gained to pay for the expenditures is by a tax increase on large multinational corporations that would now have to pay a minimum 15 percent tax; a new IRS crackdown on businesses and high-earning individuals that have previously evaded taxes; a new 1 percent tax on company stock buybacks; and various government savings related to drug prices.
Although it is debatable how much the new Inflation Reduction Act will reduce inflation, these steps would at least help by reducing the federal budget deficit. Moreover, convincing arguments exist that make the case that less dependence on fossil fuels and fewer climate-change related catastrophes (e.g., floods, droughts, wildfires) are also anti-inflationary.
Despite various Republican objections, it seems that the IRA overall serves the common good, especially regarding climate change and drug pricing, more than anything Republican legislators have suggested. Moreover, by demonstrating that Congressional Democrats can get something done and that the two main wings of their party can work together, can compromise and be effective legislators, strengthens their chances in upcoming mid-term elections, one that will be vitally important on any number of questions from climate to abortions.
Given all these considerations, it is difficult to understand why any progressives would regret passage of the bill. Sure, some of the compromises made to Senators Manchin and Sinema are distasteful, especially Sinema’s insistence that higher taxes on hedge fund and private equity managers be removed from the bill, but as Schumer noted, she “insisted it be taken out. The choice was take it out…or keep it in and let the bill die.” Moreover, some of the other concessions Manchin and Sinema obtained that would especially help residents of their states were not so bad. They included more support for miners with black lung disease, new incentives for companies to build solar and wind farms in areas where coal mines had recently closed, and drought relief for Arizona and other states in the Colorado River Basin.
In general progressives and those most concerned with the effects of climate change applauded passage of the IRA. Many of them bemoaned some of the concessions made to Manchin and Sinema and the removal of some provisions of President Biden’s Build Back Better plan, passed by the House of Representatives (but never the Senate) in November 2021. But they realized that such was politics.
Two individuals who have often written about the need for climate change legislation, environmentalist Bill McKibben and New York Times columnist David Wallace-Wells, stated that a great deal of the credit for passage of the IRA should go to environmental activists who have helped sway public opinion. The former wrote, “But this is a win engineered by everyone who ever wrote a letter to the editor, carried a sign at a march, went to jail blocking a pipeline, voted to divest a university endowment, sent ten dollars to a climate group, made their book club read a climate book.” The latter stated, “This bill is a compromise, obviously and outwardly. It is also a historic achievement for the climate left and a tribute to both its moral fervor and its political realism.”
This combination of fervor and “political realism” sounds a lot like my plea for coupling passion with realizing the need for compromise. Thus, I think Schumer was right: the main lesson to be learned from the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act is keep persisting, but do so in a way that combines passion and realism. Passion to create a better world, a more sustainable and just world that we can take some pride in passing on to future generations. But passion also to fuel us to keep working patiently at getting legislation passed, work that to be successful will accept the fact that not all, not even all of our own political party, will think alike or be influenced by the same pressure groups.
Hence, the type of persistence needed necessitates plenty of work—by our elected officials in Congress, by their staffs, by pressure groups, by all of us who are passionate about our planet and the welfare of those who live on it. And that work, like much work, might at times be drudgerous, but it should also be creative and imaginative.
Work, work, work. Persist, persist, persist. Be determined, but also patient. Progressives should push as far as they can, as senators like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Representative Pramila Jayapal (Wa), chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, did. But in the end, like those three, they should accept the best deal they can get. And then, once again, with renewed passion, begin another arduous struggle for another progressive priority.