WASHINGTON ― When a small group of Democrats held up a procedural vote on President Joe Biden’s policy agenda in August, news stories described it as a rebellion by the moderates.
Their plan was to force a House vote on a bipartisan infrastructure bill before the House considered more ambitious legislation addressing climate change and the nation’s substandard treatment of families.
The gambit failed badly, and the moderates got nothing.
But they weren’t the moderates. They were an ad hoc gang of fewer than a dozen relatively conservative Democrats with no plan for success.
Meanwhile, there is an actual, organized group of 95 moderate House lawmakers known as the New Democrat Coalition. As their website says, they’re “pro-economic growth, pro-innovation, and fiscally responsible,” with an aversion to partisanship. And they have quietly backed the president’s plans while offering only mild strategy disagreements with progressives.
Their chairwoman, Rep. Suzan DelBene (Wash.), is a former Microsoft executive first elected to Congress in 2012. She exudes professionalism and eschews the kind of ultimatums that have plagued the legislative process lately.
“New Dems have always been a group that’s been forward-looking and focused on getting things done. We know that we don’t help anybody if we don’t get policy passed,” DelBene said in an interview at the Capitol. “We feel very responsible that we need to show governance can work and be part of that process.”
New Democrats have been at the center of Democratic politics since the 1990s. Bill Clinton called himself a New Democrat, and so did Barack Obama. But in terms of what policies they support, the New Dems of today, with DelBene helming their House coalition, are different. You could say there’s actually something “new” about them.
It’s all about giving people money. DelBene is one of the most prominent House supporters of the child allowance Democrats created this year by taking the child tax credit and turning it into a monthly advance refund. Payments of as much as $300 per child started in July for all households earning less than $150,000, which is the vast majority. The policy represents a radical break from the past, and has already slashed child poverty.
“If [the child allowance] can be made permanent, it is a watershed moment in the long history of the welfare state.”
– Molly Michelmore, professor of history at Washington and Lee University
Some Democrats started to call themselves “New Democrats” in the 1990s because they were trying to shed their popular image as the party of welfare. Clinton won the presidency in part with his pledge to “end welfare as we know it.” And with the help of a Republican Congress, he really did end welfare, a “win” for Democrats that helped ensure children would suffer the highest poverty rate of any age group for years to come.
In other words, the New Democrats once stood for taking money from parents, and now they stand for giving money to parents.
“This is a big deal: self-identified centrists embracing a landmark expansion of the state’s responsibility for the well-being of its citizens,” said Molly Michelmore, a professor of history at Washington and Lee University.
In her 2012 book “Tax and Spend,” Michelmore chronicled the race-based welfare backlash that scared Democrats out of trying to reduce material hardship in the latter decades of the 20th century. Instead, they often sought to help people indirectly, such as by promoting economic growth through tax incentives. Meanwhile, every other advanced country in the world started giving parents monthly cash benefits, in recognition of the free market’s total indifference to children and families.
To be sure, Democrats today love describing the new child tax credit as a tax cut, which is technically correct. But it’s unlike any tax cut that’s come before, in that people who make no money, and therefore aren’t required to file federal tax returns, can qualify for the full benefit.
“If it can be made permanent, it is a watershed moment in the long history of the welfare state,” Michelmore said.
Though DelBene says her dad’s job loss and determination to provide for his family motivated her political career, she is no bleeding-heart liberal. She describes her support of the tax credit with coldblooded corporate logic.
“We are very much focused on the data,” she said. “The data is very clear in terms of the impact we can have on the lives of children if we make an investment. For every dollar we spend on the child tax credit, there’s been estimates from $5 to $8 on return that we get.”
Child poverty winds up wasting as much as $1 trillion annually in lost adult wages, increased crime costs and higher health expenditures, according to a comprehensive 2019 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Spending $100 billion annually on cash benefits for parents ― roughly the cost of Democrats’ child tax credit ― could drastically reduce the costs to society when today’s children grow up.
The old thinking was that the right way to help children was to make their moms and dads get jobs, and so welfare benefits were predicated on “work requirements” that denied benefits to unemployed parents. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) tried to revive the concept in recent weeks, saying he wanted “work requirements” for the child tax credit. DelBene did not hesitate to put out statements saying new stipulations would hurt middle-class families; nobody but Manchin voiced support for the idea, and he seems to have backed off.
Democrats built the consensus within their party on turning the credit into a monthly benefit over a period of years. DelBene was a top co-sponsor of a 2019 bill that served as the framework for what ultimately became law as part of the American Rescue Plan this year.
But it didn’t happen just because Democrats had some good arguments in favor of reducing child poverty. The policy also resulted from the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans and President Donald Trump excitedly sent out pandemic relief checks to everyone they could, even people with no incomes. Having already agreed among themselves, Democrats seized the excitement over checks to create a child allowance as soon as they controlled Congress and the White House this year.
The monthly payments will stop after December unless Democrats continue them as part of the Build Back Better legislation they’re racing to complete in the coming weeks. Here’s where the New Democrats and the Congressional Progressive Caucus disagree ― the progressives want the bill to include as many new programs as possible, even if the bill’s limited budget headroom forces them to make the policies temporary.
DelBene has pushed for making the credit permanent, or at least to extend it through 2025 so that it expires at the same time as a host of Republican tax cuts, which would create an obvious opportunity to cut a deal regardless of which party controls Congress then. It’s one of four New Dem priorities for building back better, along with expanding federal health insurance coverage and reducing carbon emissions. Progressives want those things and more, including universal prekindergarten and child care subsidies.
“We’ve made it harder and harder for kids growing up today, so we need to fix that.”
– Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.)
It’s not clear if the New Dems are as cohesive a group as the progressives, a caucus that also boasts 95 members. (Some lawmakers are in both groups.) Led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, another Democrat from Washington state, the progressives held together this fall in threatening to vote against the infrastructure bill if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) brought it up for a vote before the Build Back Better bill. New Dems haven’t been tested in the same way.
Progressive caucus member Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) said there’s been a “remarkable degree of cooperation” lately among Democrats of different ideologies. It has a lot to do with the fact that Biden adopted such a progressive policy agenda after beating Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“We’ve got a president who’s really tackled stuff that people were surprised how aggressive and visionary he was,” Blumenauer said. “And I think people are reacting in a very positive way.”
In a meeting with Biden this week, DelBene urged the longest possible continuation of the child tax credit, though she declined to dish on the conversation.
“I continue to believe the right thing to do is to have the child tax credit through 2025 because that provides that certainty,” she said.
As of right now, Democrats are leaning toward extending the credit for only a year or two, but DelBene has not threatened to withhold support from the broader bill if she doesn’t get her way. That would be unprofessional.
I asked DelBene how her life would have been different if her parents had received monthly cash payments when she was a kid. The question provoked no sentimentality on her part.
“It might have helped my family a lot,” she said, before quickly adding that education gave her a chance to succeed.
“That fundamentally was what led me to run for Congress,” she said. “I felt like I had a chance. And we’ve made it harder and harder for kids growing up today, so we need to fix that.”