WASHINGTON – When Democrat Joe Biden ran for vice president in 2008, he delivered a speech in which he repeated a saying he attributed to his father: “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”
At the time, it was delivered as a criticism of the policies of Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee for president who was running against Biden’s ticket-mate, Barack Obama. Last week, though, when Biden unveiled the first budget request of his own presidency, some of his supporters in the more liberal corners of the Democratic Party may have found themselves wondering about Biden’s values.
While the $6 trillion budget request for fiscal year 2022 proposes significant spending on many of the party’s priorities, including education, support for families, clean energy and more, there are zero dollars allocated for a number of things Biden campaigned on heavily during his presidential run, including student loan forgiveness, a public option for health insurance and reform of the unemployment insurance system.
Democratic criticism muted
Reaction from Democrats on the party’s left flank to the Biden budget was muted, but members plainly noticed the absence of key proposals.
Congresswomen Barbara Lee and Pramila Jayapal, two prominent progressives among House Democrats, published an essay in Newsweek the day after the budget release that pointedly called for some of the items missing from the Biden proposal.
“Alongside expanded social welfare programs and unemployment insurance, we’re calling for a national, universal single-payer health care program that puts people before profits,” they wrote.
Student loan debt
On the campaign trail, Biden came around to a call from activists to institute debt forgiveness for people struggling under the burden of student debts. But he has never been willing to go as far as some in the party who have demanded blanket cancellation of student loans.
Still, he has called for forgiveness of up to $10,000 in loans for individuals earning less than $125,000 per year.
In an interview with The New York Times published on May 20, Biden said he didn’t support such an expansive program, saying that students who elect to go to pricey private universities ought not be subsidized by the public.
“The idea that you go to Penn, and you’re paying a total of 70,000 bucks a year, and the public should pay for that? I don’t agree,” he told columnist David Brooks.
The Biden administration’s decision not to include student debt relief in the budget was the second major disappointment for activists seeking debt relief. The administration had originally signaled it wanted to include $10,000 in student debt relief in its COVID-19 relief package, but no such provision was in the final bill.
Activists have been muted in their criticism, because many do not want Biden to go through Congress at all, preferring that he simply sign an executive order eliminating student debt. It’s a position that some in the party, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, loudly embrace.
“Student loan cancellation could occur today,” Warren told the publication Insider last week. “The president just needs to sign a piece of paper canceling that debt. It doesn’t take any act of Congress or any amendment to the budget.”
Public option for health insurance
Biden also campaigned on a promise to expand access to health care by adding a “public option” to the health insurance policies sold on the exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act signed into law by Obama. Biden repeatedly described such a move as “building on” the existing foundation of the ACA, and rejected calls to create a nationwide government-funded health insurance program — “Medicare for All” — advocated by others in the Democratic Party.
Last week’s budget request restated his commitment to “providing Americans with additional, lower-cost coverage choices by: creating a public option that would be available through the ACA marketplaces; and giving people age 60 and older the option to enroll in the Medicare program with the same premiums and benefits as current beneficiaries, but with financing separate from the Medicare Trust Fund.”
But the administration set aside no additional funding for such a program.
“Health care is a right, not a privilege,” according to the budget document. “Families need the financial security and peace of mind that comes with quality, affordable health coverage. In collaboration with the Congress, the president’s health care agenda would achieve this promise.”
Unemployment insurance reform
Campaigning during a pandemic that cost millions of Americans their jobs, Biden also pledged to create a more responsive unemployment insurance program that would be less variable from state to state, would automatically expand during economic downturns to prevent relief being blocked by partisan fighting in Washington, and would be more resistant to fraud.
However, as with debt relief and the public option, the administration set aside no funds for that, either. Instead, the administration argued that the pandemic relief efforts already passed have amounted to “setting the stage for broad changes to modernize the program.”
This and other omissions from the budget frustrated more than just the Democratic left. Budget hawks concerned about the deficit found the addition of items to the Biden agenda without identified spending to pay for them troubling.
“The budget doesn’t include all parts of the agenda,” said Marc Goldwein, senior vice president and senior policy director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Leaving the cost of other administration priorities out of the equation presents a distorted version of what the administration plans to spend, he said.
“We know there’s interest in health care, there’s interest in student debt changes. So, this is a lot of money, and a lot of borrowing.”
While he said he is pleased that Biden is offering measures to pay for some of his biggest proposals, Goldwein pointed out that there are no “pay-fors” associated with these additional agenda items, such as unemployment insurance, public option for health care and student loan forgiveness.