In Spending Bill, Democrats Rely on Budget Gimmicks They Once Derided

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) speaks during a television interview at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021. (Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times) WASHINGTON — At an impromptu news conference this week, Sen. Joe Manchin lamented the “shell games” and “budget gimmicks” he said his party was using to artificially reduce the $1.85 trillion price tag of the spending bill moving through Congress, saying the real cost was probably double that amount.

“This is a recipe for economic crisis,” Manchin, D-W.Va., warned, suggesting that he would not support a bill without understanding its potential impact on the economy.

Four years ago, as Republicans marched ahead with a $1.5 trillion tax cut, top Democrats in Congress assailed them for hiding the true cost of the legislation, arguing that it was “loaded with budget gimmicks” and packed with “stealthy tax tricks” that would saddle the nation with even more debt. Now, as they race to finish their own trillion-dollar domestic policy package, Democrats are employing their own maneuvers to downplay the cost of their bill.

President Joe Biden’s new framework for tackling climate change, bolstering child care and a wide range of other economic programs assumes that the package will be fully paid for with an estimated $2 trillion in tax increases on corporations and high earners.

But budget experts, along with some moderate Democrats, say the true cost of the legislation will be closer to $4 trillion because of the way the programs are structured and accounted for in the budgetary process. For instance, many of the provisions in Biden’s framework would expire, or “sunset” after only few years, even though Democrats anticipate that they would eventually be extended.

The assumption that spending on those programs will cease in a few years reduces their overall cost during the 10-year budget window that Congress uses to determine whether a bill will add to the federal deficit. That is especially important given the way in which Democrats are trying to pass this particular bill. Lawmakers have limited room for adding to the deficit over a 10-year period because of the budget procedure known as reconciliation that will allow them to pass the legislation without Republican votes.

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