Nearly $2 trillion in fresh relief benefits are expected to start flowing into Americans’ bank accounts within days. Now, Democrats are already looking to make some of them permanent.
With President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan signed into law, Democratic lawmakers are exploring ways to ensure that generous tax credits and other key aspects of the legislation will last well beyond the pandemic itself, either through additional rounds of extensions or more permanent measures.
Democratic leaders are banking on some of the aid provisions being so popular that letting them expire would be a political nightmare, painful enough for Americans that even Republicans couldn’t stand in the way.
At the top of the list is making permanent the expanded child tax credit, a move supporters believe could generate bipartisan backing and which analysts say would cut child poverty nearly in half. But some lawmakers and outside experts expect Democrats will also fight to keep the expansions of the earned income tax credit and a second program for child and dependent care, while further extensions of food assistance and boosted unemployment benefits are also likely.
“Getting something out of the [tax] code is often harder than getting something into the code,” House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.) said. “What we did is unlikely to go away.”
The approach suggests that Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan — as historic in size and scope as it is — could represent just the first step in a potentially significant expansion of the welfare state and a major shift toward enlarging the government’s role in helping the poorest Americans.
And that, in turn, could represent a major breakthrough for progressive leaders who have been pushing for more generous benefits for years.
“We have been focused on these issues a very long time, but the moment has met us,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who first introduced legislation to make the child tax credit permanent 18 years ago this week. “We are ready to move forward with a number of the areas that have not in the past been able to get that traction, that universal support.”
Biden said Friday that the bill “changes the paradigm” by moving away from the theory of trickle-down economics and instead putting working people first — the first time that has happened, he said, since Lyndon Johnson was president in the 1960s.
“It’s time that we build an economy that grows from the bottom up,” he said, “and the middle out.”
Cementing these priorities won’t be easy, however, as Republicans slam Biden’s relief bill as a bloated progressive wishlist and sound the alarm about soaring levels of deficit spending. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which advocates for deficit reduction, estimates that the $1.9 trillion plan could more than double in cost once various programs are made permanent or extended beyond their current expiration dates.
Beyond cost, other GOP lawmakers are raising concerns about extending programs that were passed as temporary measures under the guise of coronavirus relief when they have little to do with the pandemic.
“We need to see it through that lens,” said one policy adviser to Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.), who has been supportive of the child tax credit in the past. “Is it Covid relief, or is it just another Democrat priority?”
Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, said it’s clear Democrats are “eager to create bigger and larger” entitlement programs — the child tax credit but also family medical leave and a permanent role for the federal government in unemployment benefits. But he warned that sending checks to families would do little to fix the systemic issues that caused their hardship in the first place.
“Their tactic of merely spending more — which effectively lost the war on poverty — instead of addressing the underlying symptoms that caused that poverty, I think that will fail,” he said.
Brady said the inclusion of such generous benefits on a temporary basis through the rescue plan does not automatically mean they will be here to stay. But historically, it has been difficult if not impossible for politicians to undo tax cuts or tax credit expansions once they have been enacted. And Republicans have had more trouble making arguments against the deficit since they passed sweeping tax cuts under then-President Donald Trump in 2017, a plan that also cost more than $2 trillion, said Brian Riedl, a former longtime Republican economic aide.
“The prospect of a benefit cliff that will sock the middle class is way too unpopular for politicians to even contemplate,” said Riedl, who now works as an economic policy and tax expert with the right-leaning Manhattan Institute.
“The proper way to think of this bill,” he said, “is as much of a down payment on a wishlist of progressive goals that are going to be extended well beyond the pandemic and the recession.”
The child tax credit, which was expanded under the new law from $2,000 to a maximum of $3,600 per kid for one year, is poised to be the first temporary change that could soon become permanent, partly because Biden himself has expressed support for doing so.
On a call with House Democrats where the president endorsed the permanent extension, he also said his recommendation for getting it done was to “Listen to Rosa” DeLauro, according to three people who listened to or were briefed on the call.
Backers of the child tax credit, which was also made available under the relief plan to millions of low and no-income families, say there’s momentum in both the House and Senate behind making it permanent. They are exploring whether Biden’s second stimulus package — another multitrillion dollar plan that Democrats are hoping to release by late May — could be a vehicle for that move.
Barring progress there, Democrats could push for standalone legislation — which DeLauro introduced again last month with Reps. Suzan DelBene of Washington and Ritchie Torres of New York — or work it into a tax package passed before the end of the year.
“It’s fair to say the child tax credit was the most consequential but the least controversial provision of the American Rescue Plan,” Torres said. “So there’s reason for hope.”
Expanding it is also an idea that has in the past garnered support on both sides of the aisle — Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah last month introduced his own proposal on how to do so. And it’s an area where Democrats see a real opportunity to make a lasting change, given how difficult it would be not to extend the benefit once families grow to depend on regular payments straight to their bank accounts.
Democrats and advocates also argue that the plan will pay for itself given how much the U.S. already spends trying to combat child poverty each year. And they are focused on moving quickly to lock in programs that they have championed for years.
“Policies like this were good ideas before the pandemic, [and] even more important during the pandemic,” DelBene said. “And it’s incredibly important that we continue this effort in the long term because of the impact we can have.”