On Sunday, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia offered the American public a scapegoat in the shape of a state. He could not vote for the Build Back Better Act, he said, because of the people he represents. “If I can’t go home and explain it to the people of West Virginia, I can’t vote for it. And I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can’t,” he told Bret Baier on Fox News Sunday, a sentiment he repeated in a statement released later by his office. His colleagues, he added, “are determined to dramatically reshape our society in a way that leaves our country even more vulnerable to the threats we face.” In Manchin’s threat assessment, the national debt takes precedence over the needs of his own voters.
Manchin represents one of the poorest states in the union. Immiserated by centuries of extractive capitalism, the people of West Virginia have been failed for nearly as long by members of both political parties. By opposing Build Back Better, Manchin joins an established tradition. Though the Democratic senator’s position is complicated by the political realities of his conservative state, he’s much too hasty to declare defeat. The truth is he’s bound to his own right-wing ideology and a collection of business interests.
The Washington Post reported Monday that Manchin proposed his own deal to the Biden White House last week. Though that deal included funding for ten years of universal pre-K in addition to reduced spending on climate-change provisions important to Democrats, it excluded an extension of the enhanced child tax credit that is said to have lifted thousands out of poverty in his home state. There may yet be ground for Biden and Manchin to negotiate — even on the subject of child tax credits — but Manchin’s expressed commitment to heavy means-testing could leave many needy families in the cold.
On the child tax credit alone, local advocates have urged Manchin to back the bill. “There is no state that’s more impacted by the CTC,” Kelly Allen, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, told the Associated Press. “West Virginia, frankly, wasn’t doing great before the pandemic. So this is absolutely needed now and in the long term.” According to Allen, around “50,000 children in the state are in danger of slipping into poverty if the payments lapse, or the negotiations drag on so long that the Jan. 15 payment doesn’t happen,” the AP added.
Maybe that doesn’t bother Manchin. The moderate allegedly told fellow senators “he thought parents would waste monthly child tax credit payments on drugs instead of providing for their children,” HuffPost reported. If Americans got paid leave, Manchin said, “people would feign being sick and go on hunting trips,” another source told HuffPost. The report may be shocking, but it isn’t surprising. There’s been little public evidence that the needs of poor children and families weigh on Manchin at all.
His real priorities are perhaps most evident when Build Back Better’s environmental provisions are considered. The legislative package would create a number of investments designed to lower greenhouse-gas emissions, a goal that is nearly impossible for the country to meet if this bill — or another similarly expansive piece of environmental legislation — fails to pass. Nothing can pass without Manchin’s key 50th vote in the Senate. The bill also included programs that would benefit coal miners, a key Manchin constituency, amid an energy transition that could otherwise cost them their livelihoods. Citing several BBB provisions, including the extension of an excise tax paid by coal companies to fund benefits for black-lung patients, the United Mine Workers of America called on its longtime ally to reverse his position on the bill. “For those and other reasons, we are disappointed that the bill will not pass. We urge Senator Manchin to revisit his opposition to this legislation and work with his colleagues to pass something that will help keep coal miners working, and have a meaningful impact on our members, their families, and their communities,” the union’s international president, Cecil Roberts, said.
Other policies would help the nation move away from its reliance on fossil fuels including coal. Perhaps this bothers Manchin more than the prospect of impoverished families. Coal has helped make Manchin a wealthy man. As The Guardian reported in July, Manchin founded a coal brokerage called Enersystems, and though ownership has since passed to his son, he still controls a $5 million stake in the company that produced about $500,000 worth of income in 2020. He has raked in cash from oil and gas PACs, a sign of industry confidence in his vote.
With Manchin, dirty energy gets a major return on its investment at the expense of needy families. If Manchin cared for his constituents, he’d work with them, meeting them where they are to pitch them on policies that work. That’s basic politics. Families know, for example, that the enhanced child tax credit has been helpful to them. Manchin simply doesn’t hold their interests close. There’s competition for his attention, and powerful forces may have defeated poor families and black-lung patients for now.