Build Back Better: Will Congress be the Grinch who steals Christmas hope?
With time expiring in 2021, leaders in the U.S. Senate joined faith leaders this week for a Capitol Hill news conference to urge passage of the Build Back Better Act. Within a day, their quest grew more challenging, as President Biden and congressional leaders acknowledged they were not ready to enact this historic legislation before Christmas. The Senate will return on January 3, a week earlier than originally planned, to resume work on the bill.
Three Senators speaking at the event – Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Patty Murray (D-WA), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) – each emphasized different parts of Build Back Better as having the potential to transform the U.S. and lift up families in need.
Brown highlighted housing and the expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC) as two reasons the legislation should pass. “This is the biggest investment in first-generation home-buyers, the down payment assistance, to investing in public housing, to investing in making sure housing is environmentally sound,” Brown said.
Regarding the CTC, Brown said, “It makes all the difference in the world for families struggling to pay the rent, families struggling to pay for child care and diapers and just putting food on the table.”
Murray discussed the urgent need to address Americans’ child care concerns. “For parents across the country, child care is unaffordable, it is unavailable, and it is absolutely essential,” she said. “As any parent knows, you cannot go to work if you do not have any options to make sure your kids are taken care of. Yet child care costs more today than many families pay for rent or mortgage or even college tuition. But even for those who can afford it, many cannot find it. Nearly half of parents nationwide do not have enough child care providers in their own communities.”
Murray said Build Back Better makes “historic investments to lower families’ child care costs, help states invest in opening new child care providers, raise wages for early childhood workforce, and add more child care openings.”
Perhaps in response to misstated concerns expressed by Build Back Better opponents, Murray said parents will have a wide array of choices when it comes to choosing child care and pre-K. “And that includes options from our faith-based providers,” she said. “Families from across our country from all faiths rely on religious providers and family-based providers for child care, which is why Build Back Better makes sure faith-based providers are eligible. Under our plan, faith-based providers can participate in the program in the same way that all providers do and can continue to serve our communities and care for our kids.”
Wyden pointed to lowering the cost of prescription drugs as one highlight of the Build Back Better Act. He said the plan caps the price of insulin, which many elderly patients with diabetes rely on, and requires that the annual cost of prescription drugs does not rise faster than the inflation rate. It also caps the amount of annual, out-of-pocket costs a patient must pay for prescription drugs.
“Are you for Big Pharma that has resisted negotiations on behalf of 50 million seniors who feel like they are getting mugged at the pharmacy counter?” he asked. “Or are you for those seniors who are trying to afford their cancer medication or their arthritis medication or other kinds of essential medicines…who are cutting up their pills because they can’t afford them. They’re avoiding taking their pills. They’re saying, you know, maybe I’m going to cut back on a meal in order to afford my medicine.”
Also speaking at this week’s news conference were a variety of faith-based leaders. Mary Novak, Executive Director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, argued that the U.S. can afford to pay for services that help struggling families, but that everyone must pay their fair share.
“The American Dream is really the American illusion of fairness,” she said. “And this illusion hides the reality that we have a tax system that provides trillions of dollars in benefits to the wealthiest in our nation while leaving the rest of us behind. When we finally admit that poverty is a policy choice, we can then be clear that our policy makers can make different choices. And when we do this, we will be able to see that we really do have enough to go around.”
Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, discussed several ways in which Build Back Better addresses centuries of systemic racism; one area he emphasized was health care.
“The enduring legacy of slavery for more than 400 years of systemic racism has created significant and racial health care disparities as communities of color are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and chronic health conditions, infant mortality, and barriers to care,” he said. “Congress must address the maternal mortality crisis that disproportionately affects women of color and close the Medicaid coverage gap to provide insurance to the 2.2 million low-income people in 12 states that have failed to expand Medicaid.”
Galen Carey, Vice President of Government Relations for the National Association of Evangelicals, noted — as did many speakers – that the December 15 round of expanded CTC benefits will be the last monthly benefits paid out unless Congress acts.
“Over the years, both Republicans and Democrats have proposed and secured important improvements in the Child Tax Credit,” he said. “It now stands as one of our most important public policy achievements in the fight against child poverty. But this sterling bipartisan success story will end…unless Congress acts to extend CTC benefits. This would be an unforced error with far-reaching consequences.”
Rev. Adam Taylor, President of Sojourners, wrapped up the news conference by placing the Build Back Better deliberations in the context of Christmas and the Advent season.
“In this Advent season, members of Congress have an urgent opportunity – dare I say, an urgent responsibility – to provide hopeful good news to families, to kids, and to communities across the country by passing the Build Back Better Act,” he said. “So the most important question before us in these last days before Christmas is this: will Congress be the Scrooge that denies and discontinues monthly benefits to children through the tax credit, which literally expires today and provides a lifeline of support to children and families? Or will Congress be the Grinch who steals Christmas hope? Or will you be the ones who spread and multiply hope across this land by passing the Build Back Better Act? Together, let us pass this Act and choose hope. Let us spread good news.”