BBB Could Be the Greatest Legislative Achievement in 50 Years. So What’s Actually In It?

It feels like all we’ve been talking about for months is the “Build Back Better” plan. And yet, strangely, there’s very little public understanding of what it is. To opponents, it’s a wildly over-aggressive piece of wasteful social spending. To supporters, it’s a critical and long-overdue investment in neglected aspects of our society.

Now, the actual contents of the bill are finally taking shape. On the Great Ideas Podcast with Matt Robison, guest Ben Ritz, the Director of the Center for Funding America’s Future at the Progressive Policy Institute, walked through the mystery, the pitfalls, and the promise of the Build Back Better (BBB) bill. And he answered the question: is this bill really going to work and actually accomplish something good for America?

Listen to the full conversation here:


This conversation has been condensed and edited.

What has the Biden Administration already accomplished through the American Rescue Plan and the not-yet-passed infrastructure bill?

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan was the way to fill the gap left at the end of the Trump Administration and get America through the pandemic. It included a lot of spending on things like unemployment insurance, stimulus checks, and aid to state and local governments. And [looking at GDP and unemployment] I think there’s no question that it was effective at solving problems right now.

The infrastructure bill is about the future: where the Biden administration wanted to see our country go after the pandemic.  The idea is embodied in the expression “build back better.” The discussion then became about traditional infrastructure versus programs like paid leave and elder care that might not really qualify as the same sort of long-term investments. So those were divided into two different bills.

By the way, there is a third bill that everybody forgets about and it might be the most important one, which is the US Innovation and Competition Act, which focuses on research and development and long-term competitiveness.

There seems to have been two possible strategies for Democrats: do a little bit of everything in BBB, or have a more focused and disciplined approach around a few big objectives. Which did Democrats go with?

When we wrote a report on this a month ago, we proposed a roughly $2 trillion package where about half the money was for supporting working families, a third was used to combat climate change, and the rest of it was used to strengthen health care for people in need.  The framework we have today is very similar to that.

But underneath the hood, Congressional leaders took more of a grab bag approach in order to fit within the overall price tag limit and include a lot of competing interests. For example, the child tax credit: instead of making it permanent, part of the expansion is permanent, but another part of it expires after one year.  Universal pre-K only goes for six years for the same reason.  Then they snuck in an expansion of Medicare and home health care for older Americans.  Also, paid family and medical leave was not in the framework but might be creeping back in.

Overall it has unfortunately gone more in the direction of “do everything a little bit worse and temporarily,” and not as much “do a few things well and permanently” like I would have preferred.

What are the pieces that you are very confident are going to work and have a really great effect?

There are  two things that I’m most excited about.  First, the full refundability of the child tax credit. That means if the tax credit is more that you owe in taxes, you actually get a payment from the government.  This accounts for most of the poverty reduction from the child tax credit, and it is going to be huge for poor kids in America. Second, I think a lot of the climate provisions  could be very good for research and development, and also for expanding purchases of renewables and electric vehicles and moving toward clean energy.

Bottom line: is this ultimately a good bill? Will it work? 

It’s a little TBD because they’re still working on it.  But a lot of these programs, even some of the ones that I put on the cutting room floor when we did our report, are great ideas.  I do wish we had been able to prioritize and focus more.  Overall this could be great, but we’ll have to wait and see.

We share edited excerpts from the Great Ideas podcast every week that explain how policies work and present innovative solutions for problems. Please subscribe, and to hear more about BBB and everything that the Biden Administration has achieved, check out the full episode on Apple, Spotify, Google, Anchor, Breaker, Pocket, RadioPublic, or Stitcher