President Joe Biden isn't letting a crisis go to waste.
His administration is using the pandemic as an excuse to push a list of preexisting Democratic policy priorities, few of which have much to do with COVID-19, and some of which were initially pitched as temporary measures.
But in last night's address to a joint Congress, Biden made clear that he wants to extend some these policies, turning COVID-era emergency measures into permanent expansions of federal power, using the virus as an excuse. For Biden, the pandemic has become a catchall justification for a wide array of big-government programs that he and the Democratic Party already wanted to pursue.
Take, for example, Biden's push to expand subsidies for health insurance purchased via the Affordable Care Act, the health law commonly known as Obamacare.
Biden's American Rescue Plan—the $1.9 trillion aid bill passed in March—included $34 billion to temporarily boost subsidies for health coverage purchased through Obamacare's marketplaces. The subsidy boost was set to last for two years.
One could perhaps argue that a pandemic that left millions out of work would justify a temporary program to make health insurance premiums less directly costly for struggling low-income individuals.
But Biden's subsidy expansion was structured in a way that would expand subsidy availability to families with quite high incomes. The expanded subsidy is tied to local premiums, and so it varies geographically. In some parts of the country, however, it could make tens of thousands of dollars in annual subsidies available to households earning $350,000 a year.
In a pandemic-induced recession whose negative economic effects have been concentrated almost entirely at the bottom of the income ladder, there's no non-ridiculous way to justify that sort of handout to the well-off as pandemic relief. It's just a straightforward bid to make an existing big-government program even bigger.
And what was initially touted as a temporary subsidy expansion is now being upsold as a permanent upgrade. Last night, Biden announced that he wants to extend the subsidy boost indefinitely, which would cost an estimated $200 billion over the next decade. He then went on to praise Obamacare as a "lifeline for millions of Americans" and insist that "the pandemic has demonstrated how badly it is needed."
The pandemic, in other words, was a convenient excuse—first for a temporary expansion of an already large federal program, then for an even more expensive permanent expansion of that same program. Big government for now swiftly becomes bigger government forever.
Biden is using this playbook to extend and expand other programs as well. His $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan also included a one-year expansion of the child tax credit. Much of it is refundable, and the plan allows for it to be paid monthly, meaning that it is essentially a regular check cut to parents by the government. As a New York Times report put it recently: "Though framed in technocratic terms as an expansion of an existing tax credit, it is essentially a guaranteed income for families with children."
The one-year cost of expanding the child tax credit was about $100 billion. In last night's speech, Biden pushed Congress to extend the boost to 2025, likely costing hundreds of billions more. And while some of the benefits would go to low-income households, this plan, too, is structured in a way that delivers benefits to families with six-figure earnings; the White House fact sheet offers an example of a family of four making $100,000 a year that would see thousands of dollars in benefits from this plan.
If Biden's cash for kids program is extended through 2025, it would be unlikely to end there. It might be reauthorized and extended on a rolling basis, but it would effectively become an ongoing program, another untouchable entitlement in America's already sizable federal policy firmament. Indeed, some Democrats have already publicly pushed the president to simply make the program permanent. And from there, it's easy to imagine that the next push would be to make the benefit even larger. Big government has already become bigger government, and under Biden, it is on track to grow larger and larger still.
And somehow it's all justified by the pandemic. His speech last night started with the words, "Tonight, I come to talk about crisis." As he took office in January, he said, he had "inherited a nation in crisis." The speech, and its laundry list of pricey new programs and policies, was thus framed as an extended response to that crisis.
It's not. In part that's because so many of his proposals are either poorly targeted (large checks for households with stable six-figure incomes) or totally irrelevant to any actual problems stemming from the pandemic (bailouts for union pension funds).
And in part because the crisis itself is fading from the scene, or at least becoming less severe. Thanks to vaccines, COVID-19 cases and deaths are falling rapidly. And thanks to the improving picture around coronavirus health and safety, the economy is rebounding too. The crisis is, if not entirely gone, much less of one than it was a few months ago, and thus much less of a plausible justification for extreme measures in response. Yet even as COVID fades away, Biden is pursuing massive expansions of federal power premised on crisis response.
That's because despite the speech's framing, crisis response isn't really the goal—or, at the very least, it's only part of it. Biden is pursuing a historically unprecedented expansion of government spending and power for its own sake. And no one is really trying to hide it either. The post-speech headline at the top of The New York Times main page this morning read, "Biden Makes Case to Vastly Expand Government's Role." It described his speech as an "ambitious agenda to rewrite the American social compact."
Biden's presidency is barely three months old, but it's already fallen into a predictable pattern: Point to the pandemic. Declare that it's an emergency, and that something must be done. Then insist on an expensive, expansive policy overhaul that Democrats have pushed for years—first, in some cases, as a temporary measure, and then, inevitably, for much longer. It's deceptive and dangerous. And if he keeps this up, he may leave a new crisis in his wake.