Is the reconciliation bill, which can be found here, really a chance for America to Build Back Better, or is it a massive income transfer program to favored Democratic constituency groups?  Unfortunately, it appears to be the latter.

Since our inception, The New Center has offered several ambitious policy solutions to reckon with climate change, healthcare, education, and other priorities addressed in the reconciliation bill. But far too much of the bill appears to funnel money to organized groups and constituencies that have lobbied for years for more government largesse. Perhaps that is why 39% of Americans believe the Build Back Better Act will have a negative impact on their lives while only 34% think it will be positive.

The bill does have some good ideas that will benefit a broad spectrum of Americans, but far too much of it just picks winners among favored Democratic groups or funds significant expansions of federal agencies.

The biggest winner is the climate lobby, which routinely donates tens of millions of dollars to Democratic campaigns. The Build Back Better Act hands the climate lobby $555 billion in subsidies in the name of combating climate change and adopting cleaner energy sources. In reality, the reconciliation bill will forcibly green the U.S. consumer, doing more to ensure Elon Musk stays the world’s richest person than actually fight climate change. Under this bill, Americans will drive a more expensive and less practical electric car subsidized by the government. They will continue to live in the same houses with new, government-subsidized power systems. Billions of dollars will go to Environmental Justice Block Grants doled out to the exclusively Democratic constituencies that qualify.

Any serious effort to combat climate change would begin with the recognition that the United States is responsible for just 14% of global CO2 emissions. The single biggest contribution we can make, then, is developing breakthrough energy technologies that are affordable and scalable enough for developing countries like India and China to embrace. Yet the Build Back Better Act is instead full of provisions like this:

  • 15003 includes $9 billion for farming programs that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, coupled with roughly $1 billion more to create climate hubs that offer technical assistance for climate change
  • 30116 provides $5 billion to the EPA to dole out to localities for carbon emission reduction plans
  • 30202 provides another $3 billion in “Climate Justice Block Grants” that go to projects in disadvantaged communities. There are no requirements that the selected projects actually reduce pollution
  • 30412 allocates $6 billion in subsidies for homeowners to make their homes more sustainable
  • 40009 provides $2 billion for climate-related improvements in rural rental housing
  • 30444 sends $5 billion to the Department of Energy’s fund for “low-carbon investments in energy communities”
  • 50004 provides $500 million for “sustainability and environmental programs”
  • 70201 earmarks $6 billion for coastal climate resilience programs
  • 70301/05 spends $181 million to save endangered species
  • 71201/71301 curtails domestic oil and gas leases, increasing dependence on foreign oil and raising the price of existing government leases
  • 80007 provides the GSA with $975 million for “environmental sustainability programs”
  • 80008 gives the GSA another $3.25 billion to buy more expensive, low carbon construction materials
  • 110019 allocates $900 million in reimbursements for higher-cost construction materials that meet new climate requirements
  • 90016 is an additional $100 million of environmental research that goes only to “minority-serving institutions”
  • 110010 spends $500 million for GSA green buildings retrofitting
  • 110011/13 includes $1.25 billion for the replacement of facilities damaged by climate change and remediation of climate change at ports
  • 26001 provides $7 billion to create new climate justice advocates in service groups like Americorps. These grants are only for projects related to “climate resilience and mitigation”
  • 26002 provides another $450 million to nontraditional climate apprenticeship programs

On the positive side of the ledger, The Build Back Better Act does nearly double the budget of the Department of Energy’s Loan Program Office (LPO), a relatively successful project to give clean energy innovators access to capital. The LPO has kept pace with private lenders in terms of loan loss rates while also creating thousands of jobs and spurring technological progress. While it could use some reform to ensure it is funding earlier stage research and technologies—as opposed to picking commercial winners and losers—the LPO has carved out an important role in funding research and innovation that might be too risky or expensive for the private sector alone

Many of the Build Back Better Act’s provisions also function as handouts to unions and labor, sometimes explicitly. And given the reliably Democratic history of American unions, it is not hard to understand why. Between 2019 and 2020, labor unions spent over $80 million on political campaigns, 88% of which went to Democrats.

A key group here is the teachers’ unions. The bill does little to change the failing education system. America’s K-12 students are ranked 38th in math and 24th in science globally, yet the bill mostly funds the hiring of tens of thousands of new potential members of teachers unions as well as raises for the over 125,000 unionized pre-school teachers and childcare workers.

The bill also provides rewards to higher education. Professors and university administrators, who donated five times as much to President Biden than to former President Trump in their 2020 campaigns, will receive sizable public grants:

Similarly, when it comes to healthcare, billions go to creating new potential members of the Services Employees International (SEIU,) the largest union of healthcare workers and an almost exclusively (97%) Democratic donor:

The United Auto Workers (UAW), one of the largest unions in North America, also profits from this bill. Despite donating “only” 73% to Democrats in 2020, the UAW spent 99% of its contributions on Democrats in the previous 28 years.

In addition to unions, other reliably Democratic constituencies receive hefty rewards from this bill. From subsidizing electric bikes for well-off urbanites to prioritizing race-based over needs-based funding, the Build Back Better Act is often explicitly political in its choices. 

Childcare benefits in the bill are weighted toward single mothers—who vote 8 to 1 Democratic—and against married couples and people who are working.

Then there is Hawaii, which represents only 0.4% of the US population but is the third most Democratic leaning state in America. Hawaii receives more exclusively dedicated funding than the ten most populous states combined.

As to more universal benefits, they are propped up by accounting gimmicks. The $400 billion in childcare and pre-school benefits is priced over ten years but expires in six. The increased child-care credit only lasts for one year. The expanded benefits to buy Affordable Care Act healthcare plans run out in 2025. If these provisions are indeed extended over the full ten years, the true cost of the bill is closer to $4 trillion than the stated $1.75 trillion.

Yet despite the massive price tag, some of Americans’ top priorities still receive only minimal attention in the Build Back Better Act. That is especially the case for Covid-19, which has taken 750,000 American lives and counting but is frequently slighted in favor of climate relief.

And even in the provisions that do address climate change, the bill’s priorities are questionable:

Despite doling out billions for electric vehicles and “climate justice grants”, the Build Back Better Act ironically underinvests against one of the most threatening aspects of climate change. Natural disasters are becoming stronger and more common, and investments in hurricane detection could help mitigate catastrophic damage.

The opioid epidemic is also under-represented in this bill. In the 12-month period ending in March 2021, overdose deaths reached an all-time high of roughly 100,000. The actual number is likely higher than that due to inadequate data on the subject, according to the CDC. Yet:

If these top priorities are going unaddressed because the Build Back Better Act is at its maximum spending capacity, then perhaps there are some less practical provisions that funding can be drawn from:

In isolation, a member of Congress could make a case for why many of the programs in the reconciliation bill are important. But it is very hard to make the case that these provisions represent any kind of thoughtful or deliberate policymaking. In ways large and small, this bill doles out benefits to Democratic constituencies at the expense of others. Much of the funds have no connection to the accountability metrics that would matter to the American people, such as better performing schools or reductions in the cost or carbon emissions of our energy. Race is often put over need as the selection criteria. Measures to fight Climate change are not paired with others to enhance energy independence, even as gas prices are soaring. Ideology on issues is often mandated and rewarded. As usual, a one-party bill rewards one party’s core interest groups.

Is this actually Building Back Better? You be the judge.

Next week Virginia will host a gubernatorial election that many see as a bellwether for the 2022 midterm elections. And of late, Virginia has become ground zero for an emerging national debate over critical race theory (CRT) and the composition of public school curriculums.

Previously, The New Center produced a primer explaining CRT in the words of its chief proponents, including the scholar Richard Delgado who said: 

“The critical race theory movement is a collection of activists and scholars interested in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power…Unlike traditional civil rights, which embraces incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.”

Now, we have surveyed the latest public opinion research to pin down what the American people really think of CRT and how race should be taught in schools.

  1. Many Americans are unfamiliar with the specifics of critical race theory

According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll from July 2021, a majority—57%—of Americans are not familiar with CRT. And it turns out the ones who claim they are familiar with CRT do not know too much about its specific tenets. Only three in ten respondents who knew of CRT could answer a few questions about what the theory entails. 

CRT is a highly politicized topic, so it follows that politically involved Americans are more likely to know about CRT than their peers. According to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll from June 2021, nearly three quarters of self-proclaimed conservatives and liberals were familiar with CRT while less than half of moderates could say the same.

  1. Most who are familiar with critical race theory have an unfavorable view of it

An Economist/YouGov poll from June 2021 found that 58% of Americans familiar with CRT do not like it. 38% were in favor of it, and only four percent of those who knew about CRT did not have an opinion. For the population as a whole, about 13% of people supported CRT, 20% opposed it, and the rest were unfamiliar with it. 

  1. More Americans do not want critical race theory in the classroom than those who do

That’s according to the Yahoo News/YouGov poll. Nearly half—49%—of those who know about critical race theory opposed exposing students to it, while only 37% were in favor. The poll found over nine in ten Republicans did not support teaching CRT, while three quarters of Democrats were in favor. White people were more likely to oppose teaching CRT, with 55% against and only 33% for it. Black and Hispanic people, on the other hand, supported teaching it at higher rates. 43% of Hispanic and 62% of black respondents were in favor of CRT curricula.

  1. The vast majority of educators report they are not teaching critical race theory

EdWeek’s July 2021 national survey of K-12 educators found that only eight percent of all teachers reported teaching or discussing CRT with their students. While one in five teachers in urban schools had discussed the topic, only 6% of rural and suburban teachers—the largest group—said they had done so. 

Further, many teachers do not want to teach CRT. The American Association of Educators, which represents K-12 teachers across the country, found that only 11% of their members believed they should be required to teach CRT. Additionally, more than half of their members thought they should not be allowed to teach CRT at all.

  1. Most parents want their children to learn about the history of slavery and discrimination in the U.S., but not that the country is inherently racist.

A September 2021 poll from USA Today/Ipsos sought to understand what exactly parents want their children to learn about race. Over three quarters of parents supported teaching the history of slavery and racism, and 63% of parents wanted schools to teach the ongoing effects of racism today. Twenty-two percent of parents wanted their children to start learning about racism in kindergarten, and the majority believed sometime during or before fourth grade is appropriate.

But Americans do not want their children to think race infuses every facet of our society. In June 2021, a Harvard/Harris poll found that 61% of people do not think students should learn that the U.S. is “structurally racist.”

  1. Statewide mandates are an unpopular approach to stopping critical race theory curricula. 

As of October 2021, 13 states have banned critical race theory or some of its associated tenets from school curricula. Several other states are trying or planning to do the same thing. 

But even though the plurality of Americans oppose CRT, most do not approve of state-level authorities stepping in to ban it. 54% of Iowans, whose governor signed an anti-CRT law in June, opposed the move. Similarly, 51% of New Hampshirites opposed the Granite State’s ban on teaching CRT and other divisive racial topics. Perhaps Americans favor more localized decision making when it comes to school curricula.

  1. Americans today seem more focused on what divides different races than what unites them. Teaching about race has only gotten more divisive in recent years. 

A 1998 survey from Public Agenda about views on race in America found that 86% of white parents, 81% of black parents, and 80% of Hispanic parents would be concerned if a teacher “taught that America was, and still is, a fundamentally racist country.” By even larger margins, parents felt that there was too much focus on “what separates different ethnic and racial groups and not enough on what they have in common.”

But a 2020 poll from the Wall Street Journal found that only 50% of Americans think it is better to focus on what people with different racial backgrounds have in common, a nearly 40-point drop from the 1998 consensus.

Local school boards are suddenly in the national spotlight. School board recalls have more than doubled this year. Parents and others angry about Covid-19 precautions, the impact of remote learning, and potential curriculum changes involving critical race theory have demonstrated en masse at school board meetings across the country. Some of these demonstrations have escalated to violence or threats of it. 

Now, Attorney General Merrick Garland has deployed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to maintain safety at school board meetings. What exactly will they be doing? Can, and should, the FBI get involved in local school board affairs? The New Center investigated to find out. 

What did Garland order? 

On October 4, Garland issued a memo to address the security of school board members and school administrators. In the memo, Garland expressed concern over recent events at school board meetings that “are not only illegal” but also “run counter to our nation’s core values.” Garland directed the FBI to meet with officials in all 90 federal judicial districts to strategize about threats against school board members. Additionally, the meetings will establish lines of communication for local officials to report threats and attacks.

What prompted Garland’s memo? 

Garland’s memo came just days after a letter to President Biden from the National School Boards Association (NSBA), an advocacy group representing local school boards. The letter claims there are a “growing number” of acts of violence and intimidation directed toward school board members. The letter requests assistance from federal law enforcement agencies in identifying and addressing these dangers. 

Are school board members in danger?

The NSBA cites 20 concerning incidents that they feel necessitate federal involvement. Most of these are cases of protesters non-violently disrupting school board meetings, but others are more malicious. The letter references two threats of violence to individual school board members, one instance of a man using the Nazi salute and praising Hitler at a school board meeting, and one instance of a man striking a school official during a particularly rambunctious meeting.

For perspective, there are some 13,800 public school districts in the U.S., and nearly as many school boards. The vast majority of school board interactions are peaceful.

Does the FBI have the authority to get involved? 

The NSBA’s letter invokes several laws and other factors that they believe would justify federal intervention. The NSBA argues that some of these acts are akin to domestic terrorism pursuant to the PATRIOT Act and that others, like the Nazi salute, fall under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The NSBA also claims the attacks affect interstate commerce and emphasizes that at least one threat was sent via the U.S. Postal Service, which can warrant federal attention. 

But some believe the FBI’s involvement would constitute an abuse of federal authority. Former Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), author of the PATRIOT Act, denounced its use in this case as the incidents in question do not reflect the definition of terrorism under the Act. Catherine Truitt, North Carolina’s State Superintendent, quipped that sending the FBI to address isolated acts of violence “is like killing a fly with a hammer.” Even some of the NSBA’s own affiliates disagree with the letter. The Virginia chapter, which represents the embattled Loudoun County school board, rejected assistance from the FBI in favor of state and local law enforcement. 

Why is the order controversial?

Some critics of the FBI’s involvement suggest it’s part of an attempt to silence ideological opponents of the Biden administration. Although the text of Garland’s memo says the FBI will only be investigating violence and threats, Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Chistopher Rufo suggests the order is actually “designed to suppress speech and assembly and to justify the further federalization of education policy.” 

Other critics, like the 11 Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, are more concerned about the FBI appearing to target ideological dissidents. In a letter to Garland, the Senators argue that, even if unintentionally, Garland’s memo deters peaceful expression at school board meetings and chills free speech in America. The 11 Senators condemn violence and welcome the FBI’s help in maintaining safety, but they ask Garland to make clear that only violence and legitimate threats will be investigated—not constitutionally protected speech.