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January 2022, Volume 28, Number 1

Congress: BBB, Reform

Congress approved the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November 2021 to provide $1 trillion in federal funds to improve roads, bridges and other “hard” infrastructure. The House approved HR 5376, the Build Back Better Act, on a 220-213 vote in November 2021, but the Senate failed to act. The BBB would spend $1.8 trillion (originally $3.5 trillion) on pre-K education, child care, green energy, and other “soft” human development programs.

The BBB includes $400 billion for universal preschool for children who are three and four years old, a cap on child care costs of seven percent of parental income, and $555 billion to promote clean energy and electric vehicles. The child tax credit, which provides $250 per month per child ($300 for children under six) would provide monthly payments to 90 percent of the 74 million US children under 18 rather than the once-a-year Earned Income Tax Credit that is currently paid to the parents of low earnings after they file income tax returns.

Measures dropped from the BBB included paid family leave, carrots and sticks for utilities to expand their production of renewable energy, and vision, dental and hearing benefits for Medicare recipients. BBB benefits would be paid for by higher taxes on businesses and wealthy individuals.

Most of the debate over the BBB, which originally included immigration reforms, was within the Democratic party. Progressives want to expand the role of the federal government in more areas of society, while moderates wanted to spend less on fewer targeted programs. Progressives won the debate in the House, and held down the cost of the BBB by funding many BBB programs for only a year or two. Republicans say that the cost of the BBB over a decade would be $5 trillion, or more than the cost of WWII in 2021 dollars.

The debate over the BBB was influenced by rising inflation, which rose at a seven percent annual rate in Fall 2021 and prompted fears that BBB spending might accelerate inflation by increasing the demand for goods and services. Republicans hope to win a majority in Congress in November 2022 elections by focusing on the three I’s of inflation, immigration and identity politics.

Media reports highlighted items in the BBB aimed at particular constituencies, from reinstating the ability of high-income earners to deduct more than $10,000 in state and local property taxes from their federal income taxes to allowing contingency fee lawyers to write off expenses as they incur them. Buyers of electric vehicles could qualify for a $12,500 tax credit if the car was built by unionized workers and had US-made batteries.

Immigration. Democrats want to enact the BBB in the Senate via reconciliation, which requires only a majority vote. The Senate parliamentarian three times rejected plans to include proposals to legalize unauthorize foreigners as not sufficiently germane to budget issues to be included in the BBB.

The December 2021 rejection involved a plan to grant parole, a five-year temporary legal status, to seven million unauthorized foreigners in the US before 2011 by moving the registry date from 1972 to 2010. Holders of the five-year work and residence permits would have been able to travel in and out of the US, but they would not have had access to federal means-tested benefits.

The Senate parliamentarian also rejected a proposal to recapture unused visas. Some nine million foreigners apply for the one million immigrant visas available each year, but per-country quotas can mean long waits for visas for applicants from countries such as India, even as some of the visas in particular categories go unused.

Democrats in 2020 promised a path to citizenship for almost all of the 11 million unauthorized foreigners in the US. Tensions emerged in 2021 between idealistic Democrats who want to legalize unauthorized foreigners in the US and pragmatic Democrats who want to avoid a new upsurge of unauthorized migrants.

Migrant advocates blamed Biden for not ending Title 42 expulsions of unauthorized border crossers, while restrictionists complained that many of the Central Americans who enter the US illegally and apply for asylum will be allowed to stay even if they do not qualify for refugee status. A record 146,925 foreign children under 18 entered the US in FY21.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was a bipartisan effort led by Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate and signed into law by President Reagan. Comprehensive immigration reform proposals approved by the Senate in 2006 and 2013 were also bipartisan, but more recent proposals to deal with unauthorized migration are introduced by only or mostly Democrats or Republicans.

The question at the heart of IRCA, and bedeviling current immigration reform proposals, is how to legalize unauthorized foreigners who are in the US and prevent another accumulation of millions more unauthorized foreigners. Democrats increasingly favor legalization without more enforcement, while Republicans often favor more enforcement with limited legalization.

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