The Inflation Reduction Act is by far the biggest investment ever made in the future.
When Joe Biden won the 2020 election, it was a moment of relief and exultation. When it mattered most, Americans chose wisdom over ignorance, expertise over ego, inclusion over racism, and a progressive vision of the future over an imaginary past.
However, there was a cloud on the horizon. Although Biden won the presidency, he was dealt a weak hand. Even with a near-miraculous double victory in Georgia, the Senate was tied 50-50, so the only way to pass anything was with unanimity from Democrats plus Vice President Harris’ tiebreaker vote. Worse, one of those Democrats was Joe Manchin from ultraconservative West Virginia, and another was the erratic, egotistical Kyrsten Sinema.
(We take it for granted, though we shouldn’t, that Republicans will vote in lockstep against a Democratic president’s proposals to deny him a win, even if that hurts the country as a whole. That pattern was well-established under President Obama and there was no reason to expect it would be any different this time.)
With Manchin and Sinema calling the shots, the outlook for an ambitious progressive agenda was dimmed. Sure enough, the months since Biden’s inauguration brought one frustration after another. Voting rights, filibuster reform, and other progressive priorities fizzled out.
The bitterest defeat was the Build Back Better plan, Biden’s signature domestic agenda, which included universal pre-K, paid family leave, free community college, Medicare expansion, and huge investments to fight climate change. It would have been the biggest progressive advance since the Great Society. But Manchin vacillated for months, first raising our hopes, then dashing them when he walked away from a deal.
But at the eleventh hour, with midterms approaching, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin suddenly announced a deal on a bill no one had heard of before. The new compromise, the Inflation Reduction Act (now that’s smart political framing!) isn’t the whole Build Back Better plan, but it preserves large parts of it. It raises corporate taxes, frees Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, fully funds the IRS to catch tax cheats, and shores up Obamacare.
Most importantly, it keeps the most critical parts: the clean-energy investments that are essential to fulfilling America’s climate commitments. It creates tax credits for solar panels, wind turbines, heat pumps, electric vehicles, and more. It sets a fee for methane, a potent greenhouse gas. It funds carbon capture, clean hydrogen, reforestation, coastal protection, and a federal Green Bank to invest in environmental justice for low-income communities. All told, it invests $380 billion in the future. (And yes, it will reduce inflation—by buffering consumers from the increasing scarcity and price shocks of fossil-fuel energy.)
Health care and education are important, but climate change is the only crisis that threatens civilization as a whole, and it comes with a time limit. The longer we wait, the worse it will get. If we want to avoid the worst repercussions, it’s desperately urgent that we start now.
On that score, the IRA delivers. It has some ugly compromises on fossil-fuel drilling, but the good far outweighs the bad. Experts estimate that it will reduce U.S. carbon emissions by a billion tons by 2030, to 40% below their 2005 high, which puts us within striking distance of our Paris Agreement pledge. It’s by far the biggest investment the United States has ever made to fight climate change. With the stroke of a pen, it will transform us from a climate laggard to a global leader.
Historically, the Senate has been where progressive ideas go to die. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama tried to pass climate legislation, and both were stymied there. Biden and Schumer’s successful passage of the IRA breaks a three-decade logjam—and they did it with the narrowest possible majority! It’s truly a historic triumph.
In fact, the Inflation Reduction Act is just the cherry on top of a surprising run of legislative achievement. This could end up being one of the most productive and progressive Congresses in decades, which is even more impressive considering how narrow Biden’s majorities are compared to LBJ’s.
Just consider what else Democrats got done:
- The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, better known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which spends $1.2 trillion to remove lead water pipes, expand broadband to underserved regions, repair crumbling roads and bridges, make huge investments in mass transit, clean up polluted Superfund sites, build out a national network of EV chargers, and upgrade the power grid to support clean energy, among other things;
- The PACT Act, which expands health care for 3.5 million veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits;
- The CHIPS Act, which provides $52 billion to expand U.S. manufacturing of semiconductors, secure the supply chain and combat computer chip shortages (and which, incidentally, endorses NASA’s plan to go back to the Moon and to Mars!);
- The new Lend-Lease Act, which opens the floodgates of U.S. military hardware to Ukraine to defend against Vladimir Putin’s genocidal invasion;
- The Safer Communities Act, the first major gun-safety law in 30 years, expanding background checks and red-flag laws;
- The Postal Service Reform Act, ending the ridiculous rule that required the Post Office to prepay the entire cost of its employees’ health and retirement benefits;
- The reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which was allowed to expire under Trump;
- The designation of Juneteenth as a federal holiday;
- The most federal judges appointed, at this point in his presidency, of any president since JFK;
- and, of course, the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus with money for COVID vaccination and testing, extended unemployment, $1,400 stimulus checks, expanded child tax credits and the earned income tax credit—all of which made a huge dent in poverty, until Congress allowed it to expire.
All of these are major wins that deserve to be recognized and celebrated. But the IRA eclipses them all. It won’t get us all the way to where we need to be, but it’s a gigantic step forward. It’s a reaffirmation that our politics isn’t completely broken—that when it really matters, we can still make the right choices.
The choices we make in this generation will reverberate for centuries to come. They’ll shape the future course of human civilization for generations untold. That’s why this choice matters so much. It’s the fulfillment of a promise we made to our descendants.
When my son is older, when he asks me about climate change… I won’t have to confess that we did nothing, that my generation handed off the burden to his. It bolsters my confidence that there will be a world for him to grow up into.