The House passed President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act in late November, approving trillions of dollars worth of Democratic social spending priorities, including paid leave and universal prekindergarten.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said the measure – which faces an uncertain future in the Senate – includes about $1.7 trillion in spending and would add about $160 billion to the national debt over the next decade. But some have their doubts about the bill’s price tag.
“Joe Biden’s lie: ‘Build Back Better’ costs $1.75 trillion,” reads text in a Dec. 1 Facebook post from Convention of States, a project from the conservative nonprofit Citizens for Self-Governance. “The truth: It costs $5 trillion.”
The post accumulated more than 500 shares within two days. Similar claims have racked up tens of thousands of interactions on Facebook and Instagram over the past month, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool.
Several Republican lawmakers in the House have floated the estimate, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Senators have also picked up the talking point.
More:What’s in the House-passed Build Back Better bill? Paid leave, universal pre-K and more
“I think one of the ways you can look at this bill is ‘build back broke,'” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a Dec. 1 press conference. “This doesn’t cost $0, as President Biden had the temerity to suggest, and it doesn’t cost $1.75 trillion. It’s closer to $5 trillion in spending, and somebody’s going to have to pick up the tab.”
That cost estimate is genuine, but the claim is missing context.
As written, the Build Back Better Act includes more than $2 trillion in spending and tax cuts, according to estimates from independent budget watchdog groups. If all its programs were made permanent, they could cost as much as $5 trillion – but that would be for future Congresses to decide.
USA TODAY reached out to Convention of States for comment.
Two independent analyses estimate that, when factoring in both spending and tax expenditures, the Build Back Better Act costs more than $2 trillion. The price tag could double if Congress makes the bill’s programs permanent.
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a group that promotes deficit reduction, estimates that, based on Congressional Budget Office scores, the Build Back Better Act includes $2.4 trillion in spending and tax cuts through 2031. The bill also includes $2.3 trillion in offsets, resulting in a budget deficit of about $160 billion over the same time period.
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If all the temporary programs in the Build Back Better Act were made permanent, the group estimates they would cost nearly $4.8 trillion. The Wharton Budget Model, an economic forecasting model at the University of Pennsylvania, has published similar estimates.
But that estimate is the “upper bound of where we could end up,” according to Marc Goldwein, senior vice president and senior policy director at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. And $5 trillion isn’t the cost of the bill itself.
“As written, it costs half of that,” he told USA TODAY in a phone interview. “But it sets the stage for up to $5 trillion in costs.”
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That’s because the Build Back Better Act contains numerous program sunsets and expirations. For example, the bill extends an increase in the child tax credit for one year, while proposals to provide universal pre-K and funding for child care would last six years.
While some of the expirations in the bill are for one-time investments, Goldwein said others are a “gimmick” aimed at reducing the price tag of the legislation.
“I think an important thing to note is all of these expirations are things that advocates would like to have permanent,” he said.
If the Build Back Better Act becomes law, future Congresses would decide whether to extend its temporary programs. Experts say that’s likely for at least some programs, but it’s not set in stone.
“It’s all fine supplementary information to make estimates like this, but the true cost of the bill is the net cost of the provisions actually enshrined in the text,” Josh Bivens, director of research at the liberal Economic Policy Institute, said in an email. “Everything else is a speculative guess about the future and in no way the ‘true’ or ‘more likely’ cost of it.”
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By including program expirations and sunsets in the Build Back Better Act, Goldwein said Democrats are taking a risk because they “don’t know what the congressional makeup is going to be” in the future.
But history suggests at least some of the programs in the legislation would be extended regardless of which party controls Congress.
In 2001 and 2003, Congress passed tax cuts during the George W. Bush administration. In 2010, when those cuts were due to expire, President Barack Obama signed a bill to extend them for two years. Most of the tax cuts became permanent in 2013, when Obama signed the American Taxpayer Relief Act.
More:‘Crazy’ or ‘much ado about nothing’? How Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan could affect inflation
“It is impossible to say with certainty what will be extended five years from now,” Will McBride, vice president of federal tax and economic policy at the right-leaning Tax Foundation, said in an email. “But we can look to history to get an idea, which indicates it is more likely than not that many of these policies would be extended.”
Based on our research, we rate the claim that the Build Back Better Act costs $5 trillion MISSING CONTEXT, because without additional information it is misleading.
Two independent analyses estimate the Build Back Better Act includes more than $2 trillion in spending and tax cuts. If all the temporary programs in the Build Back Better Act were made permanent, they could cost upwards of $5 trillion, according to estimates from budget watchdog groups. Experts say it’s likely Congress would extend at least some of the programs, but that’s not as set-in-stone as the claim makes it seem.
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