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Build Back Better Is bad for the states

The Hill logo The Hill 12/7/2021 Ryan Lanier, opinion contributor
The U.S. Capitol is seen from the East Front Plaza on Tuesday, November 16, 2021. © Greg Nash The U.S. Capitol is seen from the East Front Plaza on Tuesday, November 16, 2021.

In their largest effort to radically transform America and expand the size, scope, and power of the federal government, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has vowed to pass President Joe Biden's Build Back Better Act (BBBA) by Christmas. The $1.75 trillion plan (which is more likely to cost $5 trillion), passed the House on Nov. 19, 2021. It will force states to fund unsustainable programs and blur the lines between the federal and state governments.

The promise of more federal money comes as many states prepare to spend the second tranche of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act funds and receive funds from the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. A further influx of federal cash would overwhelm states already swamped with more money than they can spend efficiently and effectively, as well as fueling and sustaining high levels of inflation.

The cost-sharing provisions and strict spending conditions of the BBBA would shift significant portions of the bill's cost to state governments while forcing them to implement progressive policy priorities to qualify for federal grants. These requirements are part of the claim that the legislation is completely paid for, since it leaves states on the hook for an array unsustainable programs like universal pre-K, Medicare and Medicaid expansion, and elements of the Green New Deal when the federal share runs out.

Massive federal funding programs have historically led to unsustainable spending at the state level. For example, federal relief funds in the American Rescue and Recovery Act of 2009, or the Obama-Biden stimulus, led states to establish a variety of new programs for education. Once funds dried up, states found themselves on the hook for a multitude of programs with no federal assistance in sight. Various provisions of the BBBA also force states to adopt, implement, and fund programs for which federal funding is limited.

Video: Watch: Senate Passes Spending Bill To Avoid A Government Shutdown (Newsweek)


The White House's official Build Back Better website outlines the administration's plan to subordinate state governments, including universal pre-K and expansion of the Child Care and Development Block Grant. The BBBA not only places a significant financial burden of universal pre-K on the states, but it also allows local entities to directly access federal funds, circumventing the wishes of taxpayers and their duly elected state representatives who do not want to participate. Once federal funding expires, state and local governments are responsible for covering the increased costs generated by these unfunded mandates.

The Biden administration promises to expand Medicaid services to the more than 800,000 Americans currently on state waiting lists by allocating additional federal funds to the states for this purpose. In an extreme alteration of intergovernmental relations that puts Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society to shame, the BBBA will force the states that chose not to expand Medicaid to do so, part of what might be called a dystopian model in which the federal government manages every aspect of a person's life from birth to death.

The coercion of states to embrace progressive policies doesn't stop at education and Medicaid expansion. The legislation also contains a plan to force states to adopt elements of the Green New Deal under the guise of "environmental justice." Provisions include $250 million in grants to state and local governments to expand "equitable outdoor access" to non-federal lands "for members of underserved groups" and an additional $250 million to support "underserved forest landowners" to aid in "climate mitigation" and "carbon sequestration and storage" efforts. These grants would allow national lawmakers to achieve their goals by commandeering state and local government control over state- and privately-owned land.

These vast federal grant programs threaten to erase the division of authority between the states and the federal government established by the Constitution. Through coercive federalism, the BBBA would confiscate states' powers as independent governments and establish them as submissive tools to implement an extreme agenda. Aided by the return of earmarks as well, federal lawmakers can use federal funding programs like those featured in the BBBA to force states to adopt their priorities.

The dangers of the BBBA extend beyond concerns over the legislation's wasteful spending on desert fish and freshwater mussels, drug price controls, impact on inflation, and contribution to the national debt. If enacted, this legislation will allow the federal government to fundamentally reorder the American system of government and use the states as pawns to implement progressive priorities. To preserve constitutional federalism, Congress must reject the Build Back Better Act.

Ryan Lanier is State Government Affairs Associate for CAGW.


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