The Democrats’ David Boren Wing
There’s always someone in the House or Senate willing to tank a new Democratic president’s agenda. 
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), center, speaks about the bipartisan infrastructure package, July 28, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)
By David Dayen
Unlike, I assume, virtually everyone else in America, I’m thinking a lot these days about David Boren.

In 1993, he was in his third term as a Democratic senator from Oklahoma, after having served one post-Watergate term as the state’s governor. The ideological sorting of both parties was not fully in evidence by the early 1990s, but even given that, Boren was a very conservative Democrat. His preferred economic policy was broad-based tax cuts. He was one of two Democrats to vote to confirm Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Barry Goldwater suggested that he should run for president.

As President Clinton entered office after 12 years of Republicans in the White House, however, Boren initially acted like he would give him a pass. When Clinton announced his first budget, which raised taxes and increased some spending while reducing the overall deficit, Boren called itthe best, most promising budget I’ve seen since I’ve been in Congress.” He added, “Even if I can’t get anything changed, I’m going to support it,” promising Clinton that he would not be the vote to stop his economic program.

But one of the taxes in the plan particularly irked Boren’s oil industry constituents in Oklahoma: the so-called “BTU tax,” a levy on energy and fuels based on their heat content. This was one of the largest tax increases in Clinton’s proposal, with the goal of reducing pollution and broadly spending payments across the country.

Within a couple of months, Boren was talking about “backtracking” on spending cuts. By May, he had revealed his real aim: He would vote against the entire Clinton economic program if it included the BTU tax. “I am perfectly at peace with my position,” Boren told the Los Angeles Times. And nothing the Clinton administration offered would placate him.

Boren’s seat on a closely divided Senate Finance Committee (11 Democrats, 9 Republicans) gave him an opportunity to dictate terms. He teamed with Democratic Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, a major Clinton backer, to devise a BTU tax substitute, and then he wrote an entire alternative budget that included cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Clinton tried to wheel and deal, but the BTU proposal became so loophole-ridden thanks to business lobbying that it became pointless. That June, the president dropped the tax.

This was the biggest fight of Clinton’s domestic agenda to that point; the health care disappointment came later. It was also one of the last major efforts to deal (however indirectly) with heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, an element of U.S. public policy missing to this day. Eventually, a minimal gasoline tax passed, and has not been increased since.

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Boren obviously disagreed with the tax, and used his leverage to kill it. But one basic assumption about politics is that parties rise and fall on their ability to deliver tangible results. Forcing out an energy tax pleased oil interests in Boren’s home state, but in the process he reduced federal spending and the economic stimulus the nation needed coming out of the 1992 downturn. And the general picture of a Clinton presidency stymied by his own party and unable to function ultimately did in Democrats up and down the ticket in 1994.

Shouldn’t Boren have cared that a flailing Clinton presidency would reflect badly on his party, and subsequently his own chances at re-election? No, because Boren never faced re-election again. In May 1994, before the midterm election wipeout, Boren announced he would take a job as president of the University of Oklahoma and resign from the Senate, lamenting partisanship all the while.

A couple of things strike me when recalling this story in the light of what’s happening in Congress now.

Like Boren, the corporate Democrats putting Joe Biden’s presidency in peril don’t have much interest in a successful presidency for their party. In fact, they have engaged in a strategy that is designed to cut off the president at the knees. First, senators like Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) blocked any ability to resist the minority Republican veto, by maintaining the filibuster. (If you don’t want anything substantial to happen, the filibuster is quite useful.) That leaves two options for legislation: half measures inoffensive to industry, like the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and end arounds like the budget reconciliation process.

Biden put as much of his agenda as possible into that reconciliation bill because it’s literally the last option with a good shot at passage. Corporate Dems like Manchin then signaled that it would have to be paid for. Biden offered to roll back some Trump tax cuts, which all Democrats opposed just four years ago. Corporate Dems responded by taking issue with the tax increases and other budget savings, like bargaining for lower prescription drug prices.

This sets the trap (one that Biden, like Clinton before him, willingly walked into): If the tax increases have to be cut, and they’re linked to the spending, then the spending has to be cut, too. Thus, supporters of the reconciliation bill are engaged in this wrenching negotiation with themselves; the corporate Dems don’t even have to be involved.
This discussion will last beyond September 27, the date by which ten corporate Dems led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), today’s Boren in the House, secured a promise to get a vote on the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill. As Jonathan Chait points out, that promise was meaningless, since it didn’t guarantee passage in the House, and there are enough progressives opposed to scuttle it. So now the Gottheimer gang, backed up by Sinema, have a new ultimatum: Either the infrastructure bill passes on the 27th, or they will oppose any reconciliation bill.

Since progressives oppose the infrastructure bill advancing alone (provided they aren’t bluffing), this ultimatum is a recipe for passing nothing, for corporate Dems losing the infrastructure package that is the basis of their re-election campaigns, and for all Democrats paying the price at the polls next year. Why would a single Democrat engage in this wholly self-destructive strategy?

Maybe it’s because, like Boren, they have other plans. Josh Marshall has posited that this is likely Sinema’s last term in the Senate; besides, she’s not up until 2024. The fact that this sitting senator spent the 2021 summer recess in an internship at a Sonoma winery owned by private equity titans suggests there isn’t a burning commitment to a long-term senatorial career. And if your résumé in Congress includes staving off hits to the pharmaceutical, insurance, and finance industries, along with keeping corporate tax rates low, you can probably write your own ticket.

This is the central problem right now. Corporate Democrats have historically had no loyalty whatsoever to presidents of their party, the party platform, or the party base. And they don’t have much fear about losing seats. While primaries are newly relevant in Democratic politics, they don’t pick off more than a couple of seats per cycle. Some of these corporate Dems are from relatively safe seats, and probably think they’ll survive even a significant Republican triumph (though demobilizing your base isn’t a great way to do that). And even if they lose, there’s always some university or lobbying sinecure around the corner.

This is what makes it so difficult to deal with the David Borens of the world, especially when congressional margins are so tight that practically every one of them is needed for legislative success. Their goals are not aligned with improving the lives of their constituents. Their belief in public service is a belief in corporate relief. And that fealty to deep-pocketed interests provides the escape hatch that makes public pressure difficult.

There’s still a path to some version of a Biden legislative agenda passing; massive legislative efforts like this always look dead a few times before the finish line. But this is why I have been calling for robust executive action for two years, to not leave everything to Congress. Because I remember the BTU tax, and David Boren.
To read more about infrastructure and the Build Back Better Act, check out our series Building Back America.
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