Can we talk about the IRA?

August 18, 2022

Unless you’ve completely shut out the news, which seems doubtful if you’re here reading this, you are probably aware of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which President Biden signed into law earlier this week. Touted by its champions as a historic piece of legislation addressing climate, health, and tax policy, this 700-page bill emerged out of a backroom deal between a coal baron (Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V.) and a Democratic party stalwart (Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.). With that kind of birthright, it would be rather surprising if the IRA was actually as revolutionary as some pundits are saying.

Let’s put this into (recent) historical perspective.

Rewind to the beginning of 2021. His efforts and those of violent insurrectionaries notwithstanding, Donald Trump exited the presidency and the progressive movement braced itself for a long slog of pushing Joe Biden to reverse as many of Trump’s hateful and harmful policies as possible – and build his own legacy by passing transformational policy packages on crises like economic and racial injustice, climate change, and the Covid pandemic.

We went big, believing that fighting Trumpism/fascism is best done by pushing a truly inclusive economy and society. We demanded a $10 trillion package called the THRIVE Agenda that would invest in a just and sustainable future for everyone in our country. In parallel, some amazing groups like those in the Coalition for a Feminist Foreign Policy worked on what U.S. foreign policy based on compassion and cooperation, rather than U.S. exceptionalism, should look like.

The Biden administration responded with its Build Back Better agenda, which started off at $3.5 trillion and was slowly whittled down by Manchin and corporate Democrats. Then, in what seemed like a massive self-own, the Biden administration began pushing a “Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework” that became the $1.2 trillion roads-and-bridges Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Shortly after the IIJA passed, the House eventually sent a $1.75 trillion version of Build Back Better to the Senate, only to have Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Az.) balk at it for a variety of occasionally-unclear and often-changing reasons.

The IIJA made zero political splash but still allowed moderate (read: corporate) Democrats to try to pretend they had done something significant, such that the administration and Democratic Congressional leaders lost most of their leverage for pushing Manchin and moderates to vote for the full Build Back Better framework. This was exactly the outcome that House progressives had warned of when they spent weeks urging their colleagues to “Hold the Line” and not pass IIJA without the full BBB package.

After that, it seemed for many long months that Build Back Better was likely dead. But then came the surprise Inflation Reduction Act. A lot was lost between BBB and IRA. IRA comes to a whopping… $0.4 trillion in climate and health care investments – just over 10% of the original Build Back Better plan, and a mere 4% of what the THRIVE Agenda identified as necessary. It also includes giveaways to the fossil fuel industry that will set back climate progress and continue environmental injustices that disproportionately affect Black and brown communities.

So… forgive me if I have a lot of complicated feelings about the IRA. As we said in our statement, I believe it’s certainly better than nothing (though some of our allies have made clear that they disagree). And I feel immense relief that we now have a foothold to build on, both policy-wise and politically, rather than a Democratic trifecta that accomplished precisely nothing on climate action. 

This doesn’t change the fact that parts of the IRA do real harm, or the fact that it was created behind closed doors without any kind of inclusion of frontline communities. Our friends at the Climate Justice Alliance and many others have pointed out these shortcomings and are rightly demanding stronger environment justice provisions and a rejection of all fossil fuel expansion.

For better or worse, IRA is now law, and the task is now to ensure that we keep fighting for better. The alternative to IRA was zero action now and likely for many years to come – leading directly to climate catastrophe and a slide into fascism. IRA by itself cannot prevent either of those things. But it’s become abundantly clear over the last 18 months that the balance of forces was never in our favor to win THRIVE or anything much bigger than IRA right now. If nothing else, IRA gives us better ground to continue the fight.

In this space, my colleagues and I will likely share more thoughts on specific aspects of the IRA in the weeks and months to come. Stay tuned.