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This week marked the first anniversary of the Inflation Reduction Act, President Joe Biden’s signature piece of legislation. His administration had big plans to celebrate the occasion ― and to promote the law’s accomplishments ― by dispatching officials for appearances across the country, culminating with a major speech by Biden at the White House.
Chances are good that you heard little or nothing about these events, because the news cycle was all about the latest Donald Trump indictment. And let’s face it: You might not have noticed even if Trump hadn’t been in the headlines. Official efforts to tout legislation rarely break through the political noise, and even more rarely move the needle on public opinion.
But major changes in policy do still seem to affect the political conversation … eventually.
They can change expectations of how laws should work, or what the government should do. They can also send subtle signals about priorities and loyalties.
That’s pretty much how things went with the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama’s landmark health care law, which didn’t help (and probably hurt) Democrats in the immediate aftermath of its enactment in 2010. But it went on to create a new reality, such as coverage of preexisting conditions, that has proved politically impossible to dislodge. When was the last time you heard a Republican say the words “repeal and replace”?
Biden, who was vice president in 2010, famously called it Obama’s “big fucking deal.” He was right about that. And now the IRA could prove to be Biden’s very own BFD.
That’s especially true if you think of the law as part of a series of investments, including the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law and last year’s CHIPS and Science Act, which subsidizes semiconductor development and manufacturing.
But to be a BFD, these initiatives need to change American life in deep, enduring ways.
Will that actually happen?
We put that question to three of our reporters, asking each to reflect on the part of the IRA that they’ve covered most closely. Here’s what they said.
What The IRA Means For Climate
Headlines about the IRA tend to focus on its sheer size, rivaled only by the total sum spent by China and the European Union. But to understand its true significance, you need to consider where the United States was on climate just 13 months ago.
Over the decades, the United States’ fleets of gas-guzzling vehicles, sprawling suburbs and fossil-fueled power plants transferred more carbon from the Earth’s crust to its atmosphere than in any other country.
Even now, 17 years after China became the top annual emitter, the U.S. remains in second place, increasing its overall output year over year with few exceptions.
While individual states adopted renewable-energy goals and set limits on emissions from coal and gas plants, the federal government’s official stance on a crisis already rendering parts of the planet uninhabitable has flip-flopped based on which party controlled the White House.
A breakthrough came in 2007, the first year the U.S. was no longer the world’s top emitter: The U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of Massachusetts against then-President George W. Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency, ruling that the federal government is responsible for regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. From that point on, the federal government was required to do something about climate. But little changed.
After refusing for decades to support any global pacts to cut back on emissions, the U.S. and China finally recognized the threat of climate change in the 2015 Paris Agreement. The Obama administration, which had helped broker the nonbinding deal, set about proposing and enacting regulations to limit carbon from all sorts of sectors of the economy, but from power plants in particular.
Republican states opposed to the so-called Clean Power Plan seized on a provision in the proposal meant to give utilities more options to comply with the rule by running coal-fired plants less frequently, which was justified based on a hotly debated line in the Clean Air Act. The Supreme Court put implementation of the rule on pause in February 2016 to sort out the legal details. But before the issue could be resolved, Trump won the White House — and put the Oklahoma attorney general who had led the push to block the power plant rule in charge of the EPA.
Few regulations designed to cut emissions, no matter how benign or widely supported by industry, escaped the Trump administration’s deregulatory ax.
Four years later, many of Trump’s rules were easily scrapped or altered by the Biden administration in turn.
To avoid a repeat of this cycle — one administration prioritizing climate regulation, the next undoing it — Democrats made passing legislation on climate change a priority.
In that sense, the IRA accomplished one big thing for which it receives little credit: codifying the requirement that the federal government regulate carbon under the Clean Air Act.
But after months of negotiations with conservative Democrats, the IRA wound up with many carrots and few sticks to direct the future of U.S. energy systems.
The resulting regulation firehose of subsidies and tax credits — for everything from mining minerals to manufacturing solar panels to installing solar power — represents the largest spending package on climate change in U.S. history. The effects are becoming clear in the number of factories taking advantage of the new priorities that are opening across the country to manufacture electric vehicles, batteries and wind turbines.
Now, the problem is in figuring out how to manage the money.
Key details of how the money will be spent are still being worked out: Debates over how to measure whether hydrogen fuel is “green” or not, how to better connect the country’s disparate grid systems, and how to assess the amount of energy home improvements save will all need to be resolved before money can start going out the door.
But the degree to which the spending actually bends the curve on U.S. emissions depends largely on state and local policies — policies that currently suggest a strong bias against change.
Unless the IRA can deliver its maximum benefits for carbon-free energy sources and the U.S. becomes willing to go even further, it’s difficult to envision a world where anyone can avoid change.
What The IRA Means For Economics
At the heart of the IRA is an economic idea that runs counter to the conventional wisdom of the past four decades of economic policy, which states that increases in public economic investment lead to decreases in private investment. By this logic, government spending “crowds out” private sector spending. But the IRA aims to do the opposite: crowd in private investment through government-directed industrial policy. So far, it looks like it’s working.
“We have seen skyrocketing investment in construction for manufacturing facilities that’s off the charts,” Heather Boushey, the chief economist for the Investing in America Cabinet at the White House, told me in a July interview.
The White House reports that since Biden took office, private companies have announced more than $200 billion in manufacturing commitments in the fields of clean energy, electric vehicles and batteries. Over 170,000 jobs in clean energy fields have been created in the year since Biden signed the IRA, according to Climate Power. The Energy Department reports 75,000 jobs created in the battery supply chain.
This level of business investment following the COVID-19 recession is well above that of previous economic recoveries, particularly for research and development investment, according to the Treasury Department.
And this is before the Internal Revenue Service has even written all of the rules and guidance for the tax credits that will allow the actual money authorized by the law to go out the door. Research analysts at Goldman Sachs now predict that the IRA will crowd in upward of $3.3 trillion in private investment over its 10-year run, according to Bloomberg.
The idea is that this crowding-in of private investment through public industrial strategy will reinvigorate domestic manufacturing and provide jobs in places that have been left behind by the financial industry-directed free-market economy that took root under Ronald Reagan.
The IRA includes “place-based bonuses” for companies that invest in economically disadvantaged areas. Though most of those bonuses have not been spent yet, the private sector commitments that have already been announced are going to these very communities.
“We find that counties where investments in IRA-related sectors have been announced tend to be more economically disadvantaged than average,” the Treasury Department reports, while noting that it cannot verify that these locations were chosen due to the IRA.
Eighty percent of these investments are in counties with below-average college graduation rates, while 65% are in counties with above-average poverty and child poverty rates. Counties with below-average weekly wages account for 90% of these investments.
In discarding the neoliberal economic orthodoxy of the past 40 years, the IRA so far appears to be on its way to accomplishing one big part of the economic objectives of the administration. Shovels still need to get in the ground to make a lot of these investment commitments a reality. That will surely start to happen more once the IRS writes its guidance and the money gets into the hands of companies.
The hope is not just to revitalize manufacturing and start to bring back jobs to areas strip-mined by a financial sector exploiting free-trade deals in search of the lowest labor cost on the globe. There’s a political idea here, too.
That is to “overcome some of the despair that haunts a lot of these places and create hope and optimism that jobs are coming back,” Todd Tucker, director of industrial policy and trade at the Roosevelt Institute, told me. Whether it’s through rebuilding local economies or increasing unionization rates, “that could change the political geography of the state,” Tucker said.
There are, of course, emerging challenges. The United Auto Workers are in a fight with the Big Three carmakers over whether the companies will let EV autoworkers join the “master agreement” the union has with them. Unions are also wary about the large number of investments announced in states with anti-labor “right-to-work” laws. Meanwhile, conservatives in regions receiving these investments are trying to square the circle of supporting jobs for rural communities and their political polarization on climate-related issues.
What The IRA Means For Health Care
The health care provisions of the IRA may be even less well known than the climate provisions. But they represent some genuinely historic breakthroughs that will make a difference in the lives of everyday Americans, while opening the door to even bigger changes.
I’m talking mainly about the initiative to reduce the price of prescription drugs for the older adults and people with disabilities who rely on Medicare. There are actually several parts to this initiative, including a cap on out-of-pocket drug expenses that will mean savings of thousands of dollars a year to people with the highest medical bills, plus financial penalties for drugmakers that increase their prices too quickly.
But the most far-reaching and politically controversial piece of the reforms is a provision allowing the federal government to negotiate the price of drugs for Medicare recipients.
Political dealmaking has meant the power is not nearly as expansive as its champions once hoped, and it leaves federal officials with far less leverage over drug prices than, say, the British or German national health systems have. It’s only prices for Medicare beneficiaries that the government will negotiate, it’s only a limited set of drugs within Medicare, and it won’t start to produce newly negotiated prices until 2026.
But the nature of the process means that its effect should grow with time: Inflation penalties will keep the price of drugs low after initial negotiations, and over time the government can select new drugs for negotiation. And that’s to say nothing of the possibility that Congress in the future could pass a law expanding the type of drugs subject to negotiation, now that the federal government has that power.
These possibilities alarm the pharmaceutical industry and its allies, including most philosophical conservatives, who say even the current modest version of the IRA’s drug price provisions will deter innovation by reducing incentives to invest in research and development. They have also filed lawsuits claiming that some of the provisions are illegal, because, supposedly, they violate property rights and amount to a form of coercion.
Their case seems pretty weak ― although, with so many conservative Federalist Society judges on the bench, it’s hard to be sure what it takes to win in federal court nowadays. But it’s clear that the industry wouldn’t be fighting the IRA’s drug pricing provisions if they didn’t pose a serious threat to their bottom line – for better or worse, depending on your perspective.
And that should tell you everything you need to know about whether the IRA’s drug price reforms qualify as a BFD.