What does the United States owe to West Virginia? The state exists because political leaders west of the Allegheny Mountains refused to follow secessionists into the Confederacy, sticking with the Union instead. Since then, several generations of mountaineers have risked their lives and livelihoods prying wealth out of the state’s coal mines—a treasure the rest of the nation used to build our shining cities and suburban dreams. It’s fair to say that, historically, West Virginians have done their part to preserve and provide for their country.
Yet in recent years, they’ve been left behind and left alone to fend off the ravages of economic dislocation and the horrors of the opioid crisis. The latest generation of miners are captives in a dying industry ruled by corrupt and callous plutocrats. The state now largely exists in popular culture as a backwater; the butt of jokes. But while it’s one thing to be slighted by strangers, it’s another matter entirely when the source of disdain is its own elected representatives.
Does Joe Manchin care about the residents of his own state? In recent months, as he’s served as one of the primary tension points in the ongoing negotiations among Democrats over their budget bill, an essential part of both the nation’s post-pandemic recovery and the party’s own reelection hopes, there has been reason to wonder. His approach to negotiations has been disordered, his demands fluid, and his convictions fungible. He’s now floating rumors that he may quit the Democratic Party if he doesn’t get his way—whatever way that is. One point of consistency has nevertheless emerged: His objections to the Biden agenda specifically punish West Virginians.
Over the past weekend, Manchin announced he would not support the Biden agenda’s climate change mitigation plans, specifically the provisions in the bill that would induce utilities to move off fossil fuels to wind, solar, and the like. The New York Times was quick to publish a story about the high cost of the climate crisis in the Mountaineer State, where “Manchin’s constituents stand to suffer disproportionately as climate change intensifies” on account of dramatic increases of rainfall and flooding—a specific threat to West Virginians because the state’s mountainous topography provides “little room to relocate from the waterways that increasingly threaten their safety.”
Given that Manchin is significantly beholden to his state’s coal industry and the wealth he personally extracts from it, his opposition at least lines up in a perversely predictable way. What’s harder to understand is his well-documented objections to the child tax credit extension, a pandemic policy that’s been wildly successful at ameliorating child poverty in its brief existence. Manchin is demanding that the income threshold for the credit be capped at $60,000 a year. This would exclude 37.4 million children, including 189,000 in West Virginia alone, according to a new study. The cap would prevent over half of the credit’s current beneficiaries from collecting the benefits, in a state where the child poverty rate is much higher than the national average.
Children are not the only vulnerable West Virginians Manchin is throwing under the bus. Manchin has also expressed misgivings about Biden’s plan to earmark $400 billion for home caregivers, Axios reported in September. Funding home care workers could be especially beneficial in West Virginia, where they today “make less than $10 an hour and where, according to projections from the research and advocacy organization PHI, the state will need to fill almost 30,000 home care jobs over the next decade,” according to HuffPost’s Jonathan Cohn. Demand for caregivers is high in a state with a disability rate of 19.5 percent, a fact you’d think might govern a senator’s thinking about whether funding home care could do substantial amounts of good.
What is Manchin’s rationale? Though his approval among West Virginians has taken a hit in recent polls, a New York Times article has assured readers that Manchin is “listening closely to his constituents.” Yet the sources quoted in the piece are limited to “the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce” and the state’s “business circles.” And as TNR’s Kate Aronoff pointed out at length a month ago, the fossil fuel industry’s sturdiest and most reliable pipeline is the one that flows from its coffers to Manchin’s pockets.
The Washington Monthly’s Bill Scher recently admonished Manchin’s critics to not “drag him” further and argued that convincing the wayward senator will require “more carrots than sticks.” This is the sort of thing that someone with a terminal case of Beltway brain might say. Biden’s budget bill is the carrot. It is a veritable carrot cake, baked with West Virginians in mind. That’s what Manchin got out of the deal, a long time ago—massive benefits for the residents of his state, who seem entirely absent from his thoughts as he holds Washington hostage. It’s as if Manchin specifically wants West Virginians to miss out on the benefits of the Biden agenda. Don’t his constituents deserve better?
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.