Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) has finally added a new word to her vocabulary: yes.
After months of saying no to the Democratic agenda, the Arizona senator agreed to sign onto the Inflation Reduction Act, the climate and tax deal that Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) sprung on the Republicans. True to her penchant for soaking up the spotlight, Sinema kept everyone waiting for a week before she announced she was willing to support what promises to be one of the major legislative milestones of the Biden presidency.
Then, at the last minute yesterday, she held the final passage of the bill up so that she could support tax breaks for fabulously wealthy private equity firms.
The ultimate change in Sinema’s course was a welcome reversal for the senator, who has established herself as one of the primary obstacles to Joe Biden’s agenda. (The other, of course, is Manchin.) She refused to back the president’s Build Back Better plan and voted against increasing the minimum wage. She refused to back filibuster reform, effectively killing a number of Democratic priorities, including the Equality Act, an ironic position for the Senate’s sole out bisexual to take.
Manchin has been similarly problematic, but at least there’s some explanation for his behavior. He represents West Virginia, a state that voted nearly two to one for Trump in 2020. By contrast, Arizona voted for Biden, a result that Donald Trump’s lackeys are still trying to overturn.
So, did Sinema redeem herself at long last?
Sinema has created such a deep well of disdain among her fellow Democrats, particularly in Arizona, that doing the right thing just this once doesn’t undo the damage she’s done to her political career. Voters aren’t about to forget all the grief she caused over the past year and a half. Her polling numbers are in the tank, and they aren’t going to rocket up based on one event.
Moreover, Sinema brought her special touch to the climate and tax package. She did get extra money for Arizona for drought relief, the kind of good constituent service that a senator with leverage should do.
But then there was the leverage Sinema used to gladden the hearts of the lobbyists that write her big checks. The original measure closed one of the most odious tax loopholes, called the carried interest loophole. The loophole only benefits hedge fund managers and private equity managers by taxing the compensation they receive from an investment gains at nearly half the normal tax rate. In short, it benefits really, really rich people.
Closing the loophole has had bipartisan support for years. Even Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, has called for its elimination. But Sinema insisted that the loophole stays.
Why? Who knows. It might have something to do with the $2.2 million in donations she’s gotten from investment firms.
But the fact of the matter is, Sinema hasn’t explained why she wanted the loophole to remain. That points to a bigger problem with her.
Sinema is regularly labeled “enigmatic” in the media. That’s a convenient explanation for her behavior. After all, she’s impossible to figure out. Why would someone who started as a Green Party member be advocating for tax breaks for hedge fund managers?
Indeed, right up to the end, Sinema was pulling one of her signature grandstanding stunts on behalf of wealthy money managers. As the Senate was holding a marathon voting session on amendments, Sinema starting flirting with a proposal from Sen. John Thune (R-SD) that would have benefited private equity groups. The Democrats’ measure included a provision that ensured corporations paid a minimum tax (many pay nothing.)
Thune’s measure exempted private equity groups, hardly an endangered industry. The move frustrated Democrats who had labored mightily to hold the entire package together only to have Sinema potentially unravel it. To get the measure over the finish line, Democrats caved to Sinema’s demands, saving some of the wealthiest Americans $14 billion in tax dollars that they should be paying.
Sinema’s willingness to suck up to the rich is a big problem. The real problem is that she is one of the least transparent members of Congress. She almost never explains herself. She very rarely gives interviews. It’s one thing to shun the D.C. spotlight, but she doesn’t talk to the media in Arizona either, so voters there have no idea what she’s thinking about.
Her office issues statements on her behalf, and occasionally she makes comments on the floor of the Senate, which have the weight of pronouncements from the Oracle of Delphi. Which is probably as she wants it.
The perfect image of Sinema’s lack of accountability is her hiding in a bathroom so that she wouldn’t have to respond to criticism from local activists. On the other hand, if you are a lobbyist, you can write her a big check and hear her pontificate in private at some luxury resort.
The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act is a major accomplishment for Democrats and the Biden administration. It allows Medicare to negotiate drug prices for the first time, which means the government can leverage its enormous buying power to drive down costs. It will make a huge dent in carbon emissions by investing in renewable energy.
Some will say that it passed thanks to Sinema. No question her vote was necessary. But it also passed in spite of her. Imagine everything else that could have passed if she had only said yes sooner.