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Why Joe Manchin’s good faith is bad for the poor

Despite a stately facade of moderation, Manchin has, in the words of the gospel, 'neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness.'

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(RNS) — On Thursday (Sept. 30), amid intense debate in Congress about the budget reconciliation bill, Politico magazine published a copy of an agreement signed in late July by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, in which Manchin is guaranteed that President Biden’s Build Back Better bill would not exceed $1.5 trillion, rather than the $3.5 trillion proposed at the time.

The day before, Manchin had not once but twice made statements about negotiating “in good faith.”: “There is a better way,” he said in a Sept. 29 statement, “and I believe we can find it if we are willing to continue to negotiate in good faith.”

Manchin has demonstrated his understanding of good faith. Since the Democrats took control of the Senate in January, Manchin has proposed attaching means testing and work requirements to the child tax credit, argued against the For the People Act on voting rights, vowed to defend the Senate’s obstructive filibuster and opposed raising the minimum wage to $15/hour.

All of these proposals run counter to the agenda whose popularity among Democrats, Republicans and independents led his party to win the majority in the Senate.

They also run counter to Manchin’s claims that his Catholic faith informs his politics. Blocking funding for life-saving social programs is at odds with Jesus’ transformative work of bringing good news to the poor.

Earlier this month, Manchin complained about the child tax credit, saying: “There’s no work requirements whatsoever … Don’t you think, if we’re going to help the children, that the people should make some effort?”

Here Manchin is echoing Republicans who have argued for attaching such work requirements to governmental programs for much of the last decade, with some going so far as quoting from Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians — “if you do not work, you shall not eat” — to justify it.

As a Biblical scholar, I should point out that the line does not blame the poor for their poverty, nor suggest that work requirements should be attached to social programs. Rather, it is a critique of the wealthy who idly benefit from the work of others.

Far from representing the New Testament, these politicians espouse a tired myth of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Work requirements do no more than prey on already vulnerable people and create a pool of sub-minimum wage labor. 

Sen. Manchin’s positions are puzzling considering the level of poverty in his state. West Virginia is home to 700,000 people who are poor or low-income, amounting to 40% of the state’s population and 50% of its children. There are 350,000 workers who make less than a living wage and 100,000 people without health care insurance. For those earning the minimum wage, it takes 65 hours of work per week to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

Research shows that wages in West Virginia would need to be more than $23/hour for people to meet all of their basic needs. Still, Manchin has continually opposed raising the minimum wage to even $15/hour.

Yet, Manchin suggests that those with power and resources should not act, but wait. “Amid inflation, debt and the inevitability of future crises, Congress needs to take a strategic pause,” he wrote in a Wall Street Journal oped last month. We need to hold back on aid to workers who have suffered during the pandemic while U.S. billionaires have gotten 62% richer, adding over $1.8 trillion to their wealth since COVID-19 hit. 

Manchin is ignoring the fierce urgency of now, committing the crime that prophets have denounced throughout the ages. The prophet Jeremiah said, “My people are broken — shattered! — and they put on Band-Aids, saying, ‘It’s not so bad. You’ll be just fine.’ But things are not ‘just fine’! Do you suppose they are embarrassed over this outrage? No, they have no shame.”

That same shamelessness applies to Manchin’s approach to the health of our democracy. As long as civil-rights champion Rep. John Lewis was alive, the senator claimed to support the For the People Act, though there was no chance of it passing with a Republican-controlled Senate. Now that Democrats control the Senate, he opposes it.

Because he has positioned himself as a naysayer, Manchin has awarded himself de facto veto power, which he has used to force the Senate to write the watered-down Freedom to Vote Act. He has stripped out the bill’s ethics provisions, suggesting that voter IDs ensure confidence and access to voting, and frames the question of voting rights around the regressive and non-factual language of “voter integrity” and “fraud,” instead of the very real threat of voter suppression. Even with these changes, this bill cannot pass the Senate without filibuster reform, which Manchin himself is blocking.

Beyond the stately facade of compromise and moderation that Manchin continues to hide behind, the words of the gospel speak to the depths of his theological malpractice: “you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness.”

This is the biblical position of good faith from which the Senator should be negotiating and which he instead continues to neglect.

(The Rev. Liz Theoharis is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary. She is the author of “Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor” and the forthcoming “We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor People’s Campaign.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)