How West Virginians helped win the climate and health deal

For over a year, community groups and residents organized and advocated to move Sen. Joe Manchin, a key vote on the legislation. 

By Rick Wilson

Perhaps you’ve heard of the senior senator from my state. His name is Joe Manchin. He’s been in the news a bit lately. 

While some people around the U.S. seem to think he appeared out of nowhere early last year, that is not the case. West Virginians have known him for a good while. I’ve followed his career since the late ’80s as he went from state senator to unsuccessful candidate for governor to West Virginia secretary of state to governor to U.S. senator.

We’re even on a semi-first name basis. In the handful of times we’ve met since he moved on to Congress, he calls me Rick and I call him Senator.

I can safely say that no one I know in their wildest dreams ever thought that the fate of so many things and people would ride on anyone from our state. Especially this one. But sometimes history has a sense of humor.

Sen. Manchin has had his moments. In the past, he’s been good in a crisis, showing compassion as governor for people during disasters from mine explosions to Hurricane Katrina. As senator, he took a “fix not nix” position on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) when it came close to being repealed. He opposed the Trump tax cuts. He supported the American Rescue Plan and insisted that states could not use the temporary federal boost to cut taxes. Recently he voted to support the nomination of Judge Ketanji Jackson.

But, yes, some days are better than others.

West Virginia mothers and community members traveled to Washington, D.C., urging Congress to extend the expanded Child Tax Credit. That provision was not included in the final climate and health bill. Photo: Mark Story Photos

In early 2021, so many things seemed possible, including a truly transformative agenda on voting rights, economic justice, climate, and infrastructure. Call it democracy, care, and climate for short. And the pressure on West Virginians who care about these things was enormous. Some groups had particular interests, but many of us wanted it all. I know that’s true of the organization I work for, the American Friends Service Committee, which started working in West Virginia 100 years ago.

But we all worked at it. Community groups and individuals organized to urge Sen. Manchin to support a bill that would improve the lives of West Virginians and people across the country. Over the past year, the mood switched from hopeful to cautiously optimistic to despair more than once as time went by. I always thought there was a real chance it would all blow up in our faces and we’d walk away with nothing ... which almost happened.

In the end, we didn’t get all we wanted and got some of what we didn’t. But the Inflation Reduction Act is the first major legislation to address the crisis of climate change while also protecting and improving health care for millions of Americans.

The many West Virginians I’ve worked with over the last year gave it their all. While I don’t presume to know if anything we did actually helped, I think I can name some that at least didn’t hurt:

  • We hit it with all we had. Even when all seemed lost, most people I knew at least felt it wasn’t for our lack of trying. There were in person meetings with the senator and his staff, untold ZOOM calls, street (and kayak) actions, op-eds, media work, canvassing efforts, phone banking, strong actions by impacted people, and even visual stunts with quilts and teddy bears.
  • We stayed at it, even when things seemed to fall apart.
  • We didn’t throw each other under the bus. In general, groups that were focused specifically on democracy, care, or climate maintained a united front, although with different emphasis.
  • We gave each other grace. It was exhausting, frustrating, and maddening at times. We sometimes disagreed about whether to be more conciliatory or confrontational in our tactics but kept talking and trying to work through things one day at a time.
  • We shifted focus as things changed. By this spring and summer, it was clear we wouldn’t get all we wanted through the budget reconciliation process. However, some groups made the deliberate decision to focus on some of the most salient issues where the pressure was greatest to deliver something. These included climate in a state routinely hit by devastating flooding, helping our colonial economy shift away from natural resource extraction, prescription drug prices for seniors and others, and keeping millions of Americans from losing ACA coverage.

AFSC staff Rick Wilson and JoAnna Vance at a Poor People's Campaign action in Washington, D.C. in June. Photo: Bryan Vana/AFSC

One particularly urgent issue in West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia is funding for Black Lung benefits for miners and their families. Black Lung is a terrible and incurable disease caused by breathing in and around the mines, eventually resulting in suffocation. All politicians here at least pretend to care about coal miners—and to be fair I think our senator really does. The reconciliation bill includes a permanent fix to funding for Black Lung sufferers, their families, and survivors.

I’m still sad for the things that didn’t make it across the line yet, especially the Child Tax Credit, which could have done for children what Social Security did for seniors. And I could have done without some of the compromises with the fossil fuel industry. But I’m glad for what we got. 

We have a bill that will lower health care costs and prescription drug prices for millions of people in the U.S. It will also take real steps to address climate change. 

And, of course, the struggle continues.