‘Quit writing checks to everybody.’ Joe Manchin speaks to Fortune about bipartisanship and his message to CEOs

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Sen. Joe Manchin may not be up for re-election in next week’s mid-terms, but the divisive Democrat from deeply red West Virginia is still making his voice heard.

Manchin gained fame (or infamy with his more liberal colleagues) over the past year when he strayed from his party’s line and refused to sign off on one of the Biden administration’s flagship legislative proposals.

In December 2021, he alienated more than a few of his colleagues by refusing to sign President Joe Biden’s flagship Build Back Better bill, which proposed $3.5 trillion in spending for climate change and social policy. Congressional Republicans unanimously opposed the legislation. Months later, Manchin finally got on board with Democrats and their Inflation Reduction Act—a pared down version of the plan. 

Over the years, Manchin has complained about what he sees as a leftward slide in his party, advocating for a more centrist and collaborative approach with Congressional Republicans. And a firm believer in old-school bipartisanship like Manchin doesn’t only think cross-party compromise is possible, he says it’s necessary. Rising inflation, record-high national debt, and energy security are challenges that affect everyone, Manchin says, and fixing those problems requires policymakers to move away from extreme views. 

On Thursday, Manchin appeared virtually at Fortune’s CEO Initiative conference in Palm Beach, Fla., where he spoke with Fortune Media CEO Alan Murray about bipartisanship in a heated political climate, what happened after he rejected the Build Back Better bill, and why he doesn’t want campaign contributions in politics.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity

Fortune: As everyone knows, you provided the critical vote to the Inflation Reduction Act. You opposed it up until the end and then you supported it and made it possible. Tell us what happened there. Why did you change your mind? Why in the end did you support it? 

Sen. Manchin: First of all, I’m for an all-in energy policy. What I was against, and I’m still against, is Build Back Better. It was a very wide-ranging expansion of not only climate and not only energy, but it was basically geopolitical. We were changing everything in our social responsibilities.

You’re talking about the bigger bill? 

That was Build Back Better, that was $3.5 trillion. Trust me, it was always trillions and trillions of dollars, and I could never get there. In December of 2021, I said ‘I’m sorry, Mr. President, I can’t do it.’ And from that, I believed truly it would change who we are as a country. 

As John Kennedy said: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for it.’ And right now we’ve got people asking, ‘How much more can my country do for me?’ That’s not how you remain the superpower of the world. So I couldn’t get there. But I saw what was happening with the Ukraine War and Putin weaponizing energy the way he did. Automatically, we started turning towards removing sanctions from Venezuela and from Iran, and we were looking at Saudi Arabia and OPEC to do things that we couldn’t do for ourselves because we cut down our production and had not ramped back up. 

So I said, we got to do something with energy. They said: ‘Well, if you understand the energy policies and you’re an energy chairman, why don’t you write the bill?’ I told Senator Schumer: ‘Chuck, I will, but I’m not sure you or the caucus are going to like it because it’s going to be a balanced approach.’ 

I believe that we have to have energy independence to be energy secure and to remain a superpower. We do it cleaner and better than anybody else. So I want a very robust fossil fuel industry that’s putting out the energy that we need and doing it with the cleanest of technology and oversight. But also we can walk and chew gum. So we invested $360 billion in the clean technologies of the future that we have to mature. That’s what this bill did. So we took $3.5 trillion of spending and with the Inflation Reduction Act we reversed that to up to $400 billion of investment over 10 years. That’s a big change. 

We had Larry Summers with us just a few minutes ago. There have been press reports that a conversation with him helped convince you that this wouldn’t exacerbate inflation. Is that accurate? 

Larry is a very dear friend and I consult with him quite a bit. We talk back and forth and I value his input, his experience, and his oversight. But with that, sometimes we have some different approaches to different problems and challenges, and we go through that. But this is one time that I was sure: We went from spending to investing, and with investing there should be a return. 

There is more activity in the United States of America because we are where it’s going to happen. If you’re going to promote hydrogen, if you’re going to mature hydrogen, this is the country to come to. If you’re doing geothermal, if you’re doing nuclear, this is the country to come to. 

Senator, that’s a strong argument, but I saw a Morning Consult poll that shows that the people of West Virginia aren’t necessarily buying that, and that your approval rating may be down by 10 points or more. How do you feel about that? 

Well, I knew that going in. If I’m doing this simply for my poll ratings and my political future, then I’m in the wrong job and I shouldn’t be here. 

Everyone should be looking at that: What can you do for your country? I was against Build Back Better because it was bad for our country. We threw too much money in this market and we’re seeing the results of that. We did it with good intentions, but we just overdid it because politics started intervening and taking the lead. 

So I could not be for BBB. And I didn’t do it to hurt Democrats or help Republicans. But when I agreed to the Inflation Reduction Act, why would I voluntarily bring all that heat on me again if I didn’t think it was good for my country?  

I just want to get you to repeat that, because it’s so refreshing to hear. You knew when you voted for the Inflation Reduction Act that it would hurt you in the state of West Virginia? 

Absolutely. I knew it because my state is extremely red, but my state understands who I am. They don’t look at me and say: ‘That’s Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia.’ They just say: ‘That’s Joe. He’s been our governor. He’s been Secretary of State, and now he’s our senator.’ I don’t look at what Democrats and Republicans say—I have no interest in that. I say: ‘Can I go home and explain it?’ 

I knew this bill here would be politicized because it was only passed with reconciliation by Democrats only. But everything in the Inflation Reduction Act is things that I worked on with my Republican counterparts—my friends—over the last five or more years. But because we only had reconciliation, which was Democrats only, it became politicized. So Republicans had to be opposed to it. 

I’ll tell you, ask the industry. Ask Exxon Mobil, ask Shell, ask the big people. Ask them what we’re trying to do. You have to build infrastructure. And now the final straw with this is if we can get permitting reforms done? You shouldn’t take five or 10 years to meet the challenges and the needs of America when the civilized world takes one to three years. 

It now looks like politics is going to prevent that permitting reform for new oil and gas infrastructure and power transmission lines that you’ve been pushing from happening.

I don’t know. Some friends were mad at me about that. They were mad at me because we passed something. They were mad at me because they said that was a surprise. There wasn’t a Democrat who knew I was working on a bill, because it was just me and my staff who were working on the energy portion of the Inflation Reduction Act. I talked to Schumer and the White House knew that we were working on it, but no one else. 

I said: ‘I’ll deny anything you say because I don’t think you are going to accept.’ I think this bill is such a balanced bill but this administration was going too far to the left. They were being pulled to the left, which I thought was wrong for our country, and we had to get back to the center.

You’ve been a leading advocate of bipartisan action in Congress. You’ve had some successes but it’s been a big uphill battle, and we have a very divisive election going on when we vote next Tuesday in the midterms. What do you think the opportunity for bipartisan action is going to be when Congress comes back? 

I would say that the American public is going to demand results. You can’t just be saying that the Democrats are horrible, or that the Republicans are horrible. Sooner or later, you’re going to say: ‘Wait a minute. When are you going to do something for the country?’ 

When you say sooner or later—is it going to be sooner or is it going to be later? Because that seems to be what we’re doing right now. 

That’s exactly what’s happening right now. And you’re seeing this villainization in this political process we’re going through right now with this midterm election. But you still can’t get anything done, and that’s why I defended the filibuster [the procedure that lets senators block bills that lack at least 60 votes]. You get rid of the filibuster in the Senate and you’ve lost democracy as we know it because you will not have a check and balance on the executive branch of government. 

If you go back to 2016 and 2017, Donald Trump wasn’t aware of how this process worked. He kept saying to then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: ‘You got 54 Republicans, why don’t you just pass whatever we want?’ And to Mitch McConnell’s credit, he said: ‘No that’s not how the institution works.’ 

The institution is basically a check and balance, because if you get all Democrats, then you could push through things that we couldn’t stop. 

The Senate is the most unusual body in the world. The brilliance of our founding fathers is only holding by a thread, but it’s still holding. 

But bipartisan action used to happen on a fairly regular basis. Why has it gotten so hard and so much worse? And what could be done to make it better? 

Right now, you can’t go out to dinner with a lobbyist. They look at that as a bad thing, as if they were peddling influence. Democrats and Republicans used to come together, and in those days they would actually live in Washington. We wouldn’t go home every weekend. They wouldn’t pay all this money they’re paying for us to go home every Thursday night and come back Monday. Those things have changed because there’s no camaraderie right now. 

It’s hard to say no to your friends. My father always said: ‘If you have to say no, say it with a tear in your eye,’ because it has to hurt you as much as it hurts your friend. That’s not what’s happening anymore, there’s no tears being shed right now in Washington. 

So where do we go from here? First of all, earmarks [when Congress sets aside funding for a specific local project] are horrible. They’re just basically bridges to nowhere. If you do earmarks properly, it makes all of us work together and help each other. You know the needs of your state better than anybody else. But you should be able to make that public well in advance, so you can have public comment on where you want to direct money to in your state and why the need is there. 

That makes all of our colleagues work with us. It makes us say: ‘I really need this. We’ve got a hospital that just can’t make it. It’s in a rural area. Can you help me?’ And we can help. But we need to put that out on the internet, let the people from your state comment on that and see if it’s really what your state needs. There’s ways to do this, but we are trying to be too pure and too goody-two-shoes. 

It’s the lubrication that makes the process work. 

There you go. We’ve eliminated that from the process because they found out someone abused this or someone abused that. We have people in the environmental communities, and their definition of climate change is basically elimination. Eliminate every drop of oil, every MCF of gas, every lump of coal. My definition of global climate change is this: Use more fossil fuels from America—which is cleaner with all of the oversight that we have—and replace the dirty fuels in the world. 

Senator, part of the problem here is that most of your colleagues in the Senate and the House don’t ever have to run in a general election where they have to talk to people from both parties. They run critical elections or primaries where they only talk to true believers. 

Well, my state is the reddest state in the United States of America, along with Wyoming. President Trump has won my state two times in a row by 40 points. Now, you can imagine me, with a D next to my name, and there’s always been guilt by association, but I’ve never seen it raised to this level. 

There’s guilt by association because you have a D or an R by your name. And I can tell you, that D is not anything that would prevent me from trying to take a good idea from you even if you have an R by your name and say: ‘That’s great. Let’s do it.’ 

But that’s what we’re dealing with right now. It’s even gotten so bad it’s become guilt by conversation. We’ve gone past guilt by association. We’ve gone to guilt by conversation. 

You can’t talk to people on the other side. 

Very seldom. And if you’re seen doing that, you seem like you’re compromising and that you’re weak. That is as crazy as I’ve ever seen it, and I’m not going to partake in that. 

So what changes? When I go out and talk to people I don’t talk badly about the Republicans because they’re all my friends. I want to work with them and I’ve always felt that way. When I was governor, I used to bring them over to the governor’s mansion to have dinner with them all the time. I wanted them to be part of this process. But now all of a sudden we can’t have a conversation, we can’t have dinner, and we can’t socialize with each other. That’s ridiculous. 

The worst thing can happen to me is I get defeated, and I get sent home. That’s a pretty good consolation for doing what you think is right. 

You do have an election coming up in two years. Why run again? 

I’m not sure what I’m going to do in two years. I’ve been at this for over 40 years now. But anytime that I can help, and if I can be something positive, Republicans always know one thing: They have a Democrat who has never given any money to any of their opposition. If I have a sitting colleague and a Republican is running for reelection, I will not give money to any Democrats running against him. I think it’s wrong. Let the people in that state choose who they want and I’ll work with them. They know they’ve got a friend. 

What are the issues that you think have a shot of bipartisan action in the next two years? Where can you get the two sides together, if anywhere? 

I mean, this inflation. And we all have blame to share here. When we first started, no one knew about COVID. The only thing I ever knew about a pandemic is my great-grandfather who died in 1918 of influenza when he came to America from Italy. So we didn’t know what to expect. 

People started saying then: ‘When we had the financial crisis of 2008 to 2009, President Obama and the legislature didn’t put enough money in to get us out of that funk as quickly as they should have to help us recover.’ They wanted to make sure we didn’t do that again. 

We had two things hitting us. We had a health crisis and the possibility of a financial crisis. We wanted to prevent both of those. We should give President Trump credit for accelerating and pushing everybody to get a vaccine quicker than anyone thought that could ever come to market. Next, we put about $2 or $3 trillion into the economy in that first year in 2020. Then what happened? We got to November of the election year. So what we needed to do in a bipartisan way turned into the greed of politics again, with everyone asking who gets credit for it.

Then President Trump wanted to send everybody a check for $2,000. I kept telling him from the beginning that I was not for sending checks out because I looked back in history and I never saw that FDR ever sent a check out to anybody in the Great Depression. He sent out opportunities like the WPA or the CCC and gave people a chance to survive. We didn’t do that. We just kept sending checks, and we changed the psyche of America. 

But looking ahead, what are the similar opportunities for bipartisanship? 

We’ve got to get our financial house in order. We cannot live with this crippling debt. If we don’t get our house in order, if we don’t look at the trust funds that are going bankrupt—whether it be Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, highway—all the ones that are having tremendous problems right now. If we can’t come to grips with how we face the financial challenges this country has, then we’re all going to be paying a price that we can’t afford. 

Senator, you’re speaking to a room full of CEOs. What can the business community do to better engage with this somewhat dysfunctional political system you’ve been describing? 

Quit writing checks to everybody. 

Everybody? Just don’t give any money to any politicians?

Let me explain. All of the people that are with you right now are so successful and have done so well. God bless them all. I’m proud of each and every one of them. And they’ve been so successful by taking risks and expecting returns on their investments. 

The investments you’ve made in politics—from the Democrat side and the Republican side—by asking nothing in return is a foolish investment because you would never do that in your business world or your private life. But you do in your political life. You say: ‘This side’s better than that side so I’ll give them money,’ or ‘I don’t like that side, they’re too liberal,’ or ‘I don’t like this side because they’re deniers and they can’t accept the truth of the facts.’

It’s a back and forth, but why don’t you do this: Tell a politician who comes to you: ‘I’m sorry. I don’t give checks. I don’t give a donation or contribution to any politician. I’m willing to make an investment. What should I expect from you? What are you going to do? What have you done in your political life, and what will you do if this is your first time? Tell me so I can make a decision on whether I want to invest in you, because I can expect something in return.‘

Senator, good advice. 

We can’t fix it in Washington. You know why? You all are supporting bad behavior. You’re giving checks for bad behavior. Everybody is giving a lot of money to bad behavior. The small donors are giving a lot of money and the larger donors are contributing too. 

I’ll guarantee it, a child doesn’t change their behavior if they’re getting rewarded for it. 

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