We Made a Deal!
The infrastructure bill’s bipartisan support didn’t come cheap.
Unless something goes pear-shaped.
Unless House Democrats remember that they, too, were elected to play a role in the lawmaking process instead of rubberstamping the dictates of a handful of senators.
Unless Senate progressives think Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema is going to stab them in the back on the forthcoming $3.5 billion reconciliation vote—the real prize—and opt not to be played for fools.
Unless enough senators realize that the bipartisan coalition is sufficiently fragile to need every vote it can get, and start tacking on wish lists of expensive demands for their home states.
Unless Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell finds an excuse to convince his caucus to blow up the deal at the last minute and blame Joe Biden or Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer.
Any of those things could happen. But odds are they won’t. Any Democrat who screws this up will soon find themselves wandering the wilderness. And McConnell doesn’t want to give Democrats an excuse to nix the filibuster when the White House caved on nearly every Republican demand.
So we have a deal—a 2,702-page bill. The White House has the bipartisan achievement Biden’s lusted after like a teenager on prom night—and the infrastructure package Donald Trump could never pull off. It’s a political win. It will be applauded by pundits and used by institutionalists as evidence that Washington Is Not Broken.
“It has been decades—decades—since Congress passed such a significant, stand-alone investment,” an ebullient Schumer proclaimed.
The deal “makes the most significant long-term investment in our infrastructure and competitiveness in nearly a century,” enthused White House senior adviser Mike Donilon.
In a memo, Donilon, Biden’s 2020 campaign strategist, laid out why bipartisanship was good, citing polls showing that people, in general, thought bipartisanship was good.
“[The] bipartisan agreement is an important signal to voters that they’re being heard and that their government can work as they think it should,” Donilon wrote, “with elected officials from both sides of the aisle coming together to address the concerns that matter most in their lives.”
We should acknowledge what those Republican votes cost. Biden’s proposal, released in March, called for $2.6 trillion in new spending. The bipartisan infrastructure plan has $550 billion in new spending, just 21% of the original.
Biden proposed a $566 billion investment in research and development and manufacturing, which included research grants to historically Black colleges and universities and investments in climate change and energy research; $387 billion for housing, schools and buildings, including desperately needed upgrades for public housing and modernizing public schools; and $400 billion for home- and community-based care, which would have raised wages for home health care workers for the elderly and those with disabilities. The compromise provided no funding in any of these categories.
Biden also sought $363 billion for clean energy tax credits, $157 billion for electric vehicles, and $77 billion for public transit—potentially huge advancements in the fight against climate change—as well as $111 billion in water infrastructure (including funds to replace all lead pipes) and $24 billion to reconnect disinvested, largely minority communities that have been separated from downtowns or other important areas by major highways or bridges. The compromise spends zilch on clean energy, $39 billion on public transit, $15 billion on electric vehicles, $55 billion on water infrastructure, and just $1 billion on community reconnection.
For good measure, the deal also requires cities and states applying for federal credits for large transportation projects to commission a study on whether a private partnership—usually meaning a private entity gives the money for the road, then collects tolls—makes sense.
In short, Republicans forced Democrats to ignore racial inequity and climate change because they weren’t “real” infrastructure—and, more importantly, funding them would require taxing rich people or even funding the IRS to stop rich people from cheating on their taxes. Both of those were deal-killers.
Instead, the bipartisan groups found $550 billion in pay-fors by rummaging through congressional couch cushions for loose change: unused COVID funds, refunded unemployment supplements, money from cryptocurrency reporting, “$2.9 billion from extending available interest rate smoothing options for defined benefit pension plans.”
To be sure, $550 billion isn’t chump change. But the infrastructure bill sacrificed results for aesthetics.
That poses an interesting political question: Midterms are all about turnout, and they always favor the opposition’s straightforward message: Throw the bums out. It’s harder to rally the troops in defense of messy compromises that resulted from legislative slogs.
Progressives argue that the way to reverse the trend is to deliver big legislation. As Sen. Bernie Sanders told CNN shortly after Biden’s inauguration, “What history tells us is that when [Bill] Clinton won in ‘92, two years later, the Democrats didn’t do as much as they should have. They got swept out by the Republicans.”
Biden came out swinging with the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. His $3.5 trillion budget planned for later this year is similarly ambitious. But there’s no guarantee it will pass unscathed, and Republicans to carved up his infrastructure plan while he cheered from the Oval.
There are reasons to think the White House played this right. A bipartisan bill will be harder for Republicans to attack next year. And while voters care more about results than process, the moderate white suburbanites who found their way to Biden’s coalition during Trump’s presidency—likely voters, no less—might well think a bill is better if both parties sign off on it.
Most important, the key provisions excised from the infrastructure bill—climate change and health care, among others—can be folded into the budget and passed with a majority.
If Biden pulls that off, his first year in office will be ranked among the most momentous since FDR. If he fails, Democrats will have squandered a golden opportunity in pursuit of aesthetics.