A Big Win for the Country, But There’s A Lot of Necessary Work That’s Left Out
After several tons of words and excruciating skeins of negotiations, enough Republican senators have joined with Democrats to pass a trillion-dollar “hard” infrastructure bill to repair roads, airports, bridges, and, maybe, wireless connections.
We should be celebrating, though all the fighting, maneuverings and delays have pretty much worn out most good feelings about it. And this bill, large as it is, fails to address even the beginnings of what needs to be addressed next, like climate and income-inequality.
Plus, we now need to go over exactly the same ideological grounds in the House, fight again about a much larger Democratic package to address “human infrastructure” that includes health and child care, and the beginnings of intelligent response to climate issues, and then, again, inevitably, over the budget and debt ceiling changes needed to pay for it all.
Indeed, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has indicated that unless the Senate also passes the larger social services bill by any means, the House may withhold support for the compromise infrastructure package.
If by some chance, you haven’t paid attention to this never-ending drama, it comes down to most Democrats except for Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona saying yes to pretty much everything toward spending, and most Republicans, including Donald Trump, finding either easy or more difficult ways to say no.
There are attempts to declare winners and losers, of course, but if it is easier in a couple of years to get into an airport or safely cross a bridge, maybe we can be generous about the wins here.
For the rest of us, what are the big takeaways from the Senate’s approval of the first infrastructure package in at least five years –- the bill that the Trump administration could never seem to organize and pass. What we should be celebrating is the idea that we finally want to pony up some dough to address actual safety and basic problems: The house has a leaking roof and pipes, and it’s only going to be fixed if we address the issues.
Instead, we have to measure success here against political outcomes, which is distressing, and by so limiting the questions as to ignore the leaks in our physical and mental health, our environment and our ability to go to work in the first place. Still, passage in the Senate is good news, and we should regard it as such.
- The actual project list is still to be fully described, but they are distributed among highway, bridge, airport, rail and wireless improvements, most of which will be sliced and diced appropriately over 50 states in ways that allow political incumbents to take credit. The bill, some 2,700 pages long, is neither an inconsequential investment nor a panacea to all that ails even our concrete problems, ultimately has reflected compromise. But it would not be wrong to see this as a jobs bill that will keep on giving both literally and politically.
- Depending on which end of the telescope you choose, this bill is an ultimate bow to believers in senatorial bipartisanship or an example of why nothing really consequential can get done in the split Senate. The argument that what we have is a system of forced concessions to get anything done offers a better explanation. It is impossible to escape politics in this discussion, which is why Senate Democrats want a hard-fought victory for Joe Biden, and Republicans want to drag their feet on anything that seems to help their opponents since they did not pass such a bill while Trump was in office. In either case, “bipartisanship” has come to mean something quite other than two parties working together, outside of a small group of centrists.
- Bigger fish lie ahead. The $3.5 trillion proposal for “human infrastructure” is one that will not get “bipartisan” support and will depend entirely on Democrats using arcane “budget reconciliation” techniques to pass it by themselves and the vice president. Everyone knows how the game is played, and it is only a question of whether Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Biden can keep Manchin and Sinema in the fold to finally start to address income inequality, big holes in Medicare and child care, and selected investments in alternative energy sources. Our job is to watch for efforts to load this bill with yet more. And to wonder exactly why Manchin thinks he is a Democrat representing a very Republican state.
- Paying for all of it remains elusive, with various unspent money, including Covid relief aid and future borrowing driving the agenda. Formal predictions are that the bill will put more pressure on the national debt, as Republican opponents keep pointing out, without acknowledging that their unpaid-for corporate tax cuts did the same without benefits to most in the middle classes. But concerns about inflation as a result of increased spending seem overstated when amortized over 10 years of growth.
Not Addressed: Working Together
Changes in limiting voting through state elections laws, demographic shifts coming in the U.S. Census and the predominance of money as a determinant in our elections make it likely that none of the gridlock we see in Congress is going away. As we see repeatedly, this country doesn’t like big shifts in policy and certainly favors government that doesn’t cost it anything, as if that is possible.
If anything, the standard political forecasting seems to be toward a mid-administration turn once again toward Republican majorities in Congress – something that Republican operatives are seeking to ensure through everything from gerrymandering to changing voting rules to limit votes in areas presumed Democratic.
What we’re not addressing through this bill is just how difficult a process it has been to get attention and action on something that 80% or 90% of the country agrees, on which even both parties agree in one fashion or another. We’re spending inordinate amounts of time talking about Senate filibuster rules rather than falling bridges. Maybe none of that is new, but it is sure tedious, and there Is no likelihood of change ahead.
If Republicans take over in one or both houses, we’ll see the same opposition from Democrats in the enemy trenches, though the issues are bound to be different. Republicans have yet to come up with effective programs to expand healthcare, prescription drug prices, alternative energy development, environmental rules. Their program, oversimplified, is erasing all obstacles to corporate growth and greed, whether in escaping taxes or in polluting without concern for workers or customers.
Take pride that senators could suck it up to get one big bill passed, and be apprehensive that these senators can even discuss healthcare and climate with anything resembling benefit over ideology.