The bipartisan infrastructure push: This is the way things are supposed to work

From the Compromise of 1790 onward, the American system is built around establishing broad consensus for major issues, passing bipartisan legislation where both parties get something they want.  The result is increased ownership of government programs and less acrimony.  Isn’t that what everyone claims to want for America?

Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of ten Senators, five Republicans and five Democrats, announced an agreement in principle on a roughly $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan, about $974 billion would be spent over 5 years with a remaining $200 billion spread over an additional three years.  The plan is expected to include $579 billion in new spending and “would be fully paid for and not include tax increases.”  The goal of the bipartisan group was to develop an alternative to Biden’s much bigger $2.3 trillion plan, announced earlier this year, by focusing on traditional infrastructure, things like roads, bridges, airports, and broadband, as opposed to a more expansive definition that includes healthcare and other Administration priorities.

The Biden Administration greeted the news of a bipartisan proposal with some optimism, though also some hedging on whether or not they would support it.  White House spokesman Andrew Bates noted that “questions need to be addressed, particularly around the details of both policy and pay fors, among other matters.”  He added, “Senior White House staff and the Jobs Cabinet will work with the Senate group in the days ahead to get answers to those questions, as we also consult with other Members in both the House and the Senate on the path forward.”  Some of the Administration’s concern center on how the bill will be paid for, and whether or not it would break Biden’s largely specious pledge not to raise taxes on any family making less than $400,000 per year.

Since the initial announcement of a potential bipartisan deal, eleven additional Republican Senators have endorsed the proposal, bringing the total number of Senator’s onboard to 21.  These Senators issued a statement last Wednesday, claiming “We look forward to working with our Republican and Democratic colleagues to develop legislation based on this framework to address America’s critical infrastructure challenges.”  With sixteen Republican’s onboard, there is now a clear path to a filibuster proof majority to secure a debate on the bill, if not outright passage, sometime in the near future. 

A Republican who worked on the compromise, Ohio Senator Rob Portman believes even more Republicans and potentially some additional Democrats would ultimately support the bill.  “I mean, this is a proposal for infrastructure that Republicans have traditionally supported. It’s also a proposal without raising income taxes,” he said.  “I think it’s something that’s going to get a lot of support on both sides of the aisle.”  Senator Portman also believes the bipartisan group could get Senate Leadership onboard, including Senate Majority Leader, Democrat Chuck Schumer, and Senate Minority Leader, Republican Mitch McConnell. Portman said McConnell is “open minded, as he’s said to the media…I think Democrats are talking to Sen. Schumer as well, and I think he’s also open minded.”

At the same time, the compromise faces opposition from more progressive members of the Democrat party like Bernie Sanders.  He told reporters last Monday that he will not support the bill because it lacks tax increases on the wealthy, “The bottom line is, there are a lot of needs facing this country,” Senator Sanders said. “Now is the time to address those needs, and it has to be paid for in a progressive way, given the fact that we have massive income and wealth inequality in America.”  Two other Democrat Senators, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, have also said they will not support the bill because it doesn’t do enough to fight climate change.  In the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is also hedging because she wants a plan that includes more Democrat priorities or at least the possibility of more down the line, “If [a bipartisan deal] is something that can be agreed upon, I don’t know how we can possibly sell it to our caucus unless we know there is more to come.”

Ultimately, passage of the bipartisan compromise remains unclear, but the existence of such a compromise in the first place is encouraging.  This is, in fact, how the system is supposed to work and how it largely worked from the George Washington Administration onward.  The United States has never been without big issues that needed to be addressed coupled with major disagreement on how to address them.  For example, in 1790 the fledgling nation faced two major decisions:  How to handle the debt incurred by the Revolutionary War and where to seat the new Capitol.  At the time, southerners like Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson were blocking Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s plan to have the new Federal Government assume responsibility for the debts incurred by the states, and northerners were blocking locating the Capitol in the lower half of the country.

To resolve the impasse, Jefferson and Hamilton met for dinner with the Speaker of the House James Madison.  The dinner is believed to have occurred at Jefferson’s lodgings on June 20, 1790, but no contemporaneous notes exist.  Jefferson described the meeting two years later, “It ended in Mr. Madison’s acquiescence in a proposition that the question [i.e., assumption of state debts] should be again brought before the house by way of amendment from the Senate, that he would not vote for it, nor entirely withdraw his opposition, yet he would not be strenuous, but leave it to its fate. It was observed, I forget by which of them, that as the pill would be a bitter one to the Southern states, something should be done to soothe them; and the removal of the seat of government to the [Potomac] was a just measure, and would probably be a popular one with them, and would be a proper one to follow the assumption.”

Ultimately, both the plans to assume public debt and locate the new Capitol in Virginia territory passed and a spirit of compromise was instilled in the new country.  Historian Jacob Cooke said what came to be known as the Compromise of 1790 is “generally regarded as one of the most important bargains in American history, ranking just below the better known Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850.”  Since then, most major legislation has passed only with the support of both parties, everything from the Social Security Act to the Civil Rights Act to the much more recent Medicare Prescription Drug Plan under the George W. Bush Administration.

In fact, it’s only in recent years, perhaps the last decade or so, that democracy has come to mean a slim majority forcing it’s will on a large minority by passing whatever happens to be their current pet projects.  Contrary to current progressive opinion, this is not the way things are supposed to work for several, mostly obvious reasons.

First, a functioning government requires a high level of stability and that requires broad consensus and joint-party ownership on major initiatives, plus support among the populace.  The alternative is exemplified in the continual fight over Obamacare for the past 12 years.  Whatever its merits, the former President’s Affordable Care Act passed without a single Republican vote and it shows:  Republicans have no interest in supporting any part of it and have spent ridiculous amounts of energy trying to repeal it, get it overturned by the courts, or dismantle it piece by piece.  They have been successful in some regards, unsuccessful in others, but the key point is that they have no incentive whatsoever to make the plan work.  Moreover, they are incentivized by their voters to behave this way.  Rightly or wrongly, Republicans believe Obamacare is a flawed, Democrat plan and want nothing to do with it.

We are witnessing a similar situation with the Trump tax plan passed in late 2017.  Technically, tax proposals can pass on a straight majority vote by using the reconciliation process in the Senate, but regardless of the mechanism, it is obvious that Democrats feel similar to Republicans with Obamacare.  Hence, we now face the distressing prospect that tax rates change with whoever controls the government.  Likewise, border security is something that seems likely to be rewritten based on whichever party happens to be in power at the moment, both construction of the border wall and agreements with Mexico have been rescinded since Biden took office.  Each party only owns what it does and wants, disowning the rest to all of our detriment.

The lack of compromise also increases the level of acrimony and bitterness between the parties, both in the government and at a grass roots level.  Political battles are nothing new in America, but continuous fights over essentially the same piece of legislation over and over again are something different than we’ve seen in the past.  The challenges here are two fold.  First, no one thinks anything is permanent anymore. Those that passed the bill are constantly defending it; those who objected are constantly trying to get rid of it.  Second, every battle is turned into a never ending war, placing the parties and their representatives in constant opposition to one another, all the time.  This increases tensions between Senators and Representatives, making it more difficult for them to work together on other issues.  This also encourages the party faithful to believe they are only a single election away from getting their way, placing them further at odds over what happened in the past and what will happen in the future.

Lastly, the lack of compromise enables relatively minor players to wield ridiculous amounts of power.  Right now, West Virginia Senator Joe Machin and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema control the entire business of the country for all practical purposes, often described as the center of the political universe.  This is only because they’re the 49th and 50th vote Democrats need to pass legislation on a purely party-line basis with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as the tie breaker.  Essentially, Senators Manchin and Sinema are in charge, turning the rest of the Senate into a side-show.  Democrats seem to think that eliminating the filibuster solves this problem, but that could make the situation even worse by permanently making the 50th vote the end-all-be all of any political agenda.

The result is ever increasing polarization and Presidents governing largely through Executive Orders.  The need to get 60 votes in the Senate and compromise on key issues solves these problems by offering everyone the ability to achieve something they want and binding both parties together around the legislation that ultimately passes.  This doesn’t imply anyone needs to compromise their core principles, merely that for major issues facing the country there are likely to be proposals from each side that can be combined together into a bill supported by both parties.  It’s the specifics of the proposal, not the principle that form the basis of the compromise.

For example, on economic issues there is likely a compromise to be made that includes liberal goals like increasing the minimum wage and establishing paid family leave with conservative goals like making the tax cuts permanent.  Likewise, an immigration deal could be forged around legal status for the Dreamers, border security, and reinstating the Remain in Mexico Policy.  There may even be something around global warming, combining green investments with streamlining other aspects of government spending on research and innovation.  While I am out on a limb here, why not throw in a potential deal on welfare and poverty programs that includes an increase in direct payments with reform and consolidation across the entire system?

In none of these cases would either party get everything they wanted, but the country as a whole would get legislation that is much more broadly supported, where both parties have an incentive to make it work, and where to achieve those goals the parties actually worked together.  Wouldn’t that be nice for a change, especially when the alternative is what we have now, something I don’t think anyone really believes is sustainable?

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