As a performance art, politics features more clowns than princes, and a media that often mistakes the melodrama for the plot. Thus, President Joe Biden was first lavishly praised for “reviving the art of dealmaking” with the bipartisan infrastructure agreement, and then skewered for endangering the same by implying that his signature was dependent on passage “in tandem” of a far bolder budget reconciliation package with Democratic votes only. Republicans feigned high dudgeon; The Wall Street Journal denounced the “bipartisan betrayal”; while the ever-apoplectic Senator Lindsay Graham charged “extortion.”
Don’t fall for the theatrics. The real deal is very different. The bipartisan agreement was less a negotiation with Republicans than with conservatives in the Democratic caucus that will alone determine the size, scope, and survival of the Biden Jobs and Family plans. Everyone—Republicans, Democrats, any observer with a clue—knew all along that Biden and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate were committed to passing a large budget resolution package with Democratic votes only through the arcane process known as reconciliation. Progressive ideas, movements and legislators drove that commitment, but the outcome is still uncertain, for it remains unclear whether conservative Democrats can be made to understand the reality of the crises facing the country and the political cost of failing to act. The Republican noise in the background is mostly a distraction.
The White House touts the bipartisan deal as a “generational investment,” which is a very low bar after a generation of starving public goods and services. The package calls for $579 billion in new spending over five years, largely on traditional infrastructure—roads, bridges, water projects—plus broadband, modernizing the electric grid, and a bit for electric cars. This amounts to barely more than $116 billion per year, one-half of 1 percent of the GDP, or a bit more than 2 percent of annual federal spending. Divided up among 50 states, it would provide little more than $2.3 billion to each state each year. Not nearly enough to meet the “infrastructure gap” that the American Society of Civil Engineers reports is over $2 trillion and growing.
The retrograde Republican imprint is apparent. Republicans opposed including any funding for human infrastructure—child care, parental leave, education—and that was left on the cutting-room floor. They still scorn what Biden correctly calls the “existential threat” of catastrophic climate change, so that too was left almost entirely out of the bill.
Investment in infrastructure generates jobs and growth will pay for itself, particularly at a time when the government can borrow for virtually nothing. Yet Republicans insist that any investment be largely “paid for,” and so it is. At a time of extreme inequality, with the headlines reporting on how 55 major corporations paid zero taxes, and the richest 1 percent pay lower rates than school teachers, Republicans remain staunchly opposed to any increase in taxes on the rich and corporations, so those too were dropped from the bill.
The White House opposed the Republican call to make working and poor people pay much of the bill by raising fuel taxes, but the bill includes a worse alternative, called “asset recycling,” raising billions by selling off public services, which simply allows private interests to profit from hiking the fees on users. Think Chicago parking meters.
The terms were less important to the White House than an agreement that would please Joe Manchin, Krysten Sinema, and other conservative Democrats and gain their support for a bolder budget reconciliation package.
This package now will include the major investments to meet the threat of climate change, plus commitments to human infrastructure—day care, extending the child tax credit, paid family leave, and more. Senator Bernie Sanders, the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, is putting together a $6 trillion 10-year package that also includes expanding Medicare coverage. Representative Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has called for that to be a floor, not a ceiling, while promoting the $10 trillion THRIVE alternative. The package will include tax hikes on the rich and corporations to calm the deficit scolds.
Republicans could torpedo the bipartisan infrastructure bill, but Democrats could simply add its provisions to the reconciliation package. Progressives have preferred one big bill all along.
In the end, the scope, size, and significance of what occurs lies completely in the hands of 217 House Democrats and 50 Senate Democrats. After the bipartisan deal, Joe Manchin announced that he would support a reconciliation bill passed by Democratic votes only and some “adjustments” to the Trump tax bill to help pay for it. He and other conservative Democratic senators will likely seek to curb the size of the package, and may even balk at some of the tax hikes.
Reality should help overcome their timidity. The seriousness of the cascading crises facing the country are ever more apparent. With 90 percent of the West already suffering severe drought and heat, for example, the threat posed by climate change is clear and present.
Second, progressives are right about the politics. Bold investments in these areas are remarkably popular. Efforts to fan public fears about deficits and inflation can be answered by hiking taxes on the rich and corporations, which polls indicate are the most popular part of Biden’s proposals.
Democrats are sensibly worried that they will suffer in the 2022 elections if they fail to deliver. As Obama learned, voters tend to blame the president and his party for not producing even when the minority opposition has conspired to obstruct any progress. With a strong economic recovery and programs like the child tax credit and paid family leave that make a material difference in people’s lives, Democrats have a chance to overcome the odds.
The battle over the reconciliation package will come to a head in October. Republicans will declaim about impending socialism or out-of-control deficits and inflation, but the real negotiations will remain inside the Democratic caucus. Progressives don’t have to convert Republicans; we just have to get Democrats to stand up. Then go out in 2022 and increase the Democratic majorities in both houses and elect more progressives, while weeding out more of the Democrats who are standing in the way.