Take the win
Why the Biden administration should press Congress to pass its infrastructure bill ASAP
It’s easy to question the wisdom of the Biden administration’s overall strategy to tie passage of the $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to its proposed $3.5 trillion Build Back Better reconciliation package. President Biden fell into this approach at the end of the day despite the obvious warning signs from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) that proposed reconciliation legislation would need to be pared back significantly. The end result has been the political trainwreck that’s unfolded in Washington over the past month and a half as Democrats scramble to keep their unwieldy coalition together long enough to pass both bills by the end of the month.
No matter how the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats arrived at this point, however, it’s now imperative that they get their infrastructure legislation passed as soon as possible. They should take the win and keep negotiating on the reconciliation package with Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) as long as necessary. It makes no sense to hold infrastructure legislation hostage to talks on a still-undefined spending package that will inevitably fail to meet the expectations of many in Congress.
There are three main reasons for the Biden administration to take a win on infrastructure as soon as possible:
Have something in hand for the upcoming Glasgow climate summit. As things stand now, there’s a real chance that the United States could show up to the upcoming global climate summit in Glasgow with nothing to show for itself. That will make it all the more difficult for American diplomats to make and secure climate commitments at the summit – even if Congress manages to pass one or both pieces of legislation after Glasgow, the damage American climate diplomacy will have already been done. As Brian Katulis and I argued last week in these pages, making presidential promises that Congress can’t or won’t back up doesn’t exactly constitute a recipe for diplomatic success.
It’d certainly be preferable to pass both bills with most of their climate provisions intact ahead of the Glasgow summit. But that shouldn’t lead us to underestimate or discount the climate provisions of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. As the Biden administration itself brags, the legislation invests $105 billion in public mass transit and passenger rail, $12.5 billion in electric buses and electric vehicle infrastructure, $42 billion in airport and port infrastructure to reduce both backlogs and emissions, and $60 billion in updating the nation’s electric power grid – what the administration calls “the single largest investment in clean energy transmission in American history.”
In other words, the infrastructure bill that’s already passed the Senate represents significant progress on climate – progress that can strengthen the hand of American diplomats at Glasgow and beyond. America needs to show the world that it’s willing to take action against climate change, not hold progress hostage to perfection.
Make good on President Biden’s inaugural pledge of national unity. In his inaugural address, President Biden pledged bring America together in a spirit of constructive unity. That’s easier said than done, of course, and he’s gotten little help from the other side of the partisan political divide. But if passed, the infrastructure bill offers Biden a concrete example of practical unity he can point to moving forward. After all, the legislation ultimately won the votes of nineteen Senate Republicans along with all fifty of their Democratic counterparts.
Matters may be different in the House, where a number of members have held up the bill unless it’s paired with the reconciliation package. But at least some House Republicans appear ready to vote for the infrastructure legislation – not enough to make up for defections among Democrats, but not nothing either. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill may not be a perfect piece of legislation, but it does show that it’s possible to make progress on important issues.
Show that democracy works – and deliver where Trump couldn’t. One of President Biden’s other main themes has revolved around the necessity of showing that democracy works – particularly in the face of challenges from autocratic governments like China. As Biden himself put it in his first address to a joint session of Congress, “We have to prove democracy still works — that our government still works and we can deliver for our people.”
At the same time, a number of elected officials and commentators have expressed concern about the Biden administration’s commitment to fix the flaws in American democracy. When asked by The Atlantic whether the president was doing enough rectify the nation’s democratic deficits, for instance, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) replied, “No, of course not.” That assessment rests largely on the fate of legislation intended to protect voting rights, but President Biden’s own stated diagnosis of the problems facing democracy around the world has more to do with countering perceptions that democratic forms of government can’t deliver the basic things their citizens expect.
In that respect, passing infrastructure legislation ought to be a no-brainer. Not only would it show that America’s democracy can still function, it’d deliver on an issue that former President Trump could only talk about. “Infrastructure week” became a running joke during the Trump administration, both as a synecdoche for the former president’s political ineptitude and a real-life example of the philosophical notion of eternal recurrence. By making good on his own infrastructure pledge, President Biden would take the wind out of the sails of Trump and other populists who rely on gridlock and the cynicism about government it fosters to generate popular support.
If we truly believe democracy is in grave and imminent danger, then it’s incumbent on the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress to deliver wherever and whenever they can.
It’s been clear for months now that the ambitious reconciliation package plans formulated by the Biden administration and House Democrats would inevitably be cut back by Manchin and other Democrats in the Senate. There’s no reason to continue holding infrastructure legislation hostage to a reconciliation plan that’s still in flux and subject to ongoing negotiations. Better for the administration to take the win and keep talking on reconciliation than risk both bills – all while undermining America’s negotiating position at Glasgow and threatening to hand political ammunition to Trump-style populists.
Similarly, it’s always been unrealistic to expect Congress to pass legislation on the scale of the New Deal or Great Society given the slim Democratic majority in the House and a fifty-fifty Senate. If not for unexpected run-off wins in both Georgia Senate races, moreover, the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress wouldn’t even be having these discussions to begin with. In the end, the logic to passing infrastructure as soon as possible boils down to this simple calculus.
Still, there’s no need to lament this state of affairs. With infrastructure passed, talks on reconciliation can continue. American diplomats will have something to show for themselves at Glasgow, and President Biden will be able to say he delivered on something his predecessor could only bluster about. To paraphrase the philosophers Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Democrats can’t always get what they want – but if they enact the infrastructure bill laying on the table, they just might get what they need.