This week, Mitch McConnell voted to advance one of Joe Biden’s top legislative priorities. For many Democrats in Congress and pundits in the commentariat that development seemed to violate a law of political physics.
Biden had campaigned on his (putative) gifts for brokering compromise. But savvy observers knew that the candidate was singing paeans to a long-dead deity: The God of Bipartisanship had forsaken Congress shortly after Barack Obama took office. As the ideological gap between the parties widened, the scope for common cause narrowed. Meanwhile, McConnell had discerned that the voting public blames the president’s party for government dysfunction, even if that dysfunction emanates from the opposition. Thus, there could be no win-win compromises: Any legislation that bolstered Obama’s reputation for deal-making would redound to Democrats’ benefit and the GOP’s detriment; conversely, if Republicans blocked necessary stimulus and orchestrated government shutdowns and debt-ceiling crises the buck would stop with the Democratic president. Presumably, Biden remembered all this. His promise to glad-hand Republicans until they became good-faith governing partners was surely a cynical pose.
But this week, Biden managed to win his bipartisan merit badge without betraying the Democratic base. The $550 billion infrastructure agreement is deficient in many respects. If the impending $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill does not pass, then the bipartisan deal’s failure to prioritize green investment will be lamentable. By itself, however, the agreement is good. Seventeen Senate Republicans just voted to advance a bill that increases public spending on mass transit, electric vehicles, lead-pipe replacement, and a wide range of conventional infrastructure projects — without demanding any offsetting cuts to social spending or regressive taxes.
The infrastructure bill has not yet passed the Senate, let alone the House. McConnell and 16 of his Republican colleagues only voted to “open debate” on the bill Wednesday. But nowadays, such votes are fairly reliable proxies for ultimate support. The bipartisan deal could provoke progressive opposition in the House, especially if moderate Democrats obstruct the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. Nevertheless, odds now favor a bipartisan infrastructure bill’s passage.
So: How did Biden defy his critics’ expectations, and succeed where his predecessor failed? Here are five reasons this infrastructure week was different from all others.
1) Corporate America ain’t afraid of no roads.
To give Biden’s doubters our due: On the campaign trail, the president promised that his deal-making prowess would enable the passage of bipartisan immigration, gun control, and health-care reforms — not a mere surface transportation bill. “I am uniquely capable of securing a bipartisan infrastructure bill that is somewhat larger than the one Obama passed in 2015” wouldn’t have been a terribly inspiring campaign pledge.
Biden isn’t persuading Republicans to cooperate on anything that threatens the party’s core constituencies. Increasing federal funding for conventional infrastructure will not aggravate nativists, roil firearm enthusiasts, provoke pro-lifers, or incense capitalists. It might discomfit a few libertarian billionaires. But new spending on roads, bridges, transit, rural broadband, and electrical utilities will only improve life for Republican voters, and increase corporate America’s aggregate profitability. On Wednesday, the Chamber of Commerce issued a hearty endorsement of the infrastructure bill.
Thus, infrastructure investment is one of the few forms of pork that congressional Republicans can deliver to their constituents without hitting any ideological tripwires. And many of the party’s lawmakers are eager to bring home the bacon. As NBC News notes, when campaigning for reelection last year, McConnell explicitly promised to help Kentucky “punch above its weight” in the competition for infrastructure investments, while touting federal projects he’d previously won for the state.
2) Congress isn’t as broken as it looks.
The U.S. Congress has earned its infamously low approval rating. Thanks to myriad flaws in our archaic constitutional order, the federal legislature perennially fails to address the nation’s most pressing policy challenges. Its tepid response to climate change has condemned younger generations to an evermore inhospitable planet. Its inaction on immigration has left millions of Americans living in the shadows.
Still, it is not actually the case that Congress is perpetually gridlocked by partisan polarization. As Matt Yglesias has noted, the body actually passes a lot of bipartisan legislation when you aren’t looking.
For example, the infrastructure deal is not actually the first major bipartisan legislation of the Biden era — that title goes to the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, which authorized $250 billion in federal spending on scientific research, innovation, and domestic semiconductor manufacturing. That bill passed the Senate in May amid little fanfare.
During the last years of the Obama administration, meanwhile, congressional Democrats and Republicans reached agreement on a major revision of federal education policy, VA reform, a ban on plastic microbeads in beauty products, and a $305 billion infrastructure bill.
Donald Trump, for his part, presided over the passage of a ban on surprise billing, anti-money-laundering legislation, an increase in the legal age of tobacco purchase, and a $35 billion investment in clean energy R&D.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill has attracted more notice than any of these reforms. But it has not generated nearly as much interest or enthusiasm, among liberals or conservatives, as the Affordable Care Act or the Trump tax cuts did. This is in part because:
3) Conservative media is more interested in sabotaging public health than highway funding.
Donald Trump tried to turn Biden’s infrastructure bill into a culture-war flashpoint. His ego threatened by the prospect of his rival inking the deal that eluded him, Trump decried the bipartisan deal as a “loser for the USA” that made “Republicans look weak.” But Trump no longer has a Twitter account. And throughout the Biden presidency, right-wing media has evinced relatively little interest in demagoguing Biden’s bread-and-butter legislative agenda. These days, moral panic about “critical race theory” and anti-public-health identity politics have more resonance with the Republican base than jeremiads against federal spending. And that’s made it a lot easier for (some) Senate Republicans to play ball. As the political scientist David Hopkins observes:
Some of the Senate Republicans participating in the bipartisan infrastructure negotiations, like Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski, have already survived confrontation with Trump or his conservative media allies. Others, like Rob Portman and Richard Burr, are not planning to seek another term and may not care much what the Fox News audience thinks about them. But a few Republican members of the “gang of 20,” like Todd Young of Indiana or Mike Rounds of South Dakota, might well be made uncomfortable if their names and faces repeatedly led off the top of Tucker Carlson Tonight broadcasts as accused enemies of Trump and the conservative cause. Fortunately for them, the infrastructure bill simply hasn’t been promoted to Republican supporters in the electorate as a critical test of ideological purity.
4) Republicans couldn’t undermine the Biden economy through obstruction, even if they wanted to.
The GOP has a well-earned reputation for ruthlessness on economic policy. In 2009, with a Democrat in the White House and the economy in recession, Republicans demanded balanced budgets and tight monetary policy. Eight years later, with the economy expanding and Trump at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the GOP supported a (de facto) $1.5 trillion stimulus and low benchmark interest rates. Which is to say: Consciously or otherwise, Republicans have sought to slow economic growth under Democratic presidents and juice it under GOP ones.
Given this tendency, one might have expected McConnell & Co. to oppose an infrastructure bill so as to prevent a favorable economic environment for the incumbent party in 2022 and/or 2024.
But congressional Republicans don’t have the power to sabotage the post-COVID recovery, even if they wanted to. It remains possible that the incipient recovery will falter in the face of the Delta variant and supply-chain bottlenecks. But the recovery’s trajectory will not be determined by the GOP. In March, Democrats passed a $1.9 trillion relief bill on a party-line basis. That legislation shored up the finances of state governments and households, providing the economy with robust demand. And the American Recovery Act also proved that the Democratic Party’s narrow congressional majorities are capable of passing major spending bills through the reconciliation process, even in the face of unanimous Republican opposition.
For these reasons, it is both too late for Republicans to slow the recovery by choking off necessary stimulus and impossible for McConnell to veto further spending through obstruction. If the bipartisan infrastructure talks had collapsed amid Republican intransigence, then a more Democratic version of conventional infrastructure financing would have been appended to the upcoming reconciliation bill. So there was little tension between McConnell’s ruthless electoral calculations and his desire to deliver pork to Kentucky. True, cutting a deal bolsters Biden’s bipartisan bona fides. But it does the same for the GOP’s vulnerable incumbents. And anyhow, with Republicans likely to regain the House through gerrymandering alone, the party can survive a tiny boost to Biden’s approval rating.
5) Fiscal constraints remain an abstraction, not a crisis.
Throughout negotiations over the bipartisan package, “pay fors” had been the primary stumbling block. With the GOP religiously opposed to raising taxes on the wealthy, and Democrats disinclined to raise taxes on anyone else, mutually agreeable sources of revenue were few and far between.
The Senate moderates’ compulsion to offset every dollar of new infrastructure investment was always a bit odd. Congress routinely authorizes increases in the federal budget without raising taxes. And in the opinion of most mainstream economists, there is nothing fiscally irresponsible about borrowing money at near-zero interest rates in order to invest in productivity-enhancing capital. Nevertheless, the bipartisan negotiators felt compelled to perform the ritual of fiscal restraint.
Happily, they did not feel compelled to engage in such restraint. Much to the chagrin of deficit hawks, the infrastructure bill is financed largely through small-bore loophole closures and budgetary gimmicks. The proposal extracts revenue from unused COVID funds, custom fees, petroleum reserve sales, and reporting requirements for cryptocurrency users, among other things. These measures still left $56 billion of the bill unpaid for. So, the lawmakers declared that their bill would generate $56 billion in “long-term economic growth.”
This arrangement would not have been possible if moderates were worried about fiscal constraints as a substantive matter rather than as a symbolic one. Inflation has been rising in recent months, but long-term interest rates remain low. Few powerful constituencies are suffering any significant downside from expansionary fiscal policy. Credit is cheap, stocks are booming, price growth is concentrated in specific sectors with peculiar (and in many cases, plausibly temporary) supply constraints. Congress can therefore authorize new deficit spending and win applause from the Chamber of Commerce.
Joe Biden does not possess any magic formula for persuading Republicans to govern responsibly. He cannot make Mitch McConnell value climate sustainability over tax-code regressivity. What Biden and his congressional allies have done is cajole Senate Republicans into accepting a free lunch.