Nine House Democrats are refusing to support the budget plan containing Joe Biden’s signature domestic agenda. The leader of the renegade caucus, New Jersey Democrat Josh Gottheimer, gave an interview with Punchbowl’s Jake Sherman about his strategy. The reasons Gottheimer put forward for his rebellion were nonsensical.
Gottheimer’s demand is that the House hold a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill before it proceeds on the larger Biden plan. Why is it so urgent to vote on this bill now that Gottheimer is willing to vote down the Democrats budget?
Gottheimer explained that the infrastructure bill is a “great, historic, once-in-a-century” bill that must be signed immediately. “We’ve got to get shovels in the ground, you’re talking about two million jobs a year for the next ten years,” he told Sherman. “If you’re in Jersey, where I live, one-third of our bridges are unsafe, third-worst roads in the country.”
So the putative argument is that roads and bridges are about to disintegrate, and they have to be repaired immediately so that the New Jersey drivers cowering in their homes for fear that their next trip to the mall will end in catastrophic collapse can venture out again.
What Gottheimer’s audience may not realize is that, between permitting, environmental review, and so on, construction projects take a fair amount of time to get started. Indeed, this bill spreads out its spending over a full decade. It seems bizarre to insist that a ten-year plan to upgrade physical infrastructure is so urgent that it must be signed into law immediately, rather than waiting a few months.
Gottheimer proceeded to suggest that waiting to sign the infrastructure bill could imperil its prospects. “You’ve got great momentum, you’ve got 19 Republicans in the Senate behind this, you’ve got the AFL-CIO and Chamber of Commerce and others supporting it,” he argued.
That would be a decent case for a quick vote, except for the fact that the 19 Senate Republicans who support the bill have already voted for it. The bill passed the Senate. They can’t un-vote for it now even if they want to.
Sherman put extremely little pressure on Gottheimer’s farcical account, which is perhaps unsurprising given that Sherman all but put him up to this strategy in the first place.
But later in the interview, Gottheimer proceeded to hint at his real motivations. He explained that his bottom-line demand in the budget bill is tax relief for constituents who lost their state and local tax deduction from the Trump tax cuts: “I’ve said ‘No SALT [state and local tax deduction], no dice.’” He elaborated, more revealingly, that his decision on the budget would be shaped by the tax increases used to pay for it: “What are the revenue raisers? And that matters a lot for me, given in northern New Jersey here, things are really expensive and I think taxes should be lower, not higher.”
What Gottheimer is signaling here is that he wants to play hardball on Biden’s domestic plan, and his goals are to hold down the tax hikes on the wealthy that will pay for it, while maximizing tax relief for upper-middle class. He rationally believes that, if he has to make a deal with more liberal Democrats to get their support for the infrastructure bill, he’ll lose some of the leverage he has to hold out. That’s why he wants to pass infrastructure first. It has nothing to do with the urgency of fixing those bridges before they collapse any day now.
Gottheimer and his eight partners are following a fairly traditional congressional parochialism. They are using their leverage to advance the narrow interests of their constituents (or, in this case, a tiny subset of their wealthiest constituents who have the most pull).
There are, however, two circumstances that make this traditional tactic unusually dangerous. The first is that the Democrats simply don’t have the margins. They have no votes to spare in the Senate, and three in the House. You can’t pass bespoke legislation catering to the individual needs of 218 members of Congress and 50 senators. If every member behaved like Gottheimer’s squad is behaving, passing a bill would be impossible.
The second, broader fact is that Biden’s success is the only thing standing between the country and the return to power of an opposition party in the midst of a headlong plunge into authoritarianism. The overriding imperative is to pull together and make the Biden administration a success. If every member holds the process hostage to their idiosyncratic demands, the agenda will slow down, look more and more dysfunctional, and bring the party down with it.
All Democrats realize this imperative to succeed. For most, the desperation to succeed is an impetus to compromise for the greater good. For the Gottheimer Squad, it is an opportunity to ramp up their own demands.