On Infrastructure, What’s the Plan?

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June 15, 2021 8:58 a.m.

One of my subsidiary frustrations in the infrastructure debate and legislative process is how difficult it is even to make sense of what’s going on. I’ve mentioned in a few posts that this is not only a research or reporting problem. It’s hard to have good messaging for what you’re trying to do, build public support or keep supporters engaged, if even those whose job it is to make sense of things, who understand a lot of the jargon and technicalities, struggle to make sense of it. I’ve read a fair amount and discussed it with various people at the highest levels of the process. And I can barely make sense of it.

With that introduction, a few thoughts.

One of the number of ideas or strategies Democrats are working with is the idea that Biden can get his bipartisan deal by cleaving off some portion of ‘hard’ infrastructure for a bipartisan vote and then pass the rest of his infrastructure agenda through a 50 vote reconciliation bill. Under ‘soft’ infrastructure you have all the caring economy and most of the climate stuff. But critically also the tax increases.

This has a certain logic to it. You get the whole package, hard and soft infrastructure even if not quite at the same spending levels, and you also get a big bipartisan deal. Most Democratic partisans don’t care about that. But Biden does and many Democratic senators do too. As we’ve discussed before, getting something done matters far more politically than who votes for it. But to the extent you can get both we shouldn’t discount the value of the symbolism of bipartisanship for some voters who Democrats need.

From the start though I’ve been concerned that this creates a situation in which Republicans get to participate in the really popular stuff and then Democrats have to carry the more demonizable caring economy and tax increases on their own. Again, at the end of the day you want to pass the whole program. Maybe this is overthinking it. But again, why let Republicans pick and choose the sweets while Democrats have to eat all the vegetables?

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There’s an article in Politico this morning that captures a different angle on this. Republicans are deciding that if they up their spending on hard infrastructure and do that with a bipartisan deal the remainder may be marginal enough politically that Democrats won’t be able to pass it on their own. From Politico: “Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) surmised Monday that if a bipartisan package comes to fruition, the only remaining ways for Democrats to pay for a second bill on social spending programs are tax increases — too toxic to pursue.”

Importantly, Republicans are angling to keep the hard infrastructure bill mostly free of climate related spending. The Portman-Sinema negotiations have a way of saying it’s $1.2 over eight years but Politico says that’s “including $579 billion in new spending.” That sounds to me like it’s a $579 billion infrastructure bill with other razzmatazz added, probably cannibalizing most of the rest from the COVID relief bill, which Josh Kovensky described here.

As they say, looking at the legislative process is never pretty. But this seems like a bait and switch in which Biden ends up with a pretty small infrastructure bill or at best one in which Republicans can take credit for the most popular stuff and then use everything else to run against Democrats in 2022.

One more point. McConnell reiterated yesterday that Republicans will support zero new taxes. But he also emphasized that everything needs to be paid for. So again, any deficit spending Republicans will use to run against Democrats in 2022.

The reality is that this is not and never was going to be easy. Democrats have literally no margin for error in the Senate. Whatever they do has to be supported by every last member of the caucus. That’s really tough when you’re talking about big legislation and big spending. But my global take is that time is of the essence, that the more time goes by the more the forces of inertia and comfort with the status quo build. I’m not sure that perception is shared among the people guiding the process. And that worries me a lot.

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