3 cheers for the bipartisan infrastructure deal, from a skeptic of bipartisanship

·5 min read
A handshake.
A handshake. Illustrated | iStock

Break out the bunting! Pop the champagne! With the bipartisan agreement to move forward with a $1 trillion bill, Infrastructure Week is finally here!

Well, hopefully it is. The text of the bill hasn't yet been released, and there's still plenty of time for Republicans to bail. Meme-ready charts have already been ginned up showing how this bill is a piece of Swiss cheese compared to what the Democrats originally proposed, and that the climate-related spending in particular is a tiny fraction of what President Biden campaigned on.

Nonetheless, I'm not being sarcastic. I think it's worth applauding the agreement, not merely in spite of the limits to what has been agreed across party lines, but in part because of them.

I don't make a fetish of bipartisanship. There are certain things — like setting the rules for and running elections — that really do require either bipartisanship or strenuous nonpartisanship to prevent self-dealing and create broad confidence across the electorate. But in general, if you've got a majority, there's nothing wrong with trying to enact your agenda through partisan means. On the contrary: doing so leaves you plainly accountable to the voters for that agenda, which is a good thing.

That's why Democrats were right to refuse to negotiate on privatizing Social Security in the Bush years. The proposal was unpopular, and it was something they fundamentally opposed, so they had no reason to enter into negotiations in the hopes of watering it down. Better to make Republicans own the issue and face the voters alone. They declined to do so, which is why Social Security was never privatized. Republicans made the same calculation regarding health-care reform in the Clinton years, with similarly sensible political logic.

Nonetheless, it makes all the sense in the world to try to find consensus where it might actually exist, if only because our political system, with its many veto points, makes partisan lawmaking exceedingly difficult. And in this case, the Democrats have already made clear they're going to use reconciliation to try passing without Republican help anything left out of the bipartisan bill. The main function of the bipartisan bill, then, is to map out for the electorate just where the parties can agree, and where they can't.

The result may prove very instructive come election time. For example, the GOP rejected a Democratic proposal to fund the infrastructure bill partly by putting more money into the enforcement budget at the IRS, where audits of wealthy taxpayers have plummeted. But this rejection shouldn't upset Democrats who believe cracking down on rich tax cheats is popular. On the contrary, they should be pleased to use that money in reconciliation to fund some of their other priorities, and to run ads against their Republican opponents on the issue.

Similarly, the fact that the "human infrastructure" portion of the original bill that so many Republicans mocked will have to pass through reconciliation is a positive from a policy perspective. It will force Democrats to ask themselves which portions of the proposal are both genuinely popular and worth the money, since they will have no cover from the more broadly-popular idea of "infrastructure" and will have to find pay-fors for all of it. Since passing popular bills that are economically beneficial is how you get re-elected, this loss of cover is ultimately a political benefit.

On the other hand, the fact that significant spending on climate mitigation made it into the bill is a real positive for the country. Yes, America needs to spend vastly more than we are on actually preventing climate change, particularly on R&D, and hopefully at least some of that will be in the partisan reconciliation bill. But mitigation is also going to require hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars of spending, since significant climate change is already baked in and the primary contributor to ongoing carbon emissions is China.

From a domestic political perspective, the most important dynamic that needs to change is shifting the GOP from a position of outright denial to one where they're fighting for their fair share of climate pork. Acknowledging that climate change is actually happening by spending a lot of money to mitigate its impact sets a small but important precedent in that regard, and makes it just a little more possible to imagine a world where Republicans and Democrats are fighting about how to fight climate change — over the role of nuclear power in hastening decarbonization, or paying corporations to do carbon extraction, or geoengineering — instead of whether the phenomenon is even real.

For all these reasons, the bill is worth celebrating. Both parties often prefer to hide their less-popular initiatives within more broadly-popular bills, and both parties often prefer to blame the other side for failure than to take the risk of passing something that proves unpopular. And negative partisanship makes it increasingly difficult for either party to openly admit that they've come to an agreement with the opposite side about anything, which is why when we do get bipartisan bills they're most often passed with little fanfare.

But for democracy to work, Congress can't just engage in legislative kabuki, or indulge in the distracting but contentless fury of the culture war (even if both things are bound to keep happening). It has to pass laws and take the appropriate credit and blame for the laws they pass. By splitting their original bill in two, aiming to pass what they can on a bipartisan basis and then to pass what they can't on a partisan basis, Democrats have helped clarify for voters where the parties can agree and where they want to draw lines. Now voters have a better sense of the choice ahead of them.

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