Pass the damn infrastructure bill, dammit

Then pass the reconciliation bill, then pass another bill...

I am annoyed at the way Democrats are handling the two spending bills now moving through Congress. When the bipartisan infrastructure deal passed the Senate, I assumed it was a done deal, and we could move on to the reconciliation bill. Instead, progressives in the House held up the bill, demanding that centrists vote on the reconciliation bill first. The idea here seems to be that since centrist Dems like Manchin and Sinema are opposed to lots of stuff on the reconciliation bill, the only way to force them to vote for it is to threaten to torpedo the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

I am no expert on the politics of fiscal legislation, but this just seems insane to me. First of all, the optics feel terrible — having convinced Mitch McConnell and the Republicans (!!!) to support a major government spending initiative, Democrats are now threatening to torpedo that impressive achievement. Not only does that make Democrats look like an incompetent, divided party that is incapable of governing, but it takes the wind out of Biden’s legislative agenda and denies him at least one important victory, possibly two.

It also seems utterly unlikely to achieve the goals that the progressives want. Manchin and Sinema would like to pass the infrastructure bill, but they don’t care about it so much that they’d do anything to save it. Nor would they be likely to take the brunt of public anger if the bill got killed — after all, they voted for it. Americans are not going to accept a complex progressive narrative about how Manchin and Sinema are actually the ones who killed the bill because they didn’t accede to this and that demand from the progressives. Instead, the people who failed to vote for the infrastructure bill will be the ones who are perceived to have killed the infrastructure bill.

And that would be a shame. The progressives are treating the infrastructure bill like it’s unimportant — a pawn to sacrifice, or even a Trojan horse designed to make the reconciliation bill seem less necessary. But in fact, the infrastructure bill is a good and important bill in its own right; even if the reconciliation bill passes in all its full $3.5 trillion glory, the infrastructure bill needs to happen as well.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill is progressive

Let’s take a look at what’s in the infrastructure bill:

  • $110 billion for road and bridge repair

  • $66 billion for upgrading and maintaining passenger trains

  • $65 billion for making the power grid more robust and reliable

  • $39 billion for public transit

  • $25 billion for upgrades and expansions at airports

  • $17 billion for upgrades and expansions at ports

  • $65 billion for rural broadband

  • $55 billion for upgrading water infrastructure, including replacing all lead pipes (!!!)

  • $47 billion for cybersecurity and climate change mitigation

  • $21 billion for cleaning up toxic waste

  • $15 billion for electric vehicle charging stations and electric school buses

  • $11 billion for safety initiatives

  • $8 billion for Western water security

Much of this is stuff that’s crucial to any progressive agenda for the United States.

First of all, consider lead pipes. The infrastructure bill would replace all lead pipes in the nation. ALL OF THEM. Do you remember the time that Flint, Michigan had all of its water supply contaminated by lead? Do you remember the massive outcry, the tweets about how many days it’s been since Flint had clean water? The infrastructure bill would fix that — not just in Flint, but in THE ENTIRE NATION. And getting lead out of the nation’s water supply won’t just prevent crises like Flint’s — it will dramatically reduce a poison that we’ve allowed to damage the brains of poor kids and Black kids in this country for generations. This is possibly the most important environmental justice legislation in my lifetime.

If House progressives vote against the infrastructure bill, they will have voted to keep lead in the drinking water of America’s marginalized and underprivileged and neglected communities.

Next, consider the $66 billion for passenger trains and the $39 billion for other public transit. Do progressives agree that this country badly needs better public transportation? If so, why are they threatening to vote against federal transit funding? It’s not like spending on trains and buses is going to get rolled into the reconciliation bill if the infrastructure bill goes down. It simply won’t get spent, and our transit systems will fall further into decay.

On Twitter, I actually had supporters of the progressive brinksmanship tell me that the bipartisan infrastructure bill is actively bad because it contains road funding:

But the bill contains $105 billion of transit funding! If you think that killing both road funding and transit funding will somehow shift America toward a more transit-centric urban development model, you’re out of your mind.

Do House progressives really want to be the people who voted down $105 for transit? I don’t think so.

The rest of the bill has progressive stuff in it too. $21 billion for cleaning up toxic waste is deeply progressive, especially because the harm from that waste falls disproportionately on poor Black people. Electric vehicle infrastructure will help decarbonize transportation, especially as the grid switches to renewable sources. Money to protect vulnerable Americans from the ravages of climate change is deeply progressive as well. And so on.

House progressives, bizarrely, are treating this bill as a compromise that they’re willing to make with Republicans, rather than a hard-won compromise that the Republicans have been convinced to make with them. They’re refusing to “take the W”, as the kids say.

Progressives need to be pro-growth

But beyond advancing progressive priorities like transit funding and environmental justice, the bipartisan infrastructure bill is good for economic growth. And as Ezra Klein wrote in a recent column, progressives very much need to be in favor of economic growth.

There are two reasons for this. First, growth lubricates the wheels of redistribution — the more economically confident and secure Americans feel, the more they will feel comfortable spending on the poor and the working class.

Second, a fundamental part of the deep case for progressivism is that government is a necessary player in the economy — showing that government spending on infrastructure gives the economy a boost is key to conferring popular legitimacy on the progressive project as a whole. If progressives allow conservatives to frame economic policy as a choice between growth and fairness, they’ve already conceded the field.

Infrastructure is a key way that big government drives growth. Left to their own devices, private companies don’t provide the kind of broadly affordable, efficient, universally accessible transportation represented by America’s interstate highways, Japan’s train system, etc. In every country with a really world-class transport system, that system was built via government action. Transportation allows the movement of people and goods that represents the lifeblood of any economy — in other words, it promotes growth.

Not only does the infrastructure bill spend money on transportation of all kinds — trains, buses, cars, airplanes, and ships — it promises to at least start to address America’s unique problem of ruinous infrastructure costs, with a raft of measures to streamline permitting. This is so crucial. If you want to have big government, you have to have effective government — otherwise, conservatives will be able to claim that government is inherently incompetent and inefficient. Reducing excess costs is thus key to the legitimacy of the entire progressive project.

So when progressives threaten to kill the infrastructure bill, they’re refusing to let government spending help the U.S. economy out of stagnation. Again, refusing to “take the W”.

What’s good for Biden is good for progressives

So in terms of political economy, the infrastructure bill is an unalloyed victory for progressivism. But what about in terms of politics? Again, I don’t pretend to be an expert here, but progressives’ holdup of the infrastructure bill reeks of factionalism. Biden hasn’t yet taken sides in the fight between centrists and progressives in the House, preferring so far to try to manage the process from an Olympian remove. But by making his task harder — and by making the Dems look like a party who can’t get things done — progressives are risking taking both factions down out of spite.

The midterms are coming up in a year. The President’s party is traditionally weak in the midterms. If Biden fails to get lots of important stuff done, it will make a Republican sweep of Congress much more likely. And where will House progressives be then? Out of power, scrabbling for influence within a minority party. Who does that help?

Instead, the way to proceed is to give Biden as many wins (or as the kids would say, as many W’s) as fast as possible. The bipartisan infrastructure bill has already passed the Senate — which, due to the filibuster, is America’s main legislative veto point. So pass it instantly. Then don’t pause — go on to the next fight. As soon as the infrastructure bill passes, forget about it and memory-hole it (until it’s time to trumpet its success in midterm races). Shift attention and energy entirely to the reconciliation bill — and then to filibuster reform, the voting rights bill, and so on.

This will instantly put Manchin, Sinema, and the moderates on the defensive. If they don’t support the reconciliation bill, it will be them holding up Biden’s agenda, them making the Dems look dysfunctional, them keeping money out of the hands of working parents. They will then be the bad guys, the wrench in the gears of America. The pressure and attention will entirely be on them.

That’s how you win. Don’t hold back and gamble on one big dramatic victory where you’ll get everything you ever wanted. Instead, rack up one victory, then rack up another another, then another. This is how Biden treated his Covid relief bill, and this is what FDR did with the New Deal, and it worked great. Succeeding at passing one part of the Biden agenda doesn’t weaken the case for doing more — it strengthens it.

When the world offers you a W, you take it, dammit.