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A Big Infrastructure Deal: Bipartisanship to the Rescue? | Insight

The infrastructure bill set to pass the Senate with bipartisan support is significant, but it’s worth questioning how productive bipartisanship really is in our polarized era.

Bipartisanship is how America is supposed to work.

So goes the conventional wisdom, at least. If both of the country’s major parties can hammer out a compromise, legislation will emerge from the halls of government looking more sensible and more popular than if a single party merely commandeered the process and forced it through.

And conventional wisdom is conventional for a reason—there’s usually a hefty dose of truth to it. When legislation enjoys broad support in the legislature, it tends to be more popular and durable in the long run. Similarly, it symbolizes the idea that even when the two parties disagree, they can still come together for the sake of the country and get things done.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal (or BID) is a useful case study in cross-party cooperation. After weeks of negotiation between moderate Republican and Democratic senators, the proposal was announced on Tuesday and passed a key legislative hurdle in the Senate on Wednesday. In all likelihood, it will pass the Senate and be sent to the House of Representatives.

The bill is fairly large, with expected spending around $1 trillion. It contains provisions on the maintenance of roads and bridges and the expansion of broadband in rural areas, among other things. Priorities from the Democratic side—including increased funding for public transit, subsidies for electric vehicles, and increased funding for the IRS to curb tax evasion— were pared down or eliminated. On the other hand, the Republicans’ primary sacrifices were endorsing a “tax-and-spend” bill and allowing even the minimal public transit and electric vehicle provisions which made it through negotiations.

On paper, this is a classic example of successful bipartisanship in action. Indeed, President Joe Biden made this very point—everyone gets something, no one gets everything, but at the end of the day progress is made. More importantly, in the eyes of bipartisanship’s proponents, the BID shows that our polarization doesn’t need to be permanent or an existential threat to democracy.

But it’s fair to note that there are some problems with the bill and the process that birthed it. First of all, as Spectacles noted in our last Insight, the Republican Party is still stained by the legacy of the January 6th insurrection. Party leadership has done little to shoulder responsibility for the events of that day and has even gone so far as to punish one of its members, Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, for speaking her mind.

While the senators who negotiated and voted for the BID tend to be on the Trump-ambivalent side of the party, it’s worth asking whether they deserve to be rewarded with political credit for passing legislation when very few of them have spoken up in meaningful ways about the rot within their party.

On a more technical note, the bill itself is mediocre at best. In the face of a dire climate crisis, there is little emphasis on sustainability in the proposal, although there is more of this in the Democrats’ proposed sister legislation which you can read about from Spectacles here. Even as Republican rhetoric on climate change has shifted slightly, the party remains reluctant to engage in comprehensive action on the matter. On a similar subject, the bill doesn’t go to any real lengths to update American transportation, which is over-reliant on expensive and emissive cars.

Finally, Senate Republicans went out of their way to eliminate a provision for increased IRS tax evasion enforcement, which would have generated revenue to pay for the package and reduced deficit growth. Informed conjecture suggests that this was at the behest of wealthy donors who feared such increased enforcement.

Perhaps at the end of the day the tradeoff is acceptable. The symbolism of bipartisanship isn’t meaningless, and there was legislative action on a pressing issue. But it’s also worth asking whether it makes more sense for Democrats to go the governing path alone, which they could do, if they reform or eliminate the filibuster. The BID is a muddled piece of legislation that manifests neither party’s vision for the country.  While conventional wisdom suggests that it’s best when the parties can get together and compromise, it might actually be better—especially in a time as polarized as ours—to give the party in power a chance to execute its governing promise and give voters a clearer sense of what it would mean in practice.

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