Bipartisanship Lives—Barely

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Congress has now passed the so-called “bipartisan” infrastructure bill proposed by President Biden. This is the physical infrastructure bill, not to be confused with the “Build Back Better” bill containing proposals to help working families, such as funding for preschool and paid parental leave. This bill includes money for a wide range of infrastructure projects: roads and bridges, public transit, passenger and freight railways, airports and ports, electric vehicles, universal broadband access, electric grid modernization and environmental remediation.

How bipartisan was the support, really? When the bill came to a vote in the Senate, 19 Republicans joined all 50 Democrats to pass it. However, that was only after Republicans had united to block consideration of the original bill by filibustering it. The result was a smaller bill, not funded by tax increases. In the House of Representatives, Democrats supported the bill 215 to 6. They needed 3 Republican votes to put it over the top, and they got 13. The other 200 Republicans voted against it.

Combining the two houses of Congress, 98% of Democrats (265 of 271) voted yes, while 88% of Republicans (230 of 262) voted no. If this is bipartisanship, it is a bipartisanship of a very minimal kind. Fortunately, it was enough to get something done—this time.

The physical infrastructure bill has solid majority support among the public, although with a noticeable partisan divide, and most economists think it will be good for the economy. Why then would such a large percentage of Republican politicians oppose it?

Republicans routinely oppose tax increases, so their opposition to Biden’s original spending proposals is understandable. (Most of the public, however, now supports raising taxes on the wealthy.) What is interesting is how few Republicans changed their minds even when Democrats proposed to fund the bill by other means, especially repurposing money left over from various pandemic relief programs. Many were concerned that the Congressional Budget Office still found that the bill would add to the budget deficit. But that explanation doesn’t hold much water, considering how happy Republicans were to put their deficit concerns aside when they wanted to cut personal and corporate income taxes. The idea that tax cuts are good, while spending increases are bad is not very good economics. Economist Paul Krugman has accused Republicans of perpetuating “zombie” ideas “that should have been killed by contrary evidence, but instead keep shambling along, eating people’s brains.” Some forms of deficit spending are actually good, especially when the economy is recovering from a recession. Economists do agree that excessive deficits can be inflationary, but infrastructure spending is less dangerous in that respect, since it adds to the nation’s productive capacity as well as its income and aggregate demand. It is exactly the kind of targeted spending that economists like Minsky have recommended, since it can stimulate both the supply side and demand side of the economy.

I don’t think that the Republican opposition to infrastructure spending has much to do with economics at all. What it reveals is that Republicans are more interested in making this administration fail than in addressing pressing national needs. They can’t wait to blame Biden for his failure to deliver the bipartisanship he promised, so they can return to power and get on with their project of one-party rule. Democrats can be frustrating too, as when they delayed the infrastructure bill because they hoped to tie it to other legislation that had even less Republican support. But at least they now have a coherent economic agenda, with proposals that are generally popular and economically useful.

I wish I could see the infrastructure bill as a new beginning for bipartisanship. Instead, it may represent the end of bipartisanship for this Congress and this administration. If Republicans cannot get behind a no-brainer like infrastructure repair—which President Trump advocated but didn’t accomplish—what chance do any other progressive proposals have? I do not expect Republican cooperation with even the most reasonable and popular of President Biden’s initiatives, such as allowing Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices, or joining the rest of the developed world in providing paid family leave. Some bills could squeak through if Democrats can get around the filibuster with the tricky budget reconciliation procedure. Most will probably require more Democrat success at the ballot box.

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