The infrastructure package will be a moment of truth

Over the last few months Washington has seen major legislation travel along two wildly different paths. In late December a bipartisan core of rank-and-file members ushered a $900 billion COVID relief package through Congress despite resistance from leadership. More recently, however, a single-party relief bill was jammed through both houses via reconciliation. The question now is which model will be used to pursue what appears to be Congress’s next majority priority, infrastructure.

This could be a moment to revive bipartisanship. For years, both parties have talked a good game about investing in the nation’s roads, rails, pipes, and wires. But as China races ahead, neither party has done what it takes to make the down payment required to ensure America stays on top. This is Washington’s one real shot at finally addressing a perennial concern. But to get there, members interested in making sure both parties have a voice on the issue need to step up.

Because Congress is so evenly divided — the Senate is literally split down the middle, a mere half-dozen votes constitute the Democratic majority in the House — members from the center left and center right have a much stronger hand to play. A small coterie can make clear that the path used to pass the recent $1.9 billion bill is unacceptable. But they need to be absolutely and resolutely clear on the subject — and soon.

Second, those committed to a bipartisan process need to be specific about the sort of plan they intend to adopt. Amid all the calls for more infrastructure spending, the real reason no package has been passed in decades is clear enough: Building new systems is expensive, and the “pay fors” are universally unappealing. Members don’t want to go out on a limb proposing to raise revenue (taxes or user fees), cut other popular services, or add to the national debt. So those committed to bipartisanship can’t take the easy way out, calling for negotiations without crafting a complete package.

Aerial of Freeway bridge

None of this will be easy, but Democrats will need to be serious about welcoming Republicans into negotiations. The relevant committees need to hold hearings about which systems are most in need of upgrade — highways, railways, pipelines, sewers, telecom, etc. — and how government can be most effective in ensuring a good return on the taxpayer’s investment. An open process should improve the outcome, shedding sunlight on lousy ideas, and ensuring that the nation benefits as a whole.

By the same token, if Democrats do open the process, Republicans in the minority need to embrace the opportunity in earnest. This will not be a moment to score cheap political points or throw up nakedly “gotcha” amendments. If the Democrats open the door to a bipartisan bill, Republicans need to have the good sense and temerity to walk through it, to engage substantively on the issues, and to support compromise rather than holding out hope that they can use the bill to criticize Democrats in any subsequent campaign.

In 2017, when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, they rammed through a tax package that explicitly targeted their Democratic colleagues by eliminating deductibility of state and local taxes, which tend to be higher in blue states. It would be a travesty if that sort of small-time mentality infected this process. Every community in America suffers for lack of good infrastructure, whether it’s old urban highways, intercity rail, or lack of broadband access. This bill should be balanced to serve the nation as a whole, regardless of politics.

Throughout the Trump years, “infrastructure week” became a joke because so many insiders had seen elected officials talk the talk on the issue time and again without ever walking the walk. But this really is a moment in which Democrats and Republicans can come together to rebuild not just our infrastructure, but the public’s faith in the idea that national unity really is achievable.

Washington can certainly be a partisan swamp, with members of each party persistently transfixed on boxing out the other. But as last December’s bipartisan COVID-19 relief package proved, it does not need to be that way. The coming infrastructure debate represents the crucial next test. Will the growing coterie of lawmakers who claim to believe in bipartisanship have the courage to take the risks needed to answer the challenge posed by China’s gargantuan investments? Or will the short-term benefit of playing politics prove too tempting to win out? We’ll find out soon enough.


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