“To restore the soul and to secure the future of America requires more than words. It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity.”
When President Joe Biden spoke these words in his inaugural address, I hoped he understood that unity would require standing up to the far left of his party and demanding an end to the partisan dysfunction in Washington. Unfortunately, as he signs into law a nearly $2 trillion spending bill crammed through on a strictly party-line vote, we’ve yet to see anything more than bipartisan words from the president.
This should have been an issue where we could have found some common ground. Both parties agree that at least some relief is desperately needed. However, despite having some of the narrowest majorities in recent history, Democratic leaders seemed more interested in loading up the bill with pet projects for special interest groups than actually securing any Republican votes.
Biden preaches unity, but Democrats ignore it
While President Biden preached about unity, his party refused to make concessions and outright rejected nearly every Republican amendment that was offered to the bill.
Over the past two presidencies, we’ve come to accept this hyperpartisan process as the new normal. We shouldn’t.
Throughout my lifetime, presidents of both parties like George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan worked to gain bipartisan support for their major initiatives, even when they had the votes to squeak them through on a partisan basis. They understood that neither party has a monopoly on good ideas, and that the best way to sustain policy gains is to build broad coalitions that have a stake in the process.
In recent months, we’ve seen that this collaborative approach doesn’t have to be a relic of a bygone era. In December, after months of gridlock, the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus and their Senate allies successfully forged a compromise on COVID-19 relief that passed overwhelmingly. In my state of Maryland, we recently passed our own over $1 billion COVID-19 relief bill with near unanimous support from both parties.
An infrastructure bill offers President Biden another golden opportunity to live up to the promise of his inaugural address. This is an issue where there is overwhelming bipartisan consensus that action is absolutely necessary. If Washington can’t find a way to work together on this issue, then I don’t know where we will.
Though the partisan process over the past month unquestionably will make this more difficult, I am committed to working with the president and Congress to secure bipartisan support. As chairman of the National Governors Association, I led a year-long initiative focused on rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure that gathered input from both Republican and Democratic governors, as well as thought leaders from business, labor and academia.
At the end of my chairmanship, we released a series of recommendations that have bipartisan support, including relieving traffic congestion, cutting red tape, leveraging private sector investment and ensuring better resiliency to withstand cyberattacks and natural disasters.
Need for bipartisan support
Already, however, we’re seeing threats to the commonsense approach of the nation’s governors. Some on the left are embracing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s approach that says we can spend without any regard for the debt or whether we will ever see a return on our investment, while others on the right are committed to opposing anything that President Biden supports.
As governors, we know there is no such thing as a free lunch. The litmus test of any good infrastructure bill will be whether we are burdening future generations with debt and unbearably high taxes, or whether we are empowering them with expanded economic opportunity.
Just after he won the election in November, I wrote that “Joe Biden now must choose whether he wants to be a unifier or a progressive activist.” Over a month into his term, I’m concerned about the path he is taking.
In the wake of the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, it’s clear that the absence of any bipartisan problem solving is not just a threat to good governance, but perhaps democracy itself. Yet, Washington continues to pour gasoline on the fire of America’s divisions. The window for bipartisanship might be narrowing, but it’s not too late to change course. As we move onto infrastructure, we can’t let it close completely.