After months of standstill and tedium, we’re finally getting a sense of the endgame for Joe Biden’s infrastructure package. And what it could amount to is a moment of truth for the burgeoning progressive and socialist bloc in Congress.
Let’s rewind and remember how we got here. Biden got probably the best press of his life after signing into law the flawed but significant $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill in March, not all of which was driven by a need to prop up an ailing Ancien Régime in Washington. In fact, Biden genuinely earned praise by doing two uncharacteristically un-Biden-like things: he put deficit concerns to the side, and quickly jettisoned pointless negotiations with Republicans designed only to waste time and cut the size of the bill, unnecessary given Democrats’ slim but total control of Congress. Cue FDR comparisons. Cue pronouncements of the birth of a new world.
Months later, Biden and his team bafflingly decided that, for the next big piece of Democratic legislation — a bill designed to jumpstart the economy further by finally repairing the country’s long neglected infrastructure, while dealing with priorities like climate change and child care — they would do the exact opposite on both counts.
After soaking up yet more whooping acclaim for a $2.3 trillion plan he released at the end of March, Biden then killed the bill’s momentum by wasting three months repeating the exact Obama-era mistake Democrats had expressly said they wouldn’t repeat: trying to get Republican sign-on to the bill at any cost, and negotiating it down chunk by chunk until it was no longer recognizable. That process mercifully came to an end last week, when Biden stepped out to the podium with a bipartisan group of conservative lawmakers and announced a deal had been struck.
“Neither side got everything they wanted in this deal, and that’s what it means to compromise,” an elated Biden told the press, stressing that it “signals to ourselves and to the world that American democracy can deliver. […] There’s not a single thing beyond our capacity that we aren’t able to do when we do it together.”
This is consistent with what behind-the-scenes reporting has told us about this White House. Namely, that while most people reading this might view the best prospect for stopping a right-wing resurgence in the 2022 midterms and beyond as delivering on the platform Biden ran on and actually improving people’s lives, the president sees it differently. He instead believes voters will be motivated to reward him and his party if he can show that compromise and bipartisan dealmaking are still possible in Washington. Yes, really.
It calls to mind another one of Biden’s bipartisan deals, struck all the way back in 2010 as Obama’s vice president, when both unemployment insurance and Bush’s tax cuts for the rich were set to go over a cliff. Biden struck a deal with Mitch McConnell so lopsided in Republicans’ favor that even a conservative Democrat like Dianne Feinstein was outraged over what the party was being asked to swallow. Biden then pointed to the deal as proof “the process worked,” as an understandably smiling McConnell looked on.
The only reason we’re not guaranteed to watch helplessly as history repeats itself is that Democrats’ slim majorities in the House and Senate have given the party’s left wing some leverage. In order to keep Democrats from abandoning the bipartisan deal he covets, Biden has had to pledge to pass the much bigger plan he originally proposed in tandem with this deal, pushing through all the progressive priorities that have been thought cut from his deal now through the budget reconciliation process on a purely party-line vote. Biden repeated that pledge last week, stressing twice that the two bills would move through Congress together, and that he was “not going to rest until both get to my desk.”
So far so good. Biden could fool around with his irrelevant deal and pretend Washington still works, while the real work of dealing with the country’s pressing crises would be hammered out by Congressional Democrats and Senate budget committee chairman Bernie Sanders without his or the GOP’s interference.
Except Biden’s assurance created a firestorm among Republicans, who began backing away from the deal one by one. Why, after all, would they hand him a political win if he was going to do all the stuff they were trying to derail anyway?
All of it’s led up to where we are now, with Biden “clarifying” that he wasn’t issuing a veto threat — backing away, in other words, from the promise he had made to progressives. Biden, true to his history, is misleading someone here. The question is whether he’s lying to progressives or the Republicans he’s desperate to make a deal with. And given what we know about Biden’s current priorities, his history, and the mounting list of promises he’s already broken, you’d be going way out on a limb to believe it’s the latter.
Put Up or Shut Up
The question now is: What are the progressives and socialists in Congress prepared to do about it?
Several drew a line in the sand long before Biden’s recent comments. Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey — whose sponsorship of the Green New Deal earned him credibility among the Left — has said that “we cannot let Republican calls for bipartisanship deny the American people the climate action that they have been demanding.” Sanders has questioned how you could “go forward right now in this moment in history and not address the terrible climate crisis,” and recently reiterated “no reconciliation bill, no deal.”
A host of other progressive lawmakers assured the Intercept they would not be voting to advance Biden’s deal without an “ironclad” assurance the larger reconciliation bill would be passed at the same time. Yet Biden now seems to be wavering. Can the Left really trust him to follow through on his word?
The obvious answer seems to be: they don’t have to. Working with the slimmest of slim margins, Biden needs close to every last vote to be able to get his deal over the line. As Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar said last year, “with a slim Dem [sic] majority in the next Congress, anything can be possible,” with only “five courageous progressive members” needed to get potentially get concessions. The party’s progressive wing should take a page out of the book of conservatives like Joe Manchin (and, before him, conservatives like Joe Lieberman) and simply threaten to vote down Biden’s deal if he tries to pull a fast one — and, if it comes to it, follow through.
Usually, when situations like these arise, left-wing lawmakers aren’t able to make the kind of nuclear-style threats Manchin and Republicans routinely do, since that would require them to hold hostage precisely those elements of legislation they most strongly support. Right-wing lawmakers starve little children and families as a matter of principle, so it makes little difference to them if a relief bill is too small, missing key planks, or passes at all, giving their veto threats extra credibility. The Democratic Left, on the other hand, couldn’t bring itself to torpedo the first stimulus bill despite the exclusion of the $15 minimum wage, because of understandable fears of what denying its passage would mean for the lives of millions of struggling Americans.
But no such fears exist with this infrastructure bill. For one, let’s understand that the far more ambitious bill Biden first proposed — as in, the one that the party’s progressive wing hopes to now pass in tandem — was, to begin with, not really a serious proposal to deal with the issues it claims to address. Its original $2.3 trillion price tag was already lower than the $2.59 trillion the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated this March the government needed simply to close the long-standing deficit in infrastructure investment, and was far lower than the $4 trillion the conservative Manchin initially said he was open to.
Cast as the best and quite possibly last chance to do something big on tackling climate change — by far the greatest threat to national and global security our civilization faces — it fell even shorter on that front. Promising to spend $125 billion a year on climate for eight years, it fell far short of the $1 trillion organizations like the Roosevelt Institute have estimated needs to be spent annually for the next decade to prevent unimaginable catastrophe. So the optimistic, best case scenario of what can be done here is not even a half-measure, but an eighth-measure.
By contrast, the deal Biden’s now struck is far, far less than even this. Slashed to $1.2 trillion, it would make only a dent to the country’s infrastructure investment shortfall, despite the fact that it might be the last chance Democrats have to do anything about the issue for years. Meanwhile, regarding the threat of climate change, the deal’s inclusion of only nearly $100 billion for clean energy projects, and exclusion of the clean energy standard originally proposed, is a joke.
If this was all it was, left-wing lawmakers could still vote it down with a clear conscience. But sadly, the deal is worse than nothing. As the American Prospect’s David Dayen has pointed out, the bill is, quietly, a vehicle to retry Trump’s failed attempt to sell the country’s public infrastructure to corporate America, so they can jack up road tolls and other user fees and further pick the pockets of ordinary working Americans. Wall Street is positively licking its lips at the prospect.
And it gets worse. With only $579 billion of the deal financed from actual new spending, Biden’s planning to effectively plunder his major legislative accomplishment so far, the relief bill, to fund this one. Having stood by and done nothing as twenty-six states cancelled extended unemployment insurance, Biden’s deal will “redirect unused unemployment insurance relief funds” to pay for infrastructure construction, as well as focus on the program’s “integrity” — claw back money by ferreting out “fraud,” in other words.
Bear in mind that at least nine million people have already been denied for the program, failing to get the government help they were owed. Bear in mind, too, that investigations into unemployment fraud often turn into an assault on the jobless, with the Michigan state government having a false accusation rate of 70 percent between 2013–15.
So progressive lawmakers not only don’t have to feel an ounce of guilt if they decide to torpedo this deal; if anything, it’s a moral imperative for them to kill it, especially if Biden is not committed to passing the much bigger one. Two socialist congresspeople joined climate protesters yesterday to demand Biden include climate priorities in his deal. But we’re rapidly coming to a point where it’s time to forget about making demands, and instead start making threats.
Just last week, we found out the conclusions of the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change in its latest draft report, which warns of the horror we’re likely to see in the very near future if we carry on our current trajectory, from the extinction of various plants and animals, to greater and more destructive natural disasters, widespread hunger and displacement, and the spread of disease. We’re right now seeing the Pacific Northwest suffering under unprecedentedly hot temperatures that are proving borderline unlivable, a grim preview of the future the world’s leaders are failing to avert.
That Biden could trot out a deal that barely pretends to address this accelerating crisis, as proof the system still works, is a sign of the profound delusion that reigns among the cloistered and elderly superrich who govern the United States. But it should also light a fire under left-wing lawmakers who are in a unique position to force some significant progress on the matter. They’ll be vilified and denounced by the establishment, no doubt; but acclaim is overrated if all you’re left with is standing in ash.