Congress Should Work
A funny thing about the passage in the House of the 1.2 trillion dollar bipartisan infrastructure bill is that it is almost as if people have forgotten that in some ways this is the way things are supposed to work. All the last-minute pressure and pleadings, the threats and assurances, the arm-twisting and vote counting, was covered as if it were a circus. But for those of us old enough to remember a Congress that at least pretended to function, there was a sense of deja vu. In the end the various factions, including most of the progressive caucus, backed their president, joined by some Republican votes. And voila, a bill will become a law.
No matter how you cut it, it adds up to a big win for President Biden, who is in desperate need of one. For now, a lot of the coverage of the process has diminished how significant this bill is, and all that it will do. From providing broadband, to repairing roads and bridges, to significant investments in electric vehicle infrastructure and public transportation, it represents a massive re-imagining of our national infrastructure for the needs of our century, and hopefully beyond.
The White House will now try to drive this message home to a country that has come to believe, and for good reason, that Washington can’t get anything done.
For context, it’s important to remember how many presidents have talked about something like this, and not got it passed. But some in the press focused also on the bipartisan nature of the bill, specifically the fact that some Democrats on the left voted against it in the House (while the vast majority did not) and that the Republican votes were enough to more than make up the difference.
I would suggest it’s a potentially misleading framing, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi undoubtedly knew which votes she had, and whose votes she could release to vote against the measure without it being struck down. Furthermore, I would contend that this level of bipartisanship on something that should not have been controversial - and indeed there was a higher percentage of Republican votes in passing the bill in the Senate - suggests how difficult it is for Democrats to get Republican buy-in on issues that should unite us.
Let’s look at a broader picture - stepping back for what those of us in television like to call the wide shot. The world faces an existential climate crisis. Our democracy is under assault from a would-be autocrat. There are all sorts of urgent challenges around education, housing, criminal justice reform, just to name a few. A government is meant to debate solutions, yes horse trade and compromise when needed, but not just do nothing.
As the political press has covered the torturous attempts to pass Biden’s legislative agenda, which mostly amounts at this point to playing “what the heck does he really want” with West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, you might have come to think that there are no Republicans on Capitol Hill. They are barely mentioned. It’s all about Democratic “divisions” (again, see Manchin), or Democrats’ inability to live up to their promises to the American people, or maybe for the truly DC-savvy, the role of the filibuster. But let’s be clear. The only reason why we are in this place is because almost the entire Republican Party has decided that on all the major issues (with the notable exception of the infrastructure bill, see above), that they play no role and bear no responsibility in trying to tackle any of our nation’s needs. And you can add to that even a reckoning to the 1/6 insurrection, with a few exceptions. You can understand why they think that because they are often given a free pass from the Beltway press.
Now to be fair, it is often the case that political opposition, by its very nature, is not eager to pass the agenda of the opposite political party. And they have no obligation to do so. This is in some sense how politics work. Political parties disagree on policy and priorities. You debate and, depending on what you propose, you may not get a lot of support (or any support) on a particular issue from representatives from the other party. But if you are going to be against something, that is also a decision, just like being for something. And if you are an elected official voting no, you should have to at least answer the question, and bear the responsibility, of why you are voting no.
During the first two years of the Trump administration, the Republicans held both the Senate and the House as well as the presidency. All these big issues in the country were out there. Trump had run on giving Americans a much better healthcare option than that evil “Obamacare.” Remember when every week seemed to be “infrastructure week.” And even though Trump dismissed climate change as a hoax, that doesn’t make it any less real; a governing party should have to answer why they aren’t doing anything on it, or are actually supporting policies that make it worse. But with all that consolidated power, the Republicans fell back on their usual playbook - tax cuts and far right “conservative” judges. Perhaps the erratic and unlawful antics of the man in the Oval Office sucked up the oxygen from other issues, but what was happening on Capitol Hill, or more importantly what wasn’t happening, as in legislating, was just chalked up to business as usual.
My job here is not to carry water for the Democratic Party. As the ruling party they deserve extra scrutiny. Their policies and bills are news and they should be able to defend them to fair questions from the press. The dealmaking and frustrations of the different factions are legitimate stories. But so are the actions of politicians who are lockstep no’s. If you don’t think we need to deal with the climate, that’s a story. If you have no ideas about how to make child care better, or protect the right to vote, or deal with spiraling drug costs, that’s also a story. That Republicans feel no responsibility to offer any bills of their own, or even any ideas, that everyone knows from the beginning that no matter the issue, they are just going to throw insults from the sidelines, that Mitch McConnell has weaponized the idea that a government that does nothing about anything fuels the asymmetric power dynamic that powers our modern political system, does not absolve them from having to defend these positions.
This reality is tragic on many levels. It is tragic for the country because big problems go unaddressed. It is tragic for the breadth and depth of ideas, because having only one party come up with solutions is far from ideal. There is no monopoly on wisdom, particularly when it comes to politics. And I suspect that it is a tragedy for individual Republican politicians, some of whom at least got into this line of work to do things. They have their own backgrounds, family histories, struggles and lived experiences. I am sure they have many good ideas. But the politics of obstruction, perfected by McConnell, prevents any action. The infrastructure bill is a notable exception. I really believe if the system favored collaboration rather than clashing, we would see much more progress, and ideas come from people and places that you might not expect. This is what many critics of the filibuster maintain, that it discourages bipartisanship rather than encourages it.
I don’t know how we get there exactly, but one step in the right direction can come from the press. If a politician is a no, ask them why. Don’t let them get away with a process argument. Don’t revert back to tired narratives about a broken Washington. To Republicans who complain that the Democrats don’t include them, ask what ideas they are prepared to offer. To the Democrats who are wary of Republicans playing games to drag out debate only to not support bills in the end, ask them what specific ideas they are getting from their colleagues that they might include. Another idea is to bring in more diverse reporters who are used to covering stories out in the country. Perhaps they will be less burdened by seeing every issue on Capitol Hill through the lens of inside baseball. Ultimately Washington is meant to work for the rest of America, not the other way around.
It is unacceptable that we treat dysfunction as almost an act of nature over which humans have no control. Every vote, yes or no, every choice of whether to find solutions or just play politics, is a willful act over which every politician has agency. This is also a story. And one that needs to be told for the sake of our country, and the world.