Will the Democrats ditch “consensus” and deliver promised reforms?

In yet another example of the futility of the Biden administration’s “bipartisan” approach, Republicans blocked a vote on a major infrastructure bill on Wednesday. In the days since, more and more doubt is spreading about the ultimate fate of this bill, which was presented to the public as a major breakthrough that had sufficient Republican support to surmount the 60-vote “filibuster” requirement in the Senate. The bill, which has not been fully written yet, promised $579 billion in new spending on a variety of infrastructure projects. A new vote may take place next week.

There are two parallel legislative processes going on with the aim of implementing part or all of the slate of progressive reforms unveiled by Biden in April. Originally referred to as the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan, the reforms have now been split across the two processes. There is the woefully inadequate (and perhaps doomed) “bipartisan bill” that involves a limited amount of spending on physical infrastructure like bridges and roads. Everything else that Biden proposed in his two plans — plus the expansion of Medicare to cover hearing, vision and dental care — is now contained in a “budget reconciliation bill”. 

Budget reconciliation is when measures that Congress wants to pass are written into the annual spending bill that funds the government. Since the budget is passed with a 50-vote majority and exempt from the 60-vote filibuster requirement, the Democrats don’t need the Republicans to be on board with their social spending package. The “bipartisan bill” is not being negotiated under this process of budget reconciliation and therefore requires 60 votes to pass in the Senate. 

But why are Democratic Party leaders so committed to working with Republicans when they can pass everything by themselves? Workers are certainly in desperate need of many of the measures that are under consideration — free community college education, universal pre-K, guaranteed paid family and sick leave, substantial monthly payments to working class parents, and more. 

Biden’s quest for bipartisan consensus is rooted in a desire to unite the U.S. capitalist class after four years of the deeply volatile Trump administration that damaged the legitimacy of the ruling elite in the eyes of people in this country and around the world. But there appears to be very little appetite among Republicans in the Senate (and even less so in the House of Representatives) for consensus. By senselessly tying their fortunes to the willingness of Republicans to negotiate, the Democratic party is allowing the infrastructure bill to stall and become watered down while distracting from efforts to pass the vastly more meaningful budget reconciliation bill.  

Crumbling infrastructure needs massive investment

Rebuilding the country’s infrastructure — in a way that combats the climate change crisis — is of course a hugely important task. The bipartisan bill valued at $579 billion, less than 3% of the annual size of the economy, makes a mockery of the scale of this problem.

Infrastructure across the country is falling apart. In 2021 the American Society of Civil Engineers rated the United States’ physical infrastructure a C- in their annual Report Card on America’s Infrastructure. 43% of the country’s roads are in poor or mediocre condition. 45% of Americans have no access to public transit. 7.5% of bridges are considered structurally deficient. 2,300 structurally deficient, high-hazard dams represent a serious threat to people’s lives. 6 billion gallons of fresh, treated water are lost every day due to water main breaks. Lead poisoning is rampant in the water supplies of cities large and small. With rivers and aquifers of the Southwest drying up, water must be treated like the vital resource that it is.

Radically redesigning the infrastructure of the United States will be an essential element of transitioning to a carbon-neutral society. For instance, many of the goods that people use every day travel on flatbed trucks. This method of transport is inefficient and ecologically costly. If the United States is going to make serious commitments to combating climate change, then massive investments in rail infrastructure will be necessary. Rail emits 75% less greenhouse gases compared to freight shipped over trucks, and carries more freight. A massive rail investment project would require far more than what Senate Republicans are willing to allocate. For comparison, despite the economic shock of COVID-19 and having an economy one-third smaller than the United States’, China spent an estimated $1.07 trillion on infrastructure in 2020 alone. 

The United States’ ruling class is fiddling while the country burns. Decisive action must be taken to address the scale of the climate crisis facing us. The Democratic Party elite’s “play nice” tactics with the Republicans is leading the people down a blind alley. If the bipartisan bill is resuscitated and receives the necessary votes to succeed in the Senate and the House, right wing Democrats like Joe Manchin could use its passage as an excuse to either outright oppose a bill advanced through a budget reconciliation process or dramatically water it down. The working class cannot accept this — we need drastic change, now. 

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