Democrats Are Still Holding Infrastructure Hostage
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Democrats in Congress have lately found themselves in a strange position. They’ve been holding at gunpoint an infrastructure bill that’s bipartisan, popular with the public, and funds projects they themselves say are essential.
The reason for this obstruction is that progressives within the party would also like to advance a broader and far more partisan agenda. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she’s willing to forgo urgently needed spending on roads, bridges and other public capital unless the House in due course delivers a “transformative” (her word) program of higher social spending. Her threat to the dissidents among her colleagues has been: We shall have everything, or settle for nothing.
On Tuesday, her rift with the centrist Democrats was patched for the next few weeks with a promise that the infrastructure bill will be put to a separate vote before the end of next month. But nothing has really changed. The party’s leadership still says it’s intent on passing both measures or neither. An impending logjam of fiscal deadlines means anything is possible, but continuing paralysis remains the likeliest outcome.
To be sure, Pelosi’s approach has a certain cynical logic. With narrow majorities in both chambers, and significant divisions even within their own party, Democratic leaders clearly felt an all-or-nothing ultimatum would balance competing priorities and keep opposition at bay. But this is a bizarre way to proceed on such consequential measures — especially in such a closely divided country. President Joe Biden should detach himself from Pelosi’s strategy and urge Democrats in Congress to deal with the two measures separately and on their own merits.
The infrastructure bill isn’t perfect, but it does contain valuable and long-overdue public investments. It’s better than nothing. The enormous budget package that the Democratic leadership wants to pass alongside — costing an estimated $3.5 trillion and probably more — also includes good and bad ideas, but as yet lacks plausible financing, would worsen the country’s growing debt problem, and would enact an expansive and controversial social agenda using an arcane budget procedure. It has no Republican support and is viewed skeptically even by some moderate Democrats. Insisting that these proposals sink or swim together may have tactical advantages, but it doesn’t serve the country’s interests.
Indeed, Pelosi’s position is even more damaging than it appears at first sight. The infrastructure measure was conceived from the outset as a bipartisan compromise, brokered by the president. It served as proof that a Congress seemingly crippled by partisan division could in fact get something done. In threatening to cancel this modest progress unless they get their way on the bigger budget plan, House Democrats are repudiating the very possibility of compromise and their own president’s efforts to achieve it. Republicans who took a chance on supporting the infrastructure measure are being held up as fools — something they’re sure to remember next time.
Most Americans would prefer a Congress that can get necessary things done to one so dedicated to transformative agendas that it would rather achieve nothing. With elections looming next year, Democrats might learn that lesson the hard way.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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