What does Biden’s infrastructure bill tell us about the health of America’s democracy?

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isis Washington functional? This week seems to suggest the answer is a resounding and surprising yes. On Tuesday, 69 senators – 19 Republicans and 50 Democrats – passed the “Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework,” a $ 1 billion bill that invests in everything from roads and bridges to power grids and public transportation.

It was the kind of bill that many observers of US policy never thought possible in 2021: a major new bill that has won support from both sides and will make life better for people. The president, his staff and allies are rightly proud of their far-reaching infrastructure bill – and the legislative competence it took to negotiate and pass it, and with the final passage to the House almost inevitable, President Biden has made a well-deserved decision. victory lap.

“We have proven that democracy can still work,” he said.

But these words were clearly chosen with care. Just because democracy can work does not make democracy work. In fact, a closer look at the bipartisan infrastructure framework – and the effort required to push it through – confirms how struggling American democracy is.

In a political process that works, a major infrastructure bill like this would never have passed during Joe Biden’s presidency – because it would have passed much sooner. As early as 1998, the American Society of Civil Engineers assigned a D to American infrastructure, a rating that has barely improved since. In 2007, the collapse of a deadly bridge in Minneapolis brought the issue of infrastructure funding to the fore, and in 2008 presidential candidates from both parties spoke about the importance of fixing our roads, bridges and highways in ruined. Even the Trump administration, with its endless parade of weeks of infrastructure, has recognized the importance of the problem even though it has failed to resolve it.

For more than a decade, in other words, elected leaders of both parties have agreed that the state of America’s infrastructure is a serious problem. Yet it wasn’t until this week that they finally did something about it. This hardly suggests that our political process is working as it should.

This multi-year delay was even more remarkable considering that infrastructure investments have long enjoyed massive, bipartisan support from voters. According to Gallup, virtually every infrastructure poll of the past five years has found overwhelming support among Americans. In theory, supporting new infrastructure projects should have been popular, whoever the president is. In practice, Republicans were more interested in spending money on tax cuts for the rich when they had full control of government, and denying victory to Democratic presidents when they did not. .

For more than 10 years, Republican elected officials concluded that the benefit of doing something the American people wanted was outweighed by the benefit of obstructing and rewarding their donors. Politically speaking, maybe that was the right conclusion. But it does suggest that there is something wrong with our political process itself.

Especially since the one thing that ultimately brought Republicans to the table on the infrastructure bill was the virtual certainty that massive investments in infrastructure were happening with or without them. For the first time since 2010, Democrats control both houses of Congress and the White House. At the start of President Biden’s term, they pledged to use reconciliation, which is immune from Senate filibuster, to pass an infrastructure package.

Republican lawmakers did not negotiate because they wanted to improve America’s infrastructure. They negotiated because obstruction was no longer an option. By helping push through a bipartisan bill, they could at least get credit for popular articles and perhaps convince the Democratic centrists to cut back on a future reconciliation package. Biparty legislation, in other words, was only made possible by the alternate possibility of extreme partisanship. This doesn’t change the importance of the bill, but it does suggest that the process leading up to its passage was hardly an inspiring display of country rather than party.

So, yes, Washington has proven that democracy can still work. But for now, American democracy works like this: if a large majority of Americans agree; and one party gets full control of Washington; and this party is able to find a procedural loophole that would allow it to act without the obstruction of the Senate; and the President and his allies in Congress execute their legislative strategy almost perfectly; and we wait about 15 years; then politicians from both parties will come together and act. Such a political process is many things, but “functional” is not one of them.

And our democracy is set to become much less functional very soon. While voting rights are eroded even further, rampant partisan gerrymandering is allowed to go unchecked and far-right judges continue to legislate from the bench without any real threat of court reform to moderate them, the gap between what the American people want and what Washington is doing will only get bigger.

The same week the Senate adopted the bipartisan infrastructure framework, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report declaring that we have achieved “code red for humanity.” If governments do not act quickly on climate, the planet could become essentially uninhabitable, not in a hypothetical future, but during the lifetime of Americans born today.

Biden is right: this week we proved that democracy can work. But we were also reminded that we can no longer afford a democracy that works like this.

  • David Litt is an American political writer and bestselling author of The New York Times Thanks Obama and Democracy In One Book Or Less. He publishes How Democracy Lives, a democracy reform newsletter

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