Partisan Politics & Crumbling Infrastructure

From the Editors | A Purple Analysis of the Senate Compromise |Issue 8 | August 16, 2021

Let us praise an unexpected amount of Senate bipartisanship for this purple moment in case the situation quickly reverts to partisan politics as usual.  

A much needed and long debated $1.1 trillion compromise infrastructure bill passed the U.S. Senate on August 10th by a vote of 69 to 30, with 19 Republican Senators crossing the aisle in support. Yet, just as a polarized nation does not expect such things, it won’t likely celebrate them either. 

So we ask you, independent-minded Purple Principle readers and listeners, to celebrate a few moments with us, knowing full well that both ideological wings of the U.S. House could tear the existing bill to pieces, weigh it down with amendment ballast, hold it hostage, or some fatal combo thereof.

Still, the fact remains that the Senate did the surprisingly purple thing and passed this compromise bill with votes to spare. So rejoice, if briefly and cautiously.  

Miraculous? No. Surprising? Yes.

It’s important to note that the bipartisan Senate package included a “yea” vote from the normally obstructionist minority leader, Mitch McConnell. If one thinks back to the near-total lack of aisle crossing during the last Democratic Presidency (Obama, 2009-2017), the notion of 19 Republican Senators, McConnell among them, supporting a Democratic initiative would have seemed poli-sci-fi. 

No less an authority than veteran columnist and reporter Thomas Edsall (stay tuned for an upcoming episode) of the New York Times conveyed his surprise to us recently on the substantial Republican cross-over:

“I’m very surprised… especially since McConnell’s strategy has been to basically destroy anything democratic at all costs… It is a big victory for Biden. I think as long as Biden can maintain some momentum in his agenda, which this action on this bill helps him do. He retains his centrality in the American political debate, and it increases his probability of being able to survive with the fewest possible losses in 2022 and perhaps go into 2024.”

— Thomas Edsall

Other New York Times journalists investigated a possible motive for the Republican votes. And the tentative hypothesis is that pragmatic Republican Senators are attempting to create some distance from Trumpian populism.  Despite his attempt at a more significant infrastructure bill (including border wall) while in office, the ex-POTUS agitated extensively against the bill’s passage. 

Skeptical Media Before and After; Partisan Media Throughout 

From its inception back in March 2021, the notion of a bipartisan Senate deal was greeted with skepticism of varying sorts from all sides:

On the right, The National Review focused on invasive plant expenditure, an odd stance philosophically for a publication rarely pro-immigration. Meanwhile, the WSJ criticized the pace at which the bill proceeded, while Fox predictably claimed, via one Senate detractor, that freedom was at stake. Whether that’s freedom to fall from a bridge or drink toxic water, we’re not sure: 

  • The National Review: “Bipartisan ‘Infrastructure’ Bill Includes $250 Million for Invasive Plant Program”
  • Fox Business (Video): “Sen. Blackburn on infrastructure bill: ‘You’re losing a little bit of your freedom’”
  • Wall Street Journal (Editorial Board Opinion): “The Senate’s Infrastructure Rush Job”

Among more centrist and left-leaning publications, the notion of negotiating a bipartisan compromise was not only wasteful but distasteful, a reflection of how polarized the political palate has become. 

  • The Hill (Opinion): “Bipartisanship is dead – Republicans killed it”
  • The Washington Post (Opinion): “Hope for bipartisanship is dead. And Joe Biden killed it.”
  • Politico Magazine (Opinion): “‘Bipartisanship’ Is Dead in Washington. That’s Fine.”

Highlights & Insights from The Purple Principle

Relatively few articles in major publications along the way urged the bipartisan coalition to negotiate in good faith or hoped for success, which points to a significant growth industry prospering as a consequence of legislative gridlock: cynically partisan media. And partisanship, by nature, is squarely anti-bipartisanship. 

Here at The Purple Principle, however, we’ve been fortunate to have podcast guests highlight not only the theoretical import of bipartisanship but the practical potential for it. 

Charles Wheelan, a founder of Unite America, has been writing and speaking on this topic for nearly a decade now since his 2013 book, The Centrist Manifesto, was published. In our Season One episode, Dr. Wheelan, a lecturer at Dartmouth College and former Economist correspondent, explained the potential power of a revitalized political center:

“Part of this strategy would be electing some “big C” centrists and also some independents… I want more people willing to make compromises in the middle, not on every issue, but I think if you send more people with this mindset, with this core set of beliefs, to the Senate, you’re more likely to get that behavior.”

Wheelan was correct that the Senate did get some of that behavior, if not from independents or “Big C” centrists, then from a fair number of Republicans deviating from the populist playbook. 

Richard Arenberg, long-time Senate staffer and now Acting Director of the Taubman Center at Brown University, spoke to us about the dangers of filibuster reform – when keys to the legislative bulldozer are stolen back and forth. But he also expressed the unfashionable optimism that a group of 20 bipartisan senators could negotiate their way toward progress:

“They’ve been calling themselves the “Gang of 20” and the math kind of works. You need ten on each side… Because if you’ve got ten Republicans, then you’ve got cloture, and if you don’t have ten Democrats, then even without the filibuster, you can’t enforce your solution. And there’s some hope in that. I mean, I’m a bit of a Pollyanna. I think just getting people to act civilly towards each other, to sit down at the table and negotiate solutions, that can go a long way.”

In this case, Richard Arenberg, and the primary negotiators of the infrastructure bill, Rob Portman and Krysten Sinema, were correct. Good faith negotiation can produce surprising results, at least on issues like infrastructure with broad appeal. 

Our Crumbling Infrastructure

“We just want things to work,” laments stand-up comedian Ronny Chieng in his brilliant Netflix comedy special, “Asian Comedian Destroys America.” He’s talking about the paralyzing nature of U.S. political identity battles and offers this solution:

“Asians should run the government because we just don’t care. We just want things to work!”

Independent-minded Americans want things to work too, infrastructure among them. And like Chieng, we don’t care whether improvements are passed by Democratic or Republican Congresses, or signed by Democratic or Republican Presidents, so long as they’re implemented. That’s largely because infrastructure investment in this country has been sorely lacking for decades. 

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the average age of American dams is 57 years, which is beyond the expected lifespan, and there is a water main break every two minutes in the U.S. The ASCE gives the U.S. a poor report card in many other aspects of infrastructure as well.

A widely-cited 2019 report from the World Economic Forum placed the US at 13th in overall infrastructure and 17th in road quality. But as recently as 2008-2009, the US was ranked #9 in global competitiveness in terms of overall infrastructure. 

According to the Brookings Institution, US federal spending on infrastructure fell almost $10 billion from 2007 to 2017. At the same time, while spending on capital projects has diminished, the cost of operations and maintenance actually rose. And the GAO found in 2015 that nearly 25% of US bridges are deficient, and 10% are structurally deficient. 

A Brief History of Wear, Tear & Rust

Flooded neighborhood
In recent times, there have been several disturbing incidents in which U.S. infrastructure has tragically failed yet not immediately triggered legislative action on capital improvements. Among the most notable was the 2005 breaching of New Orleans levee systems in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. According to the city of New Orleans, the failure after Katrina was the first event since 1965 that involved such a breach due to storm surge.
On August 1, 2007, the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, which spans the Mississippi River, collapsed during rush hour. USA Today reported that a design failure led to the catastrophic collapse of the bridge, resulting in the deaths of 13 people and injuries to 145 more.
And many decades after proof of their health implications, lead pipes are still a major U.S. water safety issue, as sadly illustrated in Flint, Michigan. The National Resources Defense Council has a comprehensive overview of the problem, which the bill recently passed by the U.S. Senate seeks to partially address.

And there is the simple comparative fact that the U.S. does not invest enough in infrastructure relative to other countries, making it a less attractive market in which to invest, manufacture, do business, reside or visit, which has economic consequences for all.

A Brief History of Wear, Tear, & Congressional Action

Congress passed the most historically significant infrastructure bill with the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act, which called for 41,000 miles of highway financed mainly with a gas tax. The bill passed the House initially with a 388-19 vote. The Senate was much closer, 39-39, and required Vice President Nixon to break the tie. While President Eisenhower provided the project’s vision, Senator Albert Gore, Sr. (D-TN) and Representative Hale Boggs (D-LA) provided the legislative framework for the ultimately enacted bill – in that sense, a bipartisan effort. 

Smaller infrastructure bills have historically been less contentious than major ones and thus able to secure passage even as partisanship has grown. 

In August 2005, former President Bush signed a highway funding bill amounting to $286.4 billion. This bill, HR 3, dubbed “SAFETEA-LU,” was sponsored by Rep. Don Young (R-AK-At-large) and co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of 79 of his colleagues

In December 2015, President Obama signed a 5-year, $305 billion infrastructure bill. Obama said at the time that the bill “is a common-sense compromise and an important first step in the right direction.” Dubbed the “FAST Act,” the bill was sponsored by Republican Rodney Davis (IL-13) and co-sponsored by a bipartisan House group of 118 Representatives

But these smaller bills failed to adequately address the enormity of the issue, as the US business community frequently pointed out. A significant catalyst for the current bill has been the private sector, with hundreds of business leaders signing a letter stating the need for an infrastructure overhaul. Even the frequently right-leaning US Chamber of Commerce noted that infrastructure is a rare opportunity for bipartisanship. 

Current legislative action on infrastructure also occurs against the backdrop of increasingly extreme weather events, both in frequency and intensity. A CNN article on infrastructure and shifting climate patterns shows how investing in infrastructure is becoming more critical. The 2018 National Climate Assessment, mandated by Congress, states that “Infrastructure currently designed for historical climate conditions is more vulnerable to future weather extremes and climate change.” 

Thus an important, if implicit, element in the 19 Republican Senate votes for the infrastructure bill is GOP recognition of the greater stress created by global warming and weather volatility. 

The House is Set to Pounce

But now our momentary celebration of bipartisanship must go on hold as the bill moves onto the far more contentious, far more safe-seat-riddled House of Representatives, where members compete for speaking time within the chamber to appeal to their partisan donors and voters back home. Here are just a few of the gauntlets immediately thrown down from the left and the right:

Still, a bipartisan Senate compromise bill was negotiated and passed in a way rarely seen in the past two decades and now makes its unexpected way to the House. We certainly see partisanship go viral every day. Can bipartisanship be contagious or at least temporarily upheld? We’re about to find out. 

What We’re Reading

“Infrastructure is what could be called the quintessential long-term common good. That is what makes addressing its needs in America that evolved over the last fifty years almost unthinkable. Long-term means it is not propelled by an emergency… Common good means that unless, as with national defense, everyone has to worry equally about the problem, those who care more about their own interests will be ready and able to block the solution.” (291)

Study Worth Studying

U.S. Infrastructure: 1929-2017

In his 2019 paper, Yale Economics Professor Ray C. Fair examines the history of U.S. infrastructure from 1917 to 2017. His research suggests that the U.S. has been less “future-focused” in its infrastructure investment since around 1970. Fair also examines the ways in which peer countries around the world have been better at consistently spending on their infrastructure, while the U.S. failed to do so.

Partner in Purple

The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), founded over a decade ago by notable veteran bipartisan lawmakers Bob Dole, Tom Daschle, Howard Baker, and George Mitchell, is at the forefront of developing rigorous and genuinely bipartisan solutions to America’s most pressing policy issues. Infrastructure is a crucial node of research and advocacy. In a recent report, the BPC laid out a $1 trillion proposal to enhance and innovate the nation’s infrastructure that balances Democrats’ ambitions with Republicans’ budgetary pragmatism.  

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