Explaining the infrastructure fight
Two tracks out of a crisis
From left to right, the one thing political observers and participants around the globe seem to agree on is that the neoliberal world order has been collapsing since the financial crisis of 2008.
What type of world order will emerge from this crisis is hotly disputed, a question that hasn’t been so open since the 1930s. How exactly the U.S. emerges from this crisis, and in what state, will be significantly determined by the legislative jockeying of the next few months. On leftist social media, the Biden administration’s obituary has long been written, its death pinpointed in the failure to attach a minimum wage increase to its early stimulus package and the subsequent lack of effort put into a public health insurance option or other campaign priorities. News Thursday of a bipartisan infrastructure deal struck between Congress and the White House was met with a mixture of scorn and boredom.
Yet the Biden administration agenda that is still very much alive carries arguably far more potential consequence for a fundamental reorienting of the American economy. If the neoliberal order is collapsing, the next few months offer Democrats a perhaps-final chance to build something new in its place.
Democrats have zero margin for error, or senatorial morbidity, in a Senate divided evenly 50-50. In the House, a four-seat majority gives the party barely more room.
But Democrats, including their leadership and rank and file, are unusually motivated for a party that flinched at its own shadow for the past 40 years. There is broad recognition within the party that Democrats are likely to lose one or both chambers of Congress in the midterm elections and that 2022 is unlikely to yield significant legislative opportunities. It’s now or never.
By enacting major spending bills before that happens, Democrats will be able to continue governing and investing in public infrastructure over the next six years even without control of Congress. This marks a departure from the Obama administration, whose final six years were a tangle of economic stagnation and congressional confrontations over austerity, culminating in the election of President Donald Trump.
And so it is no coincidence that the bipartisan agreement has only been reached after progressive Democrats in the House and Senate insisted loudly that no bipartisan deal could happen without a simultaneous pledge to push through the transformative, multi trillion-dollar agenda using reconciliation, which requires just 50 votes in the Senate. As the deal was announced, Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi announced that it would be both packages or neither, a rare bout of Democratic coordination.
The congressional jockeying over the infrastructure fight seems confusing from the outside, but what’s going on is really quite clear: It’s a fight over what kind of country and world we’re going to live in, and Democrats have the numbers to win this one. The question is whether they have the will.
I have a new story explaining what’s going on and laying out the stakes. Republicans are already threatening to back out, but they’re already boxed in: If they bail on the bipartisan deal, Democrats can just move everything through reconciliation, and strip out the items Republicans wanted.