The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.
It’s not a new “New Deal.” It’s not even “big government.”
But President Joe Biden is trying to do something big with his infrastructure plan. Congressional Republicans oppose the scope of those plans.
What does “infrastructure” mean? Originally a French word, it translates as “substructure.” Does that mean only the most basic supports of the national economy, as the Republicans argue, or many underlying elements that contribute to economic strength, as Biden sees it?
Former President Donald Trump floated a $1 trillion infrastructure investment proposal. It would have needed more revenues from taxes or debt. The GOP wasn’t in favor and the private sector did not come up with the cash. Nothing happened.
Roads and bridges have to be repaired. Everybody agrees, making it difficult to argue against an infrastructure plan. The GOP wants it narrowly focused. It’s almost as though if it isn’t made out of cement, it isn’t infrastructure.
Keep it a small bill, they say, to limit the necessary small tax increase and limited growth in the national debt. Now that Trump, who liked debt, is gone, the Republicans have become deficit hawks. By spending less, they want to choke “big government.”
The 1930’s New Deal was big government, because the federal government itself created jobs and hired people. It created and runs Social Security. Biden’s proposal would mostly send money to the private sector, just as did President Barack Obama’s stimulus. That’s public investment, not big government.
The GOP may concede that Biden’s election victory entitles him to some action on infrastructure, but he must accept their version. That’s a Republican compromise. He suggests that if he gains support from average Republicans, that will be proof of compromise. And he must make some concessions to moderate Democrats who share some of the GOP’s restraint.
Biden promises to seek “good faith negotiations” with the Republicans. He would if he could, but he can’t.
Former GOP House Speaker John Boehner now explains why the dominant, right-wing Republicans spurn compromise. He wrote, “These guys wanted 100 percent every time. In fact, I don’t think that would satisfy them, because they didn’t really want legislative victories. They wanted wedge issues and conspiracies and crusades.”
In Maine, something like that happened with this year’s supplemental budget. Gov. Janet Mills gave GOP legislators 99 percent of what they wanted on business taxes, but they demanded 100 percent. When she gave them that, they demanded even more.
In short, politics is not about shared responsibility for governing the country, but a struggle between the Democrats, who make proposals, and the anti-Democrats who oppose them, good or bad.
Republicans attack Biden’s big plan, but only propose severely trimming it without promising to vote for the reduced version. There is no GOP counterproposal.
If both sides were serious about compromise, they could successfully negotiate a deal. The Republicans would have to accept more spending and the Democrats less. Because the Democrats control the government, they should get more out of the deal than would the Republicans.
But that won’t happen. Boehner found that the GOP right wing does not want to legislate; it wants to agitate. Also, Biden can’t let the Republicans use compromise talks to delay action, giving them time to promote opposition to his bill.
Biden probably believes that the infrastructure bill plus the recently passed stimulus bill and planned health care reform legislation are the cornerstones of his presidency. With these bills, he can achieve most of what he set out to do. And his best chance for success comes now in the first year of his presidency.
He was an adept legislator, so he knows he must make some concessions to moderate Democrats and at least talk with Republicans. His bill contains some spending on the progressive agenda to keep all Democrats on board, but he undoubtedly knew from the outset that he would have to drop parts of his proposal.
Yet some of his innovative items could prove popular with Republicans across the country. For example, his proposed broadband expansion could bring real benefit to Maine’s rural areas, traditional Republican strongholds.
The GOP leaders lined up for broadband, but Republicans oppose clean energy proposals and even fixing 100-year-old water systems.
The Republicans can block Biden from getting the 60 Senate votes to end debate on his bill. One solution might be for the Democrats to eliminate the filibuster. But Biden might not get swing Democrats to agree.
The more likely solution is budget “reconciliation.” A simple majority can decide on spending and taxes under this procedure, used by both parties. Biden’s bill was drafted to permit it, and the Senate parliamentarian has issued a preliminary ruling allowing it.
Biden pits Republican governors and mayors, who could benefit from the bill, against the congressional GOP, largely still loyal to Trump. The Democrats could not only pass the bill, but gain from the split.
This scenario reveals that the 2022 congressional election campaign has begun.