The first member I worked for in Congress—senator Robert Bennett of Utah—gave me an important lesson early in my job: politicians should never solve a problem until everyone agrees it’s a problem, or there won’t be any political benefits for fixing it.
Virtually everyone agrees that our aging infrastructure constitutes a problem. That means there are not only political benefits for doing something about it, but that placing obstacles in the way of doing something about it could force a reckoning with the voters in the not-so-far-away future.
The infrastructure bill that passed the senate earlier this week represents an earnest bipartisan effort to improve our infrastructure that will go a long way towards accomplishing its stated goal. Its passage should be construed as a genuine win for the Republican party, and the House of Representatives should endeavor to pass the bill posthaste and make it law.
The last two decades has seen a decline in polity, with each party deciding that anything the other side supports is by definition anathema to its own side and must be defeated, and it has reduced the scope for bipartisan legislation to nearly nothing.
The art of politics is reaching agreements that benefit everyone involved, and Republicans managed to greatly improve the bill by participating in the process. Refusing to engage altogether would probably not have stopped its passage, but it would have prevented Republicans from gaining electorally from it.
And to pretend conservative voters don’t want better infrastructure is foolish: Red and Blue communities across the country are dealing with problematic budgets and have no shortage of infrastructure issues. In my Central Illinois hometown there’s a century-old viaduct on the cusp of failure and our main drag is on the verge of returning to a gravel road, and neither the town nor the state can find the funds to fix either one. Everyone is thrilled there is now a potential path to address these.
It’s probably unrealistic to suggest that this is a harbinger of a new era of bipartisan cooperation: the majority of members in each party are towards their extremes and in a spot where compromising would jeopardize their standing in their respective movements and possibly invite primary challengers.
To that degree it’s important to recognize that politicians are often constrained by their constituencies and cannot deviate too far in either direction from their public stances that got them elected in the first place. It’s no coincidence that the Republican efforts were led by Senators Rob Portman, who is not standing for re-election, and Susan Collins, who has almost six years until her next election and has a constituency that is decidedly centrist.
However, there is some hope that bipartisanship might become more common on smaller, narrower bills that transcend partisanship, and there are some glimmers on that front: For instance, Congressman Matt Cartwright’s (D, PA) efforts to expand the availability of kidneys for donation—which would predominantly help Blacks and Hispanics, who are much more likely to have end-stage renal disease—has received robust bipartisan support in Congress, as well as assistance from the Biden Administration. Hopefully more GOP members will not be unafraid to co-sponsor a bill simply because a member from another party is the original sponsor.
There are several things not to like about the infrastructure bill: the left’s fetishization of passenger rail is not only doomed to fail outside of the Northeast Corridor (proposals to build a line from El Paso to Cheyenne seems daft even for this crowd) but it could also ultimately serve to increase carbon emissions by hindering freight rail.
And not considering a financing mechanism for new roads, such as a vehicle miles fee, amounts to kicking the can down the road and is a missed opportunity.
But people are clamoring for better roads and modern airports and the voters are going to reward those members who give it to them, and this bill will definitely accomplish such a thing. Its passage is clearly better for Republicans than its defeat.