Opinion

American cities are melting. Somebody tell the infrastructure negotiators.

Let us hear no more about what is "responsible" from moderate Democrats in Congress

David Attenborough nature documentaries have often returned to the birds of paradise — a group of species that have developed extremely weird looks thanks to sexual hyper-selection. The females of these birds are usually nondescript, but the males have developed (often hilarious) bright plumage they use to seduce a mate in elaborate rituals.

These mating rituals are basically akin to what is happening in Washington, D.C. right now — except without the joy of dancing and flirtation, or the beautiful colors, or the promise of something fun at the end. The current "negotiations" around a bipartisan infrastructure package are hinging entirely on a complex dance ostensibly designed to accomplish something worthwhile while signaling responsibility and virtue, but in reality doing nothing of the sort. Meanwhile, an actual screaming emergency in the form of climate change is largely being ignored.

Jeff Stein at The Washington Post has the goods on how the bipartisan group of senators are going to pay for their infrastructure proposal: by lying. The deal assumes they can loot $70 billion out of the unemployment insurance program without harming beneficiaries, but experts agree they could get $35 billion at most and that definitely will come at the cost of lost benefits. They're counting $65 billion from a sale of electromagnetic spectrum that already happened. They're counting $6 billion in sales from the strategic petroleum reserve that would have to be replaced eventually. "The plan also includes repurposing about $80 billion in coronavirus relief funding that nobody has yet identified or agreed to," Stein writes.

Their one unquestionably legitimate revenue source — boosted IRS funding so they can crack down on rampant tax evasion — likely won't be counted by the Congressional Budget Office because of the agency's made-up budget metaphysics (that have been consistently wrong for 30 years).

Now, this is not the only infrastructure plan being discussed. The other half of the plan — as stated by President Biden, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and most of the rest of the Democratic Party — is to put all the goodies Democrats actually want into a second reconciliation bill that will be passed on a party-line vote. One naturally might wonder why on Earth the party is bothering with the bipartisan song and dance in that case, when they could save time and just do one bill.

Informed observers agree that the reason is a handful of Democratic moderates, above all Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, demand a performance of bipartisan outreach before they will agree to do a real bill. As David Dayen writes at The American Prospect, the price of this bipartisan bill might include mass privatization of public infrastructure, sweetheart contracts to well-connected contractors, or other terrible ideas. Ninety-five times out of 100, "bipartisan" means "corrupt."

The audience for this performance of fake virtue consists solely of Manchin himself, a few of his centrist colleagues, and the overly credulous members of the Washington press corps. If this crummy, meager bipartisan bill passes, nobody will remember it in a week, much less in 2024 when Manchin is up for re-election (when he will almost certainly lose badly no matter what he does, if he even runs again at all). If he really wanted the bad parts of the bipartisan bill, he could easily insist they be included in the Democrats' reconciliation bill.

Behold the culture of moderate members of Congress, where the most powerful senator moves heaven and earth solely to pay lip service to a norm of bipartisan lawmaking that is objectively pointless, and in any case hasn't been actually respected by both sides in 20 years.

It would be bleakly funny if the stakes weren't so (literally) high. The Pacific Northwest was hit with its worst heat wave in recorded history early this week, with temperatures reaching 116 degrees Fahrenheit in Portland — the third consecutive day of record highs, and a figure that bests the city record high from any previous year by fully nine degrees, as well as the all-time high marks of Atlanta, Dallas, and Miami. A small town in Canada also hit 116 degrees, beating the previous record for the entire country by three degrees.

This matters for infrastructure because the Pacific Northwest was not built for that kind of heat. Hotels were booked solid, as most homes don't have air conditioning, power lines melted and snapped, pavement buckled, and asphalt melted. Authorities say 34 people have died in Vancouver. But it's not as though states like Texas are immune, either — as we saw a few weeks ago, extreme heat stresses its rickety electrical grid as well. A bad heat wave that knocks out the electricity could easily kill tens of thousands of people very quickly.

The entire country is crying out for two things: rapid action to slash greenhouse gas emissions as part of a diplomatic effort to convince other countries to do the same, and rapid new investment to protect Americans from the climate disasters that are already happening and are guaranteed to get much, much worse in the future. Both of those things would naturally mean big investments, but even the larger reconciliation bill proposed by Democrats is maybe one-fifth the size of what a true attack on climate change would require — because making it bigger would require either borrowing or hiking taxes more than Manchin and the Democratic right is comfortable with.

So let us hear no more about what is "responsible" from moderate Democrats in Congress. The country is melting into slag and they are prancing and preening like an amorous songbird without a care in the world.

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