Opinion

Democrats make governing much harder than it needs to be

The insistence on a bipartisan infrastructure deal means the Biden agenda still has several hurdles to clear

Don't look now, but it seems that there actually will be some kind of bipartisan infrastructure deal. Enough Senate Republicans have agreed to a roughly $1 trillion dollar package — including money for roads, bridges, broadband, and Amtrak, among other things — that it is expected to be passed sometime Tuesday.

It raises the question: Are Democrats about to get played by Republicans once again? The answer is that it is entirely up to them. Now is the time for House Democrats to stand firm and demand that Senate Democrats pass the party's own priorities before they accept the bipartisan compromise.

Now, I have to admit that I was apparently too skeptical of the chances of a bipartisan bill getting through. Under President Obama, Republicans' signature move was to hold out the promise of bipartisan compromise, dragging out negotiations for months and squandering precious congressional calendar time, only to pull back at the last second. In 2009-10, dimwitted and/or corrupt moderate Democrats fell for this clumsy trick over and over and over, and I thought it would probably work again, but I was mistaken.

However, it is still absolutely certain that Republicans are operating in bad faith here. If they are advancing this bipartisan bill, it is because they perceive that to be their best chance at blowing up the rest of the Biden agenda and thereby damaging the Democrats' political prospects. The old goal of wasting tons of floor time has indeed succeeded. Now the GOP is almost certainly hoping that by agreeing to this bill, moderate Democrats like Sens. Krysten Sinema (Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (W. Va.) will get cold feet about the rest of Biden's policy program, and that will be the end of major policymaking for the rest of his presidency.

It is worth noting again that both in terms of policy and in terms of the political objectives of the Democratic Party, the bipartisan bill is completely pointless. As Alex Pareene writes at The New York Times, the sole objective is to assuage a neurotic desire from a handful of Senate moderates like Manchin and Sinema to demonstrate that the Senate still functions: "The Senate (with the White House's support) wasted months cajoling and rehabilitating a handful of key Republicans, only to pass a smaller version of something Democrats could theoretically have passed entirely on their own." The whole process proved beyond any doubt that the Senate is a worthless obstacle to human flourishing.

If and when the deal does pass, the Democrats' explicit intention is to pass another much larger budget bill that can sidestep the filibuster through the reconciliation process — tacking on many of the party's objectives that weren't included in the bipartisan bill. (Republicans appear to have calculated that if they didn't do something bipartisan, Manchin and Sinema would be forced to go along with the rest of their party, so they are trying to give them an escape hatch to start running away from liberal priorities.) Senate Democrats released an outline of what that second bill could look like Monday morning.

However, one small but important thing is missing from that proposed reconciliation bill — an increase in the debt limit. The government is going to run out of legal borrowing authority in mid-September, and Democrats are reportedly going to try to force Republicans to vote for a separate increase rather than just doing it themselves.

This is almost unbelievably stupid, even for long-time students of Democratic blundering. Republicans have already taken the debt limit hostage more than once, and their desire to inflict harm on the country to damage the Biden administration is right out in the open. Right now, in the midst of a resurgent pandemic that is again stuffing hospitals full to bursting, Republican elites are spreading anti-vaccine propaganda and instructing their followers to ignore pandemic containment guidelines. Republican senators are publicly saying they will not vote for a debt ceiling increase without massive austerity measures that would wound the economy and therefore Biden. "I don't think there are going to be any Republican votes to increase the debt limit without some structural reforms," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told Politico.

Furthermore, the debt ceiling is a pointless anachronism that does not exist in any other country (except Denmark, where they have effectively abolished it) and is arguably unconstitutional. In any sane country, when the legislature votes to spend and tax, it has thereby voted to borrow the balance of revenue needed. It is irresponsible politics to play chicken with the worst major political party in the developed world, and it is irresponsible policy not to clean up this poisonous legal idiocy while Democrats have the chance.

All this means that right now is an excellent time for progressives in the House — by which I mean not just the "Squad" but anyone who is in favor of Biden's agenda and wants to see him succeed as president — to hold the line and force Senate Democrats to behave. If the House pockets the bipartisan bill and refuses to move on it until they also have the reconciliation bill in hand from the Senate, including an abolition of the debt limit (or at least a large increase), they can likely force through the whole thing. Make it clear to Sinema and Manchin that it's an all-or-nothing deal. Otherwise Biden's entire presidency could run aground in a month.

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