Commentary: Old-school dealmaking on infrastructure

Pelosi and Schumer need to keep moderates on board because their tenuous hold on Congress depends on them.

White House/Flickr

Until about 20 years ago, major legislation worked its way up the congressional committee system, as deals got hammered out through months of negotiations.

In the 21st century, this style is often replaced by the speaker of the House, Senate majority leader and president driving the agenda.

The job of a politician has also changed. Rather than legislating and persuading, the path to influence often goes through our “entertainment” wing, where cable news appearances and social media punditry apply pressure on leadership.

But the ongoing infrastructure drama in Washington, D.C. seems different.

Real infrastructure — roads, bridges and sewers, not huge government expansion from childcare and free college to the risible Green New Deal — is broadly popular, though not a priority.

Therefore, nearly two-dozen bipartisan senators agreed to a $1.2-trillion infrastructure bill late last month.

President Joe Biden praised the sensible deal as the old-fashioned compromise he enjoyed as a senator. He called it “a true bipartisan effort, breaking the ice that too often has kept us frozen in place.”

Unfortunately, a few hours later — likely under pressure from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who declared “there ain’t going to be a bipartisan bill without a reconciliation bill” — Biden betrayed the group and announced he wouldn’t sign the deal unless it included so-called human infrastructure.

Asked on a recent podcast what led Biden to do that, Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez said, “It’s a bad faith move to cut a deal, have this wonderful bipartisan press conference at the White House, then two hours later completely kneecap all the people who just negotiated the deal.”

Embarrassed, and because no Republican would vote for that non-essential legislation, Biden quickly reversed and said he’d sign the compromise.

Democratic Sens. Maggie Hassan, John Hickenlooper, Mark Kelly, Joe Manchin, Jeanne Shaheen, Kyrsten Sinema, and Jon Tester understand that Bernie Sanders’ purely partisan, country-bankrupting spending spree is a political disaster for their party. Democrats need all 50 votes, making the semi-sane bloc more powerful than extremists.

Manchin and Sinema have been tasked with running public interference for vulnerable Democrats during the fracas. They should be thanked, not vilified, for taking criticism from delusional socialists who never worry about reelection.

Though normal in history, it’s hard to grasp this style of governing, given decades where most congressional action happened largely on partisan lines.

“Many observers implicitly treat the back and forth, bargaining, gamesmanship, and deal-making that’s happening as though it were the problem,” Yuval Levin wrote last week. “It shows things are out of control, the leaders aren’t in charge, the outcome is uncertain, everybody’s always throwing a tantrum, people are playing leverage games, and the whole thing could fall apart.”

“But I think that, as an institutional matter, all of that is a good sign,” he added. “That’s what Congress is supposed to be: an arena for bargaining and negotiation, ideally across party lines and in ways that yield up unusual coalitions to arrive at messy policy compromises. To see it happening should make us hopeful that some of Congress’s dysfunction could be relieved in time. You may not like some of the substance of the deal of course, but you’ll probably like some parts of it, and we should all appreciate the way it’s taking shape.”

Bottom line:

Contrary to what they’ve convinced themselves, Democrats did not score big electoral wins last November. They have no margin for error in the Senate and almost none in the House. Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer need to keep moderates on board because their tenuous hold on Congress depends on them.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is laser-focused on retaking the House. Swing seats the GOP could win are mostly where Democrat support for nonsensical measures helps Republicans.

For his part, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is concerned with preserving the filibuster and is spoiling for a fight.

Let the horse-trading resume.