Politics & Policy

Don’t Compromise on Infrastructure

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy listens to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speak to reporters following an infrastructure meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House in May 12, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Minority Leader McConnell has signaled that he may be interested in passing a smaller infrastructure bill than the one President Biden covets, and that his ceiling for such an endeavor would be around $800 billion. This is a mistake. Republicans should oppose Biden’s proposal in its entirety.

Americans who oppose more federal spending are often asked, “Well, okay then, what is your plan?” But it is not incumbent upon fiscal conservatives to accept the premises of fiscal profligates — as if, once a president has proposed spending a trillion dollars, the only question is whether the measure will actually be a trillion or a little less. 

There is no need for more federal infrastructure spending. Republicans should say that. It is not a good idea to spend trillions of dollars during an expansion. Republicans should say that. We should not borrow more money, or raise taxes, in order to pay for more infrastructure spending. Republicans should say that. States and localities can better decide what they really need to build, and pay for it. Republicans should say that.

It is worth our remembering that an $800 billion “counter-offer” seems like a “moderate” option only because the Biden administration’s preferred additional spending total — which is $2.3 trillion on “infrastructure” and $4 trillion in total — is so ludicrously large. Eight-hundred-billion dollars exceeds the annual defense budget! That such a proposal has become regarded as a “middle way” bargaining chip shows us only how off the rails the debate on spending has become.

Of course, there are infrastructure projects that would benefit from federal investment. But there is no reason for anyone to expect that such projects will be the strategic focus of any bill, compromise or no — because political considerations, and simply shoving money out the door, inevitably take precedence in such exercises.

Washington Post reporter Jeff Stein has suggested that Republicans might consider backing some spending on “physical” infrastructure in order to kill the “momentum” for all the rest of the proposal. If the GOP bends on roads and bridges, goes the thinking, relatively moderate Democrats might be satiated and balk at the other, additional spending. 

Superficially, this might seem to make sense as a means to at least limit the damage. It would entail taking an enormous risk, though. As Stein explains, the main reason Democrats need Republicans on board is that some of the most important elements of their “physical” infrastructure plan might, for parliamentary reasons, require 60 votes. If the Republicans help to pass those elements, they could, in effect, be helping the Democrats to get all of what they want. First, Republicans would join with Democrats to achieve the elements that need 60 votes. And then, having used the Republicans to get what they want, the Democrats could turn around and pass the remaining parts with just 50.

No one can know how much additional spending Biden might be able to get through, but it will clearly be harder than the first time around with his initial $2 trillion tranche of “COVID relief” spending. There’s no need for Republicans to begin bidding against themselves — as a matter of principle, politics, or substance. 

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