Washington has done it again. This country has pressing needs, and our representatives in Washington have failed to pass legislation to address them. I’m talking about two key pieces of President Biden’s agenda: The $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill and the $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure bill.” Both measures enjoy wide bipartisan support among voters. Why can’t the White House and our representatives in Washington get their act together and get them passed?
That’s the question I have been wrestling with the last several days.
Progressives refuse to pass the $1.5 trillion bill until an agreement is reached on the larger bill. So-called “moderate” Democrats disagree on linking the two bills. They believe the “roads and bridges” infrastructure bill should be passed on its own merits. Meanwhile, Speaker Pelosi and President Biden have tried, and thus far failed, to get the two groups to compromise with each other.
But is the fight really about progressives versus moderates? What about the Republicans? Are they really against both bills, or are they simply anxious to deny Biden and Democrats a “win” of any type? Put another way, are Republicans ready to let bridges collapse from disrepair to position themselves better for 2022 and 2024?
These are not easy questions. There are lots of moving parts. A book could, and most likely will, be written to explain what is happening and why. I will want to read it because the mess in Washington is starting to look like a crisis of institutions rather than a crisis of leadership. Has Congress become hopelessly and permanently dysfunctional? Good question.
I don’t have the answer, but to try to bring some clarity to the impasse it is worth looking at the major players, and what they are doing. After that it’s easier to figure out who is part of the solution and who is part of the problem.
Here’s my assessment:
Speaker Pelosi. Her job has been to force her party’s moderates and progressives to compromise. She’s making progress, but thus far has not succeeded. As a result, she is getting criticism from both groups. I’m sympathetic to her but wonder if she’s up to the task.
House Republicans. I fault them for their blanket opposition to the Biden agenda, which they describe as “socialism.” If you view child hunger, failing schools, the absence of affordable healthcare, and a growing income gap between the rich and the poor a problem, you must disagree with House Republicans. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy deserves special criticism for focusing more on winning the next election than on governing.
House “progressives.” Ever since AOC got elected to Congress, progressives have attempted to seize control of the Democratic party. To a degree, they have succeeded. With few exceptions, non-progressive Democrats are afraid to suggest that proposals to spend trillions of dollars are problematic. As a result, the progressives have felt little need to compromise. I fault them from playing chicken with the Biden agenda. There is a real possibility that both infrastructure bills will fail passage, not because of “Republican obstructionism” but because of the progressives’ “my way or the highway” mentality.
Bernie Sanders. The Socialist Senator from Vermont is the tail that wags the Democratic Senate dog. Even though he is technically not a Democrat, as chair of the Senate Budget Committee, he has pushed Democrats to resist compromise with Republicans. As a result, he has made Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s job easy. McConnell would like to characterize all Democrats as irresponsible tax and spend politicians. Thanks to Sanders (and his House counterparts), that’s been an easy task.
Senate Republicans. Even moderates who think the $3.5 trillion bill is too expensive are frustrated with McConnell and his fellow Republicans. McConnell is committed to make Biden a failed president. That is abdicating his responsibilities as a Senator. McConnell’s Republican Senate colleagues, the people who chose him as their leader, share the blame.
Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV). Among progressives, Manchin is among the most hated people in Washington. Allegations that he is “in the pocket” of the coal industry and corrupt regularly circulate. I will leave it to others to determine whether Manchin has ethical issues. A better explanation of Manchin’s opposition to the Biden agenda is that he is representing his constituents. West Virginia is the most Republican state in the country.
Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). The Arizona Senator is also widely condemned for not supporting the full Biden agenda. Like Manchin, she is attempting to represent her constituents. Biden won Arizona in 2020, but not by much. Arizona remains a largely Republican state. Sinema believes her Republican constituents deserve to be represented.
Joe Biden. Remember when Biden promised to promote bipartisanship during the 2020 campaign? Since his inauguration, Biden appears to have fully adopted the progressive agenda. In so doing, Biden abandoned any attempt at bipartisanship. He deserves credit for putting his own presidency in jeopardy.
Donald Trump. What analysis of political dysfunction is complete without considering Donald Trump? What is his role? I would describe it as poisoning the water. First, while president, Trump promised to reduce the budget deficit. Then he increased deficit spending and the national debt. His dismal record has empowered progressives, who claim “Trump increased the national debt for tax cuts for the rich; we want to spend to help people.”
Trump also has encouraged the “take no prisoners” attitude practiced by some Republicans. As a result, it is more difficult than ever for Congress to find the common ground.
Is it fair to assign Trump a role in the current impasse? I would say yes, despite Trump’s limited understanding of the legislative branch, he has helped muck up the process despite his ignorance. His goal hasn’t been to produce sound fiscal policy, it has been to promote his political comeback.
So where does all that leave us? One response is “In a fog.” For the time being, especially as raising the debt limit is debated over the next two weeks continues, we are waiting for a leader, or two, to figure out a way out of the woods. My fingers are crossed.
J.E. Dean is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant writing on politics, government, birds, and occasionally, golden doodles.