Compromise, civility and Congress

Due to ultimately futile efforts at compromise, Biden’s flagship Build Back Better Act has been repeatedly diminished in scope, leading to fewer and fewer benefits for working Americans.

Adam Schultz / Creative Commons

Due to ultimately futile efforts at compromise, Biden’s flagship Build Back Better Act has been repeatedly diminished in scope, leading to fewer and fewer benefits for working Americans.

By Daniel Bethke, Lincoln High School

Recently, Capitol Hill, the news and the American people have been incessantly saturated by talk of one potent word: infrastructure. All eyes are now on the Senate to either approve or reject the more partisan Build Back Better Act, which just recently passed the House.

The word partisan, when applied to Biden’s social infrastructure plan, seems to bear an inherently negative connotation. We seem to have an aversion to the concept. To many, our society would be better if we sought legislative cooperation over political conviction. But we must remember that bipartisanship isn’t inherently good (or bad). Its virtue depends on its motive and outcome; both parties coming together to wage war is condemnable, but both parties coming together to pass direct cash payments to working Americans, for instance, is applaudable.

Due to efforts by Democrats to make the bill more palatable for Republicans, Biden’s Build Back Better Act, for example, has been watered down beyond the point of recognition. Initially, he and Sen. Bernie Sanders floated a $6 trillion package that would have contained historic investments in working American people, their health and their livelihood. Once the actual bill was written, six became 3.5, and after negotiations with moderate Democrats and Republicans, the bill was cut to $1.75 trillion. As Investopedia noted, free community college, expanded Medicare benefits and paid leave, all boons for millions, were scrapped. Democratic caving to moderate demands ultimately left the bill a shadow of its former self. Imagine how low the investment would have been if Sanders hadn’t initially floated the $6 trillion amount, shifting the “Overton window.” 

Still, the impacts of Build Back Better are potentially the difference between life and death. Why, then, would we compromise to meet somewhere in the middle? It is futile in any case. Progressive Democrats initially demonstrated some conviction by holding their ground and threatening to vote against the bipartisan physical infrastructure bill. However, when moderate Democrats indicated they would support Build Back Better provided it wouldn’t add to the deficit, progressives caved and supported the bipartisan bill. In actuality, the bill does slightly add to the deficit, as the Congressional Budget Office found. Republicans and moderate Democrats bemoan this $37 billion annual increase, but they never complain when the debt increases by trillions due to tax cuts for the wealthy, increased military spending or other measures that benefit their donors. This centrist and Republican double standard pervades American politics, making genuine legislative cooperation, putting principles over party, nearly impossible. 

Due to this inaction (and action in the wrong direction), Congress now has an approval of 22%. Clearly, the American people are not on the side of a tepid Congress; they are on the side of progressive policies. As YouGov found, 76% of them want Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing. 58% of them want paid leave. 54% want free community college. Given Biden’s and Congress’s recently declining approval, it is self-evident that the more Democrats cut from Build Back Better, the less popular it became.

Therefore, as the provisions they support are the most popular, progressives should be holding their legislative ground. The Republicans and moderate Democrats should be compromising with the progressives rather than voting against their constituents’ own interest. After all, even Donald Trump once supported spending trillions on infrastructure, for which Republicans largely cheered. Most Republican voters still support such an endeavor, and most voters in one of the most Republican states, Sen. Joe Manchin’s West Virginia, strongly supported the now-scrapped $15 minimum wage provision. In fact, virtually every provision of the Build Back Better bill polled with strong majority support in the state, yet Manchin still insists he is serving his constituents and his principles by obstructing it. The myriad benefits of a comprehensive infrastructure plan are so clear that one Republican representative, Gary Palmer, issued a statement lauding a local project whose funding came from the Build Back Better bill, even though he voted against it.

To realize those benefits, the Democratic Party must maintain an unwavering commitment to labor advocacy. It must no longer sacrifice the necessary for the negotiable. It must call out and maneuver past rank partisanship and hypocrisy. Democrats must become fierce advocates for popular progressive policies, unafraid to use their leverage to demonstrate their conviction. Only when this occurs can America transcend political gridlock and become a country in which resources are accessible, equitable and plentiful for all.

This story was originally published on The Statesman on November 23, 2021.