Politics is about policymaking when it’s not about brinkmanship and Washington, DC continues to be a prime example of the latter despite what appears to be a victory.
On Tuesday evening, warring factions within the US Democratic party finally came together to pass a $3.5 trillion budget proposal thus paving the way for a reconciliation process that enables the Senate to approve legislation based on a simple majority of 51 rather than requiring a supermajority of 60 votes. It was made possible by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promising a group of moderate Democrats that the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package the Senate passed last month, would be put to a vote by late September.
But reading the statements each side released shortly after indicates that the fight is far from over. Representative Josh Gottheimer, who leads the group of nine moderates who until Monday night refused to vote for the budget blueprint unless the infra bill passed first, said that agreement had been reached “to hold a standalone vote on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill in the House… by September 27”.
Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington state and chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the nearly 100 members who have threatened to vote against the infrastructure bill unless the budget blueprint is approved first, said: “Our position remains unchanged: we will work to first pass the Build Back Better reconciliation bill… and then pass the infrastructure bill.”
It’s true that the bipartisan infrastructure bill is less comprehensive – it doesn’t include $198 billion for clean energy generation nor a series of “social justice” measures such as federal support for childcare and elder care, universal pre-kindergarten and paid family leave. But holding out for perfect risks losing out on what is good enough – at least to start.
And there are several reasons why we make this claim. In terms of climate change mitigation, the infrastructure bill provides $65 billion to upgrade the power grid to facilitate clean energy transmission. Roughly $50 billion is allocated to building resilient infrastructure that would be safer from cyber-threats and extreme weather events.
As for social justice, the infrastructure bill addresses that too. It would invest $65 billion in high-speed internet, which, according to the White House, is not available to more than 30 million Americans. It also would require the Federal Communications Commission to ban digital redlining and develop the Affordable Connectivity Benefit, a new programme aimed at helping low-income households access the internet.
Another sector that is critical to both public health and achieving social justice is clean drinking water. The bill would invest $55 billion – “the largest investment in clean drinking water in American history”, according to the White House – to replace all the lead pipes and service lines in the country. Perhaps one of the most publicised instances of high levels of lead contaminating a city’s water supply was in 2016 in Flint, Michigan. But five years later, the problem has not disappeared. According to a March 2020 survey conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a non-profit organisation, the rate of drinking water violations increased and took longer to address in low-income communities, communities of colour, areas with more non-native English speakers and areas with more people having less access to transportation.
Speaking of transportation, that’s another subsector included in the bill and one that would receive a sizeable amount of investment – $110 billion to improve roads, bridges and highways; and an additional $89.9 billion for public transit. Given how connecting people to high-quality jobs also drives economic growth, it’s obvious how improving the country’s transportation infrastructure also helps working families.
So, while the infrastructure bill may not give progressive Democrats everything they want, it could give the country what it needs. Our concern is that with at least two Senate Democrats – Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, being opposed to the budget’s $3.5 trillion price tag, the US risks getting neither.