Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Deal-making in Washington is next to impossible.

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The Atlantic’s Peter Nicholas tries to explain “Why an Infrastructure Deal Everyone Wants May Fail.” The short answer is that, while everyone wants an infrastructure deal, they want very different infrastructure deals.

The need exists. Powerful organizations are putting their muscle behind it. Both parties proclaim that it’s a top priority. So why will Congress struggle to pass an infrastructure bill? The answer’s pretty basic: What’s missing is even the outlines of a deal. The two sides cannot agree on just what a package should contain or how it would be paid for. Nor is there unanimity within the parties on either point.

Biden wants to go big, calling for a program that would exceed $2 trillion, respond to global warming, and address economic inequality by paying workers union wages. Progressives aim to go bigger still. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts envision a Green New Deal that would end the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and guarantee that every American has a job that pays a living wage. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts wants the package to include provisions for child care. “Infrastructure is about making it possible for people to go to work and for businesses to conduct business,” she told me. “For parents to be able to participate in that, we need child care.”

The Democratic Party’s moderate wing is wary of a package on a scale that their liberal colleagues have embraced. Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona voted against the Green New Deal in 2019, as did Senator Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Manchin, who in a 2010 campaign ad memorably shot a bullet through a climate-change bill, said he was not prepared to forswear fossil fuels.

It’s not entirely clear what the Republicans have in mind, other than that they prefer something more modest. A Venn diagram would show that both parties see the need for wiring rural homes for the internet and modernizing highways and tunnels—and not much else. Republicans favor deregulatory steps that speed approval for projects; Democrats are leery of ditching regulations tied to public safety or environmental protection.

But that’s just politics and not particularly interesting. The whole point of representative government is to reconcile these competing interests and attitudes through compromise. So, the real question is What’s the biggest obstacle to compromise?

Nicholas doesn’t say be he provides a really strong hint in the form of two quotations scattered in the piece:

“It doesn’t do any good to spend $1 billion on roads and bridges if you can’t get a permit to build the damn road or bridge,” Senator Ted Cruz told me. “But we won’t see that if Pelosi and Schumer and Biden only listen to the extreme-left wing of their party.”

and

When I brought up Toomey’s concerns with DeFazio, he cut me off at the mention of the senator’s name. “He’s a first-class jerk,” he said. “I don’t take him as a credible source.”

What’s lacking is basic respect for ones colleagues. It’s simply impossible to work together to find common ground. And yet Senators are openly contemptuous of one another and of the opposite-party leadership even in casual conversations with reporters.

I don’t like Ted Cruz, who’s regarded as a world class jerk even by other Senate Republicans. But he’s got a valid point on regulatory obstacles. President Biden, and quite possibly Speaker Pelosi, would almost certainly be willing to bargain on that front in exchange for Cruz’ support. But if Cruz talks about them in private as though he were addressing the throngs at CPAC, there’s not enough mutual respect for that kind of give-and-take.

I know less about Pat Toomey’s personal reputation in the chamber. But if Democrats can’t work with a guy who voted to convict President Trump and who’s not even running for re-election, there’s simply no way to get anything done.

FILED UNDER: Congress, US Politics, US Senate
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. MarkedMan says:

    You may well be right. But Republicans since Gingrich have done nothing but poison the water. Their words mean nothing and more importantly their word means nothing. If we are going to get anything meaningful done it’s going to be without a single Republican vote.

    Why was there not even a meaningful attempt to negotiate a COVID relief package on the Republican side? Mindless obstructionism and craven fear of being primaried. That won’t change with an infrastructure bill or anything else.

    Dump the filibuster. Manchin will not be the only vote against a package that brings jobs to his constituents.

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  2. al Ameda says:

    Your points are well taken, however …

    Let’s not forget that our recent Covid Stimulus Relief Bill passed the House and Senate WITHOUT A SINGLE Republican vote. But really, wknew this was coming because ‘moderate’ Republicans came to the White House to talk deal with Biden, and they opened discussions with a proposal that was less than 1/3rd the proposal Democrats and Biden wanted to go ahead with. and those were the deal-making MODERATES.

    All of this is reminiscent of 2009. – the Republican goal is to make Biden a one-term president, to obsruct as much as possible until the 2022 mid-term election flips the Senate, the House, or both.

    Also, Mitch just put Democrats on notice, he said ‘if you change the filibuster rules I will continue to carpet bomb regular order up here on the Hill.’ He’s saying ‘it takes 60/40 and I’m not making any deals with you anyway, period.’

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan:

    But Republicans since Gingrich have done nothing but poison the water.

    Gingrich was almost certainly the turning point in all this but he actually got a ton done by working with Clinton. It was acrimonious and Gingrich was petulant, precluding getting even more done, but they got bills passed that addressed Republican priorities yet also saved Clinton’s bacon. (He was horribly unpopular in 1994 and easily re-elected in 1996.)

    @al Ameda: I don’t disagree overall but I’m not sure that, by March 2020, a bill closer to $600 billion than $1.9 trillion wasn’t the right call. The economy has mostly recovered from COVID, with the pain concentrated in a handful of sectors. I would actually have preferred something much more targeted.

    Regardless, it works both ways. Democrats figured they had the votes for the massive grabbag of pre-existing policy preferences and preferred passing that than a compromise measure.

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  4. Jen says:

    Gingrich did work with Clinton, but was furious when Clinton got the credit for welfare reform. After that happened, he basically led the Republican Party down a road where NOTHING gets done unless Republicans get credit for it.

    Gingrich was, is, and will always be, an arrogant, self-righteous @ss. While he is not alone in poisoning the water in DC, he certainly has played a starring role in doing so.

    Republicans–and a reminder that I used to be one–do not stand for anything other than obstruction anymore. The notion that they are somehow more fiscally responsible is silly. The idea that they would have been willing to pass a more moderate measure of covid relief is equally silly, they have elevated goalpost-shifting to an art form.

    Their single goal is to maintain power at all costs, while doing as close to nothing as humanly possible to help the American people. They are focused on the destruction of institutions. Cruz’s opposition to regulations doesn’t leave room for protecting the environment, he just wants industry to be able to do whatever it wants to. There is no middle ground for these clowns, and THAT is the problem. They see any form of compromise as capitulation, and therefore undesirable.

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  5. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner:

    I don’t disagree overall but I’m not sure that, by March 2020, a bill closer to $600 billion than $1.9 trillion wasn’t the right call.

    If that’s your personal opinion, or a even something you are pondering, well, that’s a reasonable debate. But if you are implying that this hapless crew of Republicans who shuffled into the Oval Office, pushed their “leader” forward and sat completely silent while she read out a pro-forma “negotiating position” were primarily concerned with fiscal responsibility, then I can’t even begin to see what you base that on.

    My entire voting age life has seen exactly one Republican President and Congress attempt to govern according to “fiscally conservative” principles, GHW Bush, and the party turned on him so harshly that Republican leaders still cannot utter a word of praise for him, a half century on. Republicans say the words “fiscal conservatism” but, as a Party, have never meant it, not once, since his Presidency. The few Republican leaders who actually believed in it have died or retired or been Tea Partied out of office. The Republican performers who participated in this charade had voted for virtually every budget busting tax cut or industry giveaway for their entire careers. It is no coincidence that every single one has electoral risk from the left as well as the right, and it speaks volumes that none of them but the designated patsy would even speak to Biden, lest it get back to the Trumpers.

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  6. gVOR08 says:

    …while everyone wants an infrastructure deal…

    I have to wonder if that’s really true. Trump’s Infrastructure Weeks became a running joke as nothing really happened and each was overtaken by a scandal. (Because Trump had a scandal every week.) When GOPs had both houses I don’t recall an actual infrastructure bill. Pelosi sent up a bill in 2020 and McConnell ignored it. Trump wanted a big infrastructure bill in 2020 to boost his reelection and McConnell ignored that too.

    Everyone talks about infrastructure but I see little evidence GOPs actually want to do anything.

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  7. Kylopod says:

    @James Joyner:

    It was acrimonious and Gingrich was petulant, precluding getting even more done, but they got bills passed that addressed Republican priorities yet also saved Clinton’s bacon. (He was horribly unpopular in 1994 and easily re-elected in 1996.)

    A certain Mitch took that lesson to heart.

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  8. steve says:

    The goal is to make sure that the opposing party doesnt pass any bill that might look like success. The GOP cant let any bill pass that would be popular with voters since it would count as an achievement by the Dems and might help them in the next election. (Met Toomey a couple of times. Thought he was a jerk. Finance guy, master of the world type. Maybe caught him on bad days and I will confess I have an aversion to the type.)

    Steve

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  9. Kylopod says:

    Let’s understand that it isn’t deal-making that’s dead; it’s deal-making across parties. There is still plenty of deal-making going on within the Democratic caucus in both chambers.

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  10. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “It doesn’t do any good to spend $1 billion on roads and bridges if you can’t get a permit to build the damn road or bridge,” Senator Ted Cruz told me.

    To the best of my knowledge, it requires no permitting whatsoever to repair existing roads and bridges, which are the common examples of the stuff that needs to be done when we are talking about roadway infrastructure. Perhaps Senator Cruz should take a vacation from obstruction and shouting “squirrel!” and or stop lying about what the problem is, but it becomes easy to see why no one can work with him. He doesn’t want to work, only object.

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  11. Scott says:

    Memories are long. And what Democrats remember is that during the arduous negotiations for the Affordable Care Act (hundreds of committee hearings, endless rounds of negotiation) the end results was no Republicans voted for it. Bottomline, bipartisan negotiations will be phony, rope a dope bad faith gamesmanship and Democrats know it. It is really up to the Republican side to demonstrate that good faith negotiations are possible.

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  12. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: “Regardless, it works both ways. Democrats figured they had the votes for the massive grabbag of pre-existing policy preferences and preferred passing that than a compromise measure.”

    James, I think that by now the burden of proof is on the side of demonstrating that the GOP would ever agree to a compromise, where ‘agree’ means ‘vote for’.

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  13. Barry says:

    ““It doesn’t do any good to spend $1 billion on roads and bridges if you can’t get a permit to build the damn road or bridge,” Senator Ted Cruz told me.”

    Two comments:
    1) Ted Cruz is one of the slimier members of an outstandingly slimy group in the Senate. If says that the sun rises in the east,….

    2) Permitting is something that happens in vast numbers every day of the week save Sunday.

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  14. MarkedMan says:

    @Scott:

    It is really up to the Republican side to demonstrate that good faith negotiations are possible.

    While true, in reality they came right out of the gate and showed that good faith negotiations are not possible. Not only was there no serious effort to negotiate, at least one Republican Congress Critter is sending fundraising off pieces of the bill, leaving out the fact that he voted against it.

    The problem is two fold:
    – Republicans leadership have made deals and then gone back on them. Their word means nothing. Once you have lost the power of giving your word on something, then everything needs to be in the bill, making it much much harder to do something for a Congress critter who is facing a tough vote.
    – Republican leadership cannot deliver votes even if they wanted to. Piss off the ever growing wing nut faction and that faction will hound them out of their leadership position, and the wing nuts aren’t “for” anything, only “against”.

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  15. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: “Regardless, it works both ways. Democrats figured they had the votes for the massive grabbag of pre-existing policy preferences and preferred passing that than a compromise measure.”

    Again, there is no evidence of a willingness to compromise on the right.

    James, I think that by now the burden of proof is on the side of demonstrating that the GOP would ever agree to a compromise, where ‘agree’ means ‘vote for’.

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  16. Kathy says:

    The run up to WWI can be described as “If they’re mobilizing, we’re mobilizing.”

    Now it’s more like “If they vote for it, we won’t vote for it. No, even if it was our idea in the first place.”

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  17. DrDaveT says:

    @Barry:

    Again, there is no evidence of a willingness to compromise on the right.

    It’s worse than that. The GOP has adopted the position that compromise is inherently bad — it is by its very nature an abdication of principles. Participating in compromise will get you primaried. “You get some of what you want and I get some of what I want” means that you got something, which is unacceptable if I have characterized everything you want as evil.

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  18. Jen says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    To the best of my knowledge, it requires no permitting whatsoever to repair existing roads and bridges, which are the common examples of the stuff that needs to be done when we are talking about roadway infrastructure.

    It depends. If the roads/bridges are near protected areas, there are sometimes environmental requirements that need to be satisfied before construction (even repair work) can proceed.

    Increased runoff is a big concern in environmentally sensitive areas. There can also be concerns with newer materials used, or if the roads are being widened while they are being repaired, etc.

    That said, I don’t see why this is considered a BAD thing. One of the beauties of accumulating knowledge is that you can prevent new mistakes from being made. This is especially true for environmental impacts.

    Taking the time to go through a permitting process might be arduous, but if it protects human health or the ecosystem, isn’t that the right thing to do?

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  19. dazedandconfused says:

    @steve:

    RE:

    The goal is to make sure that the opposing party doesnt pass any bill that might look like success.

    Steve captures a critical difference between Newt and Mitch. Although Newt cried about having to share the glory with Clinton, Newt allowed things to get done. Newt did not believe in collective punishment of the American public for not putting the Rs in total control of Congress and the WH.
    Mitch? Not so much, and his main tool has been one of those nice things, the filibuster, which if Mitch keeps abusing we may no longer be able to have…because we don’t deserve it.

    Biden has always been polite to Mitch. Let’s see if that makes a dime’s worth of difference.

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  20. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Jen:

    What Jen said.

    @Barry:

    Mostly R’s do nothing and whine about Dem proposals, the two exceptions to that have been Romney’s family support plan (which I wish Dems had adopted in the relief package) and the Romney/Cotton proposal on hiking the minimum wage. On the other big issues facing America, R’s have nothing to say that could be construed as a positive contribution to the discussion.

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  21. MarkedMan says:

    @Jen: Exactly. When was the last time a Republican Congress Critter or President saw an environmental regulation as a positive. Every single regulation is bad, None are acceptable. In Republican eyes they have no obligation to act on the environment except to repeal regulations because we protect too well against lead in homes and water, contamination in groundwater and pollution in the air. (This mirrors their stance on civil rights. They claim not to be racist but there hasn’t been a piece of civil rights legislation proposed by a Republican in this century. Really? NOTHING needs to be addressed? All civil rights legislation is bad?)

    I’ve been in and out of the Chesapeake Bay Area since 1980 and there is one thing that was iron clad for the first 30 years – Democratic Delaware and Maryland working hard to clean up the bay and Republican Virginia filling it full of, literally, shit. The Republicans despised the very idea of protecting the crabs or the oysters or the rockfish, all species that support thousands of jobs. Those jobs went to the poors, so F ’em.

    I wonder if things are changing now that Virginia is purplish blue? At least since my return I haven’t seen the tit-for-tat of the past, where Maryland works with Pennsylvania and Delaware to craft legislation in all three states to protect the bay and Virginia Republicans, never missing a chance to stick a finger in a Blue State’s eye, does something in response like raising the limit from 500K to 2M gallons of pig shit that can be stored in flimsy lagoons that collapse with regularity.

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  22. gVOR08 says:

    Seems to me most pundits who address this are deep into Murc’s Law, the fallacy that only Democrats have agency. They all talk of this as something Democrats must deal with.

    One man, and one man only, has the power to save or destroy the filibuster. Not Joe Manchin, Mitch McConnell. If he were to demonstrate that GOPs would use the filibuster judiciously, and that he would allow members of his caucus to negotiate in good faith, the pressure to defang the filibuster would dissipate.

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  23. just nutha says:

    @Barry: To be fair, my state issues almost no permits on Saturdays, too. 😉

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  24. just nutha says:

    @Jen: As misanthropic as I am, I still favor protecting both humans and the environment to the degree possible. Having said that, I will, ever so resentfully revise my statement about Senator Cruz from outright lying and obstructionism to useless hyperbole in the service of lying and obstructionism, but that’s as far as I will go in terms of recognizing Cruz as a *public servant*.

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  25. MarkedMan says:

    @gVOR08:

    Mitch McConnell. If he were to demonstrate that GOPs would use the filibuster judiciously,

    Honestly, if that were true, and despite Mitch being a lying snake, I think they would have compromised already. But Mitch has no control over whether Rand Paul or Ted Cruz filibusters ever bill or just most of them. It only takes one Senator to call a filibuster, but it takes sixty to kill it.

  26. Northerner says:

    @al Ameda:

    All of this is reminiscent of 2009. – the Republican goal is to make Biden a one-term president

    I realize your Republicans are a particularly harmful bunch, but isn’t it the goal of every opposition party in every country in the world to replace whoever is in power as soon as possible? In parliamentary systems that’s done by arranging votes of non-confidence as soon as they’re likely to work, and generally being against everything the gov’t proposes even if they themselves had previously suggested it.

    What’s different in America is the filibuster, which makes it extremely hard to govern even with a majority. Though speaking as a foreigner, I have to admit I was glad the filibuster was there when Trump had congress and senate majorities.

  27. Kylopod says:

    @Northerner:

    I realize your Republicans are a particularly harmful bunch, but isn’t it the goal of every opposition party in every country in the world to replace whoever is in power as soon as possible? In parliamentary systems that’s done by arranging votes of non-confidence as soon as they’re likely to work, and generally being against everything the gov’t proposes even if they themselves had previously suggested it.

    But that speaks to the differences between parliamentary and presidential systems. When the chief executive isn’t part of the legislature, that heightens the need for bipartisan compromise, or else nothing gets done except when one party has control of both branches–and even then the filibuster makes it hard to pass anything. To counter this tendency, the US developed a tradition of very loosely cohesive parties where one’s faction often took precedent over party ID when it came to passing legislation, and the filibuster was used only on occasion. This arrangement has totally broken down in the past couple of decades.

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  28. MarkedMan says:

    @Kylopod: What you said.

  29. Northerner says:

    @Kylopod:

    Thank-you. That’s a point that never occurred to me.

  30. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Ted Cruz is just blowing typical right-wing smoke.
    De-regulation?
    We saw what happens with Ted Cruz’s de-regulation, last month in Texas, where 57 people died from de-regulation.
    De-regulation is noting more than foolish right-wing catechism, and I wish y’all would stop repeating it as though it were a valid idea.
    Buildings don’t fall down, because there are REGULATIONS.
    Planes don’t crash into each other, because there are REGULATIONS.
    You can be certain the food you buy in the store is safe, because there are REGULATIONS.
    People are safe in their workplace, because there are REGULATIONS.
    De-regulation is the most nonsensical talking point in our stunted excuse for national discourse.
    Stop it.

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