Deal-making is as much a part of American life – especially political life – as hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet. From the time of the ultimate steal of a deal – 24 bucks to unwitting natives in exchange for Manhattan Island – to the presidency of Donald Trump, born on the wings of the art of the deal, Americans have proven themselves willing to negotiate just about anything.
But there is another type of transaction some might call a deal, but which actually amounts to theft or even glorified blackmail. For example, your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. I offer to fix it and give you a ride, but only if you then turn the car over to me. More dramatic – and historical – let’s say you’re desperately hungry, so I agree to feed you – in return for your birthright. Or I’ll feed your greed and give you 30 pieces of silver – for betraying God.
This is the nature of the “deal” Democrats offer Republicans and the nation in an infrastructure package – a small percentage of which is ticketed for actual infrastructure – broken into two highly unequal parts. After weeks of back-and-forth wrangling involving both parties, conflicting House and Senate priorities, and on-again, off-again agreements, the two parties have begrudgingly signaled their willingness to advance a roughly $1 trillion plan for actual infrastructure, which is aging or substandard – roads, bridges, rail, power grid, broadband internet – but they’ll only get it if they agree to roll over for another bill more than three times the size – somewhere beyond $3 trillion – for what it has amusingly termed “human infrastructure.” As Joe Biden would say, that’s not a joke.
But how can such a thing happen when the Democrats hold 50 seats in the Senate – and 60 votes are needed for passage of legislation? Well, it’s through the dark magic of so-called budget reconciliation – a polite way of saying a parliamentary maneuver, or weird trick, around the 60-vote requirement via the fine print. You may recall its previous exploitation to pass Obamacare, Trump’s 2018 tax cuts, and the Democrats’ COVID relief package earlier this year.
There is a limit, however, to how often this can be done. Previously, it was once a year. The Democrats needed Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough to change the rules for them in order to keep going – and she did. In April, they asked her if a budget resolution that had already been passed could be amended or changed, and if new language triggering budget reconciliation could be added. Her answer was yes. So now they can get one more through – ideally, that “human infrastructure” bill they know no Republican would ever sign off on. So, with the path now open to passing one more spending bill by simple majority, Democrats have employed their “sanctioned” power as a cudgel to make an offer those who want that bipartisan bill, Godfather-like, cannot refuse. The first deal you want dies on the vine – unless we get the second one you deplore.
Given the fantastical price tag, the pork permeating the second bill would promise to make a pig blush, even applying Washington standards. Expanded health care entitlements, plus more federal funding for education, child care, and climate change, would unsurprisingly dominate the charge on the feeding trough. The price tag near $4 trillion in a time of growing inflation and a post-pandemic national debt fast approaching $30 trillion – that’s a 30 with 12 zeros – suggests Democrats care not one whit about even basic fiscal responsibility – a charge often hurled at them over the years.
So, knowing the bill is a budget buster certain to be disapproved of by taxpayers writ large and vilified by conservatives and even a couple of their own, why then do Democrats push so hard?
Well, the drama began when Joe “Bait-and-Switch” Biden agreed to a previous, heavily negotiated version of the infrastructure bill. But then, after Republicans and the few Democrats who oppose ramming massive spending through by a bare partisan majority announced their support, he pulled the rug out from under them by changing his tune in a matter of hours, revising his position to promise his signature only if the massive second deal was included in the agreement. This president’s handlers, whoever they may be, apparently got to him only after his initial statement of support. Perhaps they reminded him of the raft of expensive promises he made to mollify his left flank during the 2020 presidential campaign and that these voters will be furious to see yet more promises – on top of those $2,000 payments, $15/hour minimum wage, ending fossil fuels, no more border cages, among others – broken by the Democratic Party.
Though it seems enough Republicans may support the first bill to assure passage, the problem is what would happen in the immediate aftermath, should the remaining Democrat holdouts give in: a gold rush on the federal Treasury with the second bill passed by the slimmest possible margin – as if that is the mandate handed by voters to the Democrats and their “moderate” 46th president. As Sen. John Thune (R-SD) put it, “I understand that the rush to get this done is so that Sen. Schumer and the Democrats can then move to that $3.5 trillion tax-and-spending spree that they want to get on immediately after the bipartisan bill.”
Much as there are lies, damn lies, and statistics, there are also good deals, bad deals, and outright blackmail. When a rare, truly bipartisan effort for a popular cause is sandbagged by a demand more closely resembling a ransom, an already deeply discredited institution edges dangerously close to the worst democracy has to offer – majority rule by brute force.
Read more from Tim Donner.