When the Democrats took back the House, infrastructure, desperately needed and broadly supported, seemed to be on the table. President Donald Trump, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and House Transportation Chairman Rep. Peter DeFazio all talked up an infrastructure compromise. But now Senator Chuck Schumer’s recently published op-ed in the Washington Post has dashed those hopes. In the op-ed, Schumer insists that “any infrastructure bill would have to include policies and funding that help transition our country to a clean-energy economy and mitigate the risks the United States already faces from climate change.” A bipartisan bill such as the one Schumer demands is so unrealistic that it likely forecloses the possibility of genuine compromise.
There is no doubt America needs revitalized infrastructure. Infrastructure investment would be a strong economic stimulus: it would provide millions of full-time well-paying jobs, increased productivity, increased private sector investment, and increased GDP. The country needs to repair existing roads, help financially ailing mass transit systems, and expand the capacity of airports to compensate for steady increases in the number of people flying. Infrastructure could also fuel technologies of the future, such as 5G.
There is also no doubt that an infrastructure bill would have broad popular support. According to a recent survey, 71 percent of Americans support vastly increased infrastructure spending. Bipartisan support is so strong that another poll, which asked specifically about Trump’s infrastructure proposal, not only found overwhelming majority of Republicans in favor, but also 54 percent of Democrats! That a majority of Democrats support a Trump-branded proposal indicates how desperately Americans want infrastructure spending, regardless of political leanings.
Most importantly, a deal on infrastructure would represent a rare genuine bipartisan compromise on a major issue in political memory. Even as bipartisan compromises have failed on issue after issue in recent years, the American public is increasingly pro-compromise, with a recent poll showing that Americans would prefer that their representatives compromise rather than adhere to party affiliations by a 54 to 18 percent margin. Lack of bipartisanship is a leading cause of congressional impotence and dysfunction and likely a major reason why Congress has such abysmal approval ratings. A major bipartisan infrastructure bill would raise hopes that other bipartisan measures are possible and restore belief in a powerful and effective Congress.
As with any good compromise, a bipartisan infrastructure bill would not epitomize either party’s ideal solution. It could, however, strike a balance on several issues: expenditures, extent of reliance on private investment, labor standards enforced, stringency of environmental regulations, and so on. But Schumer has staked out an ultimatum that will almost certainly be rejected outright by Republicans. Indeed, Republicans have shown no appetite for Schumer’s proposed massive restructuring of the American energy industry.
While Schumer’s demand that an infrastructure bill must “make our infrastructure more climate-resilient” is appropriate and uncontroversial, the bill he suggests incorporates many features that have nothing to do with improved infrastructure. He lists a series of items, such as “permanent tax credits for clean-energy production and storage, electric vehicles, and energy-efficient homes . . . [investments in] conservation, wildlife and deferred maintenance on our public lands.” This list ranges in policies from the sensible to the detrimental: for example, tax credits for electric vehicles are not only highly regressive, but also dubious in their benefits to the climate. Regardless of the proposed policies’ merits, Republicans have been against all of them, rendering such a bill chimerical. Even if one condemns Republican intransigence, Democrats must deal with the Republican party as it is, not as they wish it were.
Features that are unrelated to improving infrastructure should not be included in an infrastructure bill. Their disconnect from the main subject of the legislation suggests that Schumer is looking for poison pills rather than negotiating in good faith. If Trump and Republicans presented congressional Democrats with hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure spending, but no action on climate change, they should jump at that opportunity. Democrats can still fight for climate legislation too. Why let the perfect be the enemy of the good? Surely, massive infrastructure investment is a win in its own right, regardless of action or inaction on other issues about which Democrats care.
Schumer’s grandstanding and obstructionism points to a broader problem that causes congressional dysfunction and impotence. Such performances may help with fundraising or rallying the base but will only further set back the cause of compromise. Schumer’s grandstanding on climate change may very well please wealthy Democratic coastal donors and special interests (he immediately won kudos from The National Wildlife Federation), but it is unlikely to be popular with the broad swath of Americans who want to see Congress make the compromises necessary to actually get desperately needed reforms passed. Yet in the forced absence of compromise, Schumer has decided to doom infrastructure.
Adam Chan is a former Senior Writer, Opinion Editor and co-Editor-in-Chief of the Gate. Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily reflective of the Gate.
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Adam Chan is a fourth-year Fundamentals major. This summer he interned at Hamilton Place Strategy, a policy consulting firm. Previously, he interned at CNN, focusing on the Russia investigation, at the R Street Institute, a think-tank in DC and an extern at the Department of the Interior. At the Gate, Adam has been a Senior Writer, Opinion Editor, and Editor-in-Chief, and now just writes for The Gate. On campus, Adam has also been President of the UChicago Political Union and has been a Team Leader at the institute of Politics, as well as an active member of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. He loves studying political philosophy and history, enjoys playing card and board games with friends, traveling, and eating exotic food.