Be Ready for Half A Loaf on Infrastructure

Ideas and Issues
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May 27, 2021

Little Rock

As much as we might try to resist it, the more I read and listen to the Washington circus reports with one act after another taking the stage, complete with wild animals and constant juggling, I can’t help starting to handicap the likely outcomes.

Take for example the almost two-trillion-dollar Biden infrastructure plan. In the fierce partisan divide, the Republicans are squeezed, because the program is designed to be something for everyone and, not surprisingly, has widespread public support. Furthermore, a big piece of it is what used to be called “pork”, meaning a lot of Republicans have highway, bridge, and other shovel-ready big-ticket items waiting for work with high-paying jobs, ever since Trump promised to make this a priority and never got his act together.

First, the Republicans try to cover their south side on a popular initiative by offering to pass a piece of it, largely brick-and-mortar, for a half-trillion or what we used to call $500 billion before the pandemic pushed all numbers over the moon. Democrats reject. Republicans whine about whether the “soft” costs that would shore up caregivers and service workers, recently understood as “essential”, are really infrastructure. Of course, they are, but please remember, this is politics and public “bargaining” of a sort. Democrats come back a couple of weeks later and shave a half-trillion off the top of their proposal to move the numbers down to about $1.7 trillion or so.

For anyone keeping score, this is a big flashing neon sign that we are not going to see the whole loaf. The Democrats essentially were “bargaining with themselves,” as we call this kind of thing in union-company negotiations. They made a concession without a promise of anything in return but in hopes of signaling that they would do about anything to make a deal. Bad news bears, because they have also diluted the constituencies willing and able to fight for the pieces that are now on the cutting room floor.

Now the middle ground comes into play and a “bipartisan” group starts to meet to see if they can come up with a deal. Various senators start leaking numbers around the one-trillion level with heavy emphasis on traditional infrastructure. Pundits start asking – way too late – whether or not this issue will challenge the filibuster. Answer: No! The Senator from Delaware, cheek to jowl close to President Biden, starts going public that they are pushing to see what’s possible; they want it all, but if they have to they will come back for the rest of the package in separate pieces under budget reconciliation. You know it’s a goner now. The White House also desperately wants to be able to have Biden declare a “win” here.

My bet is that the deal will be about $1.25 to $1.4 trillion, mostly hardware with a bit of software as a marker for the president. This is politics, and they don’t go defcon4 on money, they make a deal to make everyone sort of happy. Now voting rights might be another story, because that could spell survival on both sides of the aisle.