Editor’s Note: Charlie Dent is a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who served as chair of the House Ethics Committee from 2015 until 2017 and chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies from 2015 until 2018. He is a CNN political commentator. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Infrastructure week may be nearing a merciful end. Let’s hope so. No one wants to hear about interminable infrastructure negotiations ad nauseam.
America desperately needs to address its creaky, crumbling physical infrastructure to strengthen our economy, create jobs, improve traffic flow, enhance water systems, expand rural broadband and more. Now that a bipartisan infrastructure deal has been reached in the Senate, there is real momentum to propel this yet to be written legislation through the Senate with a strong bipartisan vote. Many members desperately want an agreement with real deliverables so they can demonstrate to their constituents that government can indeed function when people of good faith seek consensus and compromise. Don’t get me wrong; this legislative train could easily derail in the House, but I remain optimistic.
The question now is what this means to the separate $3.5 trillion budget resolution and subsequent reconciliation package that includes spending for President Joe Biden’s sweeping social agenda – and which Democrats hope to pass along party lines, knowing Republicans won’t back it. Will the progressive Democrats who support the reconciliation package also be willing to vote for the Senate-negotiated bipartisan infrastructure legislation?
House Democrats would be smart to take this deal. Of course, they will seek to have their fingerprints all over whatever bill becomes law. In my experience, whenever the Senate reaches a bipartisan agreement on a must pass, major piece of legislation with a strong vote, the House will swallow hard and eat it every single time. Yes, House members will engage in histrionics, screaming and yelling about being jammed by the Senate — before relenting and capitulating to the upper chamber. In the end, the House might make a few minor tweaks to the Senate legislation, but make no mistake, the Senate’s basic framework will prevail.
A bipartisan agreement in the Senate with presidential support puts enormous pressure on the House to take up the measure as is. The left wing of the Democratic Party will scream loudest and they may try to kill the deal. They’ll say the bill isn’t big enough, doesn’t go far enough and fails to meet the needs of millions of Americans.
If, in fact, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party were to reject this agreement, there will be consequences: The first being the mammoth $3.5 trillion reconciliation package, which is on shaky ground to begin with. Why would Sens. Joe Manchin and Kirsten Sinema and moderate House Democrats in competitive districts vote for a partisan, bloated reconciliation bill after having a delicately negotiated, well-targeted physical infrastructure measure sacked by the far left?
With margins as thin as they are in the House and Senate, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have no margin for error. If progressive House Democrats want to go big, blowing up this deal will get them nothing. In the end, the left will likely surrender to the bipartisan Senate infrastructure package.
All this makes the admonition of Congressional Democrats by former President Barack Obama’s pollster, Joel Benenson, compelling. Benenson contends that the bigger these massive bills grow, the more likely swing voters will reject the final product. He’s right. President Biden would be wise to spend less time listening to Sen. Bernie Sanders and the left wing of his party and more time heeding calls from moderate Democratic Sens. Manchin and Sinema and Rep. Josh Gottheimer, who spearheaded bipartisan negotiations on the infrastructure package in their respective chambers, and who are urging restraint on the budget-busting $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill waiting in the wings.
Manchin, Sinema and Gottheimer dwell in the real world where simply accommodating the Democratic base will, most assuredly, not be rewarded by their voters. They clearly understand this basic reality and know that the sustainability and durability of meaningful public policy requires bipartisan consensus and compromise.
History tells us Democrats face especially daunting headwinds to maintain their narrow House majority in the 2022 midterm elections, and the evenly divided Senate could flip as well. That’s why Democrats would be wise to significantly scale down their $3.5 trillion spending blow out, as “policies under consideration could cost between $5 trillion and $5.5 trillion over a decade,” according to the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
Labeling a massive increase in social and human services funding as “infrastructure” is disingenuous. The American people are not that gullible. It has become fashionable in recent years to suggest that “deficits don’t matter.” In truth, how the nation’s leaders manage deficits does matter.
While the brutal effects of the pandemic certainly justified massive spending to support and stabilize the lives and livelihoods of our fellow citizens and the broader economy, using the public health crisis as a pretext to go big on expanding the federal footprint in our lives completely misreads President Biden’s mandate. As Benenson and other successful elected officials like me who represented competitive swing districts instinctively understand, elections are won in the middle, not the fringes.
President Biden won many centrists, moderate Democrats, persuadable Republicans and independents during the 2020 campaign by conveying a sense of maturity to stabilize and normalize the basic functioning of government after four years of exhausting Trumpian chaos. These voters much prefer incrementalism rather than fundamental change.
Ramming a partisan reconciliation spending package through on a massive scale is not the bipartisan style of governance that Biden promised. It’s what Bernie Sanders promised, and his candidacy was rejected by Democratic primary voters for the more moderate Biden.
Swing voters rewarded Biden and supported down ballot Republican candidates in 2020 to check, not enable, the excesses of the left wing of the Democratic Party. Democrats would be well advised to embrace the regular order appropriations process (requiring 60 votes in the Senate) for their spending priorities while using the partisan reconciliation process (requiring 51 votes in the Senate) for their tax priorities, such as they are.
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The Delta variant notwithstanding, pent-up demand for goods and services is growing the economy and driving up prices. Consequently, the question of whether the resulting inflation is transitory or chronic is unknown. With all this demand and money in circulation, it sure feels like the classical definition of inflation: Too much money chasing too few goods. Why take unnecessary risks with an economy poised to bounce back organically? The enormous, mind-blowing political risk Democrats are taking should not be understated.
If Democrats pass this partisan $3.5 trillion reconciliation package, they will be handing Republicans a huge gift that will be weaponized in the 2022 midterms. History is not kind to the party of the incumbent President during congressional midterm elections. Democrats know all this which indicates they believe their House majority is likely lost, so why not jam as much progressive policy through Congress while they can?
With Republicans struggling to deal with the Trump hangover and continuing trauma over the January 6 insurrection, one would think Democrats would restrain themselves to avoid antagonizing the very swing voters who put Biden over the top in 2020.
If you don’t believe me, just ask President Obama’s insightful pollster.