The bipartisan infrastructure bill – it’s not really bipartisan!

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

“Bipartisan deals mean compromise”  President Biden referencing the infrastructure bill    

Politicians use words to structure the expectations people have about them and their policies.  They employ words strategically to raise awareness, promote public understanding, and advance shared objectives. 

Words are deployed to obfuscate and disrupt as well.  They can be cleverly arranged to persuade, sharpened to overcome the opposition, and manipulated to advance a partisan agenda.  Words are in fact political weapons.      

The Democrats shrewd labeling of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act illustrates the point.  Every news outlet referred to the infrastructure bill as bipartisan.  This implies the two parties compromised.  But that never happened. 

A bipartisan compromise did not secure passage of Biden’s infrastructure package.  Rather, cooperation between progressive and moderate Democrats ensured legislative success.  House and Senate votes followed the typical partisan pattern in Washington.  It is therefore inaccurate to describe the infrastructure bill as bipartisan.     

Nevertheless, the label stuck.  And that label influenced how legislators, the news media, and the people evaluated Biden’s infrastructure bill.    

Bipartisanship

Bipartisanship showcases President Biden’s brand.  He is a lifelong centrist.  His politics are shaped by many successful years in the Senate.  By being patient and charitable with colleagues, recognizing the moments to concede and the moments to preserve, Biden learned how to strike a deal and broker important compromises.  These experiences, he promised, would prove valuable as president.     

On the campaign trail, Biden repeatedly reminded Americans about his knowledge of the legislative process and his profitable relationships with many Senate Republicans.  He pledged to unite the country, govern as a moderate, reach across the aisle, collaborate with Republicans, and be the deal-maker the country needed. 

The infrastructure bill represented Biden’s first real legislative test.  He wanted desperately to make good on his campaign promises.  However, the chief obstacle was not Republicans – most were firmly against the bill.  Rather, the principal challenge involved conflicts between progressive and moderate Democrats.  Once solved, passage soon followed.     

The bill in fact passed both chambers with overwhelming Democrat support.  Republicans were equally united in their strong opposition.  Ironically, this was called bipartisan.  

Media headlines  

Below is a small but representative sample of the hundreds of news headlines about the infrastructure bill.  Notice, the media’s reliance on bipartisan to describe the bill – even across distinct news sources.        

“Biden to sign bipartisan infrastructure bill on Monday”  Fox News

“Here’s what’s in the bipartisan infrastructure bill”  CNN

“House passes bipartisan infrastructure bill, sends it to Biden”  CNBC

“Biden celebrates bipartisan victory after House passes $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.”  CBS News

“What will Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill do?  CBS News

“A monumental step forward’:  Biden hails House passage of $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill”  USA Today

And my favorite,

“Biden to sign infrastructure bill Monday during bipartisan ceremony”  Yahoo News   

Group of 10

A core group of 10 Senators – 5 Republicans and 5 Democrats – negotiated the text of the bill.  Their proposal stayed largely in-tact across Senate and House votes.  The group – Senators Portman, Collins, Sinema, Manchin, Romney, Warner, Murkowski, Shahen, Cassidy, and Tester – includes well-known moderates and worked for months to craft an acceptable package.  They needed to win the support of the president and at least 10 Senate Republicans – to overcome a filibuster.  They did so and the bill passed the Senate 69-to-30.

The group’s success undoubtedly contributed to the bipartisan label.  However, do not confuse the group of senators with the bill they produced.  Their party identification has no bearing on the bill’s classification. 

It is accurate to characterize the group of 10 as bipartisan.  After all, it’s composed of 5 Democrats and 5 Republicans.  But it’s a mistake to identify the bill that way.  Bipartisan bills are defined by the level of support they receive from each party. 

David Mayhew, widely considered a leading congressional scholar, defines bills as bipartisan if they attract at least a majority of each parties’ votes in at least 1 chamber.  Specifically, to be properly identified as bipartisan, a bill must reach a 50% threshold of support from the opposition party.        

The Senate vote

On August 10, 2021, the Senate passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.  The vote was 69 yes to 30 no, with one abstention.  All 30 no votes were Republican.  Considering the party division in the Senate stands at 50 Republicans, 48 Democrats, and 2 Independents – the Independents vote with Democrats, the bill did not achieve Mayhew’s bipartisan threshold. 

It’s also instructive to compare Senate votes across several different infrastructure bills.  There have been 5 major infrastructure bills passed since George H.W. Bush’s term in office.  Note, each bill passed by healthy margins and in every case reached majority support from both parties.  Hence, they all 5 are classified as bipartisan.     

  • Transportation Equity Act in 1998.  The Senate vote was 88 yes to 5 no.  Four Republicans voted no and 1 Democrat.  Republicans held the majority with 55 seats and Democrats 45.   

The chart below compares Biden’s vote margins to the 5 previous infrastructure enactments.  Biden’s proposal attracted only 40% of Senate Republicans – 10% shy of the Mayhew’s bipartisan threshold.  The next lowest level of opposition support was for President Obama’s MAPA, which garnered well over a majority of Republicans (60%).   

The House vote

On November 5, 2021, Biden’s infrastructure bill passed the House with a vote of 228 to 206.  Only 6% of Republicans (13) voted yes.  The “bipartisan” bill split the parties.  House Democrats enjoy a majority with 221 seats and Republicans have 213 – there is one vacancy.

In contrast, prior House votes on infrastructure bills demonstrate strong bipartisanship.    

  • George H.W. Bush:  Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act in 1991:  372-47
  • Bill Clinton:  Transportation Equity Act in 1998:  297-86.
  • George W. Bush:  Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient, Transportation Equity Act 2005:  412-8.
  • Barack Obama:  Moving Ahead for Progress Act in 2012:  373-52.
  • Barack Obama:  Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act in 2015:  359-65.

The next chart illustrates the strong partisanship the president’s bill produced. Before Biden, the lowest level of opposition support occurred during Bill Clinton’s second term – the TEA vote with 63% of Republicans.  Compare this to the mere 6% of Republicans that voted for Biden’s infrastructure bill.    

In sum, the vote margins for Biden’s bill denote an extreme outlier.  Compared to prior enactments, the 2021 infrastructure bill produced the largest partisan divisions.      

Final thoughts

Some words, and some phrases, simply work.  They go together.  Once joined, they are repeated, and repeated, and again, repeated.  The connection seems natural.  And in this case, the repetition discouraged skeptical inquiry, deflected criticism, and justified the march toward enactment.  It does not matter what the data say. Nor does it matter what the reality may be.  The bill was labeled bipartisan.  And that’s what mattered.    

The bipartisan infrastructure bill is now a significant part of Joe Biden’s growing legacy.  If Biden was intensely partisan, or campaigned as a progressive, the word-play would have failed.  And a bill without a moniker has no chance. 

But the words ring true.  And many wanted it to be true.  The bipartisan label injected much needed energy into the legislative process.  It enhanced Joe Biden’s authority and supplied efficacy to the bipartisan group of 10 senators.  In the age of partisan polarization, the moderates could lead.     

Ultimately, Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill illustrates how politicians can use words to construct a reality that suits their objectives.  The news media generally takes those words as given.  It rarely digs deeper. 

Republicans did not mount a counter-attack either.   Infrastructure projects are broadly popular – especially so among elected officials.  Passage means billions of dollars to the states and to congressional districts within the states.  Republicans could vote no and still receive the electoral benefits of those dollars.  They could also use the infrastructure bill as an example of Democrat’s reckless spending.  They could raise public anxiety by connecting Biden’s trillion dollar spending bills to rising inflation.  And they could use inflation worries to suppress support for the much larger and more significant progressive backed Build Back Better Act.

To be sure, the battle of words and the construction of distinct realities will continue. 

3 thoughts on “The bipartisan infrastructure bill – it’s not really bipartisan!

  1. Very interesting n illustrates the irrational nature of words particularly in a political context. The comparisons between other legislation labeled bipartisan is revealing. From a more scientific perspective such comparisons would benefit from a control variable that measures “level of partisanship”. One could argue that partisanship is significantly higher there fore the present labeling is significant.

    Like

    1. Yes, perhaps bipartisan means something different in an environment characterized by strong partisanship, compared to say, the 1980 or 1990s when other infrastructure bills passed with large majorities of each party. Attracting a majority of the opposition party is more difficult today than in the past.

      Like

      1. Yes it is hard to imagine significant bipartisan action on anything. Perhaps that is gradually changing when big money packages r sitting there to be had.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: