It looks as if President Joe Biden might just get his bipartisan infrastructure deal after all. After weeks of will-they-or-won’t-they drama, Republican and Democratic negotiators finally managed to agree on $550 billion of new spending this week, and on Wednesday, 67 senators voted to move forward with the bill, signaling wide support. While the effort could still stall out, it appears to finally have real …
Are you nodding off yet? Eying another tab in your browser? Maybe letting your mind wander back to gymnastics for the fifth time today? Look, internet traffic doesn’t lie. This legislative odyssey is not exactly grabbing the hearts and imaginations of the American people. I specifically chose a headline about your apathy toward the thing because I thought the faint hint of emotional recognition might somehow convince you to click.
And that, in the end, may be why this bill might actually stand a chance of passing. The infrastructure deal may be an absolutely crucial keystone in Biden’s agenda, but it’s also kind of boring, which has actually allowed a bunch of Republicans who appear to have genuine interest in legislating to push forward on it without worrying about a backlash from their voters.
Why should anybody get excited about this bill? I mean, for starters, it’s a pretty decent piece of legislation—aside from roads, bridges, shipping ,and airports, it throws billions upon billions at mass transit, rail, clean water, and climate-related priorities like grid modernization and electric vehicles. Also, it may be the key to unlocking the rest of the White House’s agenda: Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, the two moderate Democrats standing between Biden’s legislative plans and oblivion, have said they want this bipartisan bill to pass before they sign on to the several-trillion-dollar reconciliation package, containing everything else Democrats want to do, that’s moving in parallel.
But neither of those facts has seemingly been enough to make people particularly amped or angry about this legislation so far.
For proof, witness Donald Trump’s ineffective attempts to undermine the whole effort. The former president appears to be miffed at the idea that Biden might pull off the big infrastructure bill he himself promised but never delivered, and doesn’t want his former (and maybe future) opponent to get a “big and beautiful win” on policy. This week, Trump went so far as to threaten GOPers who supported it with primary challenges. “Don’t do it Republicans — Patriots will never forget!” he warned. Seventeen GOP senators proceeded to shrug it off, and the very obvious reason why is that America’s Fox-binging “patriots” are barely aware it’s even happening. Tucker Carlson is too busy fear-mongering about vaccines. Right-wing Twitter trolls are occupied with whether Simone Biles should have risked breaking her neck for the gold. Conservative media thrives on a perpetual culture war, not road and transit funding.
In a lot of ways, this all fits the idea that Capitol Hill’s legislative process tends to work best when nobody is really paying attention—what Matt Yglesias and Simon Bazelon called the “Secret Congress” theory of governance a few weeks back. (It also squares with the notion that Biden’s own mild manners may help him sign a law or two.) We may live in polarized times. But when the spotlight is off, it turns out that Democrats and Republicans are reasonably capable of reaching compromises on issues of medium and sometimes large import. At the end of the Trump administration, lawmakers passed a deal to end surprise medical billing, as well as a $35 billion clean energy bill. Under Biden, the Senate approved a $250 billion science and technology bill ostensibly meant to help us compete with China that almost nobody outside a small slice of Twitter geeks got excited about.
The are a few reasons why Congress might do its best bipartisan work in the dark. The more attention the media and voters pay to an issue, the more polarizing it tends to become (think of TV coverage as a giant centrifuge spinning lawmakers to their extreme sides). Generally speaking, Republican lawmakers don’t want Democratic presidents to be seen as successful, and vice versa, so they have a natural incentive to oppose their major priorities. Political science research has found that when presidents throw their weight behind an issue, it tends to create more opposition.
In that sense, however, the infrastructure bill doesn’t really fit the Secret Congress model. After all, everyone knows Biden really wants this deal. He spent his whole presidential campaign promising bipartisanship, and in the early stages of this effort held meeting after high-profile meeting with Republican senators trying to hash out an accord. Much of the final negotiating was done between Republican Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and White House counselor Steve Ricchetti, one of Biden’s closest aides. Trump isn’t wrong: If Republicans do eventually pass this, they will be giving White House a big beautiful win. But unless they’re just trying to string Biden along and run out the legislative clock (which feels kind of unlikely at this point), it seems like a critical mass of GOP Senators are choosing to play ball even if it means giving the White House a bump.
What we are seeing at work here, I think, is an addendum to Secret Congress: The rule of boring Congress. The more inherently dull a piece of legislation is, and the harder it is to fit into the sort of culture-war narrative that drives political conflict in this country, the greater chance it has of actually passing.
And infrastructure spending generally is kind of dull, the kind of agenda item that voters broadly support but tend not to get passionate about as they do health care or immigration. Politicians from both parties have for years treated it as an uncontroversial good thing where the main challenge was finding the proper way to pay for it. And though we still don’t know all the details of this bill—there are outlines, but not legislative text—it is clearly designed to be inoffensive to almost everyone involved. Republicans said they would’t agree to tax hikes, and so, with a liberal dose of budget gimmicks, negotiators basically found a way to basically fund it without tax hikes on anything but cryptocurrency. (Sorry, laser-eyes Twitter.) Progressives were horrified by a scheme to privatize large swaths of existing infrastructure that for a moment seemed to make its way into the bill. That’s been dropped, reduced to a negligible rump. There’s funding for climate-related priorities, like grid modernization and electric vehicles, but not so much as to offend semi-moderate Republicans who are getting other things they want in the bill. It’s pretty much pure vanilla.
Not that there’s anything wrong with vanilla. Sometimes vanilla is just what you want. But it also illustrates something important about the zone for potential bipartisanship in Washington. If this bill does ultimately pass—and again, it might not!—Republicans and Democrats will have shown they can come together in essentially three kinds of circumstances. There are truly catastrophic emergencies, when the cost of inaction is obvious to everybody, such as when the coronavirus hit in March of 2020. There are moments when the sheer, immediate weight of electoral politics forces one party to bend, such as when Mitch McConnell agreed to a new COVID relief bill last December in the lead-up to the Georgia runoffs. And then there’s the boring stuff—the issues that make for terrible Facebook posts and worse TV. It might fix some train tracks after a summer of negotiating. But bipartisan legislating probably isn’t going to save the day when it comes to the big, existential issues that you really care about.