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Why Infrastructure Needs a Bottom-Up Bipartisan Push Now

It’s the only way to get a bill out of Congress before the fall, given the imperative to get COVID relief done first. Governors and mayors need to understand that it’s a game of chess, not checkers.

Chessboard and pieces.
In a previous column I explained how the potential size of congressional funding for much-needed infrastructure projects will inherently be far larger than the state and local share of the pending bill for COVID-19 relief and recovery. I encouraged governors and municipal officials to line up their projects and plan ahead for the inevitable competition for federal infrastructure funds. Now, as soon as pandemic relief is enacted, is the time to make the next move, collectively and strategically.

Quick action to line up meetings with senators and their staffs is imperative. In a vacuum, a knee-jerk conservative GOP caucus, coupled with legislative ground rules for an infrastructure bill, may stall progress for major construction-funding grants despite advocates’ endless urging for President Biden to “go big.”

Most readers are familiar with the Senate’s rules that require 60 votes to break a filibuster — the endless debate that can stall a bill into oblivion. The only ways to surmount that rule are (1) to achieve bipartisan support with at least 60 votes (of which 10 would have to be Republican in the current 50-50 Senate) or (2) to invoke the budget reconciliation rule, which is now being used to push the Democrats’ COVID-19 relief bill through the Senate with a simple majority that presumably would be provided by Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote.

The problem is that reconciliation is not a checkers move; it’s a chess move. In chess, players can “castle” their king and their rook only once in each game. In the Senate, the comparable special rule for budget reconciliation is that it can be used only once each fiscal year. The 2021 fiscal year expires on Sept. 30, so we’re now “one and done” with the senatorial castling move. No more budget reconciliation gambits until FY 2022.

Yet proponents of a big infrastructure bill, including pundits and liberals outside the Beltway, are still acting as if this game is checkers — that they can just push their ideas into law with simple-majority moves. They need to study the rulebook.

The next opportunity for budget reconciliation will be Oct. 1, 2021. Until then, more spending cannot clear the Senate without a supermajority. (And even then, the Senate’s reconciliation Byrd rule may cap infrastructure funding and costs over multiple years in the absence of offsetting revenues or cuts in other appropriations.) It is not by accident that Biden’s people are sugarcoating the White House’s infrastructure plan as a vitamin pill for bipartisan consumption. They have no other choice if they want quick enactment.

What this means is that the next strategic move is for state and local officials, particularly those who operate in a red political environment, to work the problem from the bottom up and not expect success to rain upon them from above. States and communities must convince their senators and representatives that action on their specific infrastructure needs is imperative now and cannot wait another nine months to even be considered.

Then there is the matter of how to pay for it. There are two schools of thought. One is to look to new taxes or increases in existing levies. But Republicans almost instinctively hate taxes, so the risk of providing a sensible pay-for strategy as part of a midyear infrastructure advocacy effort is that the construction projects look good but the taxes are a showstopper on the GOP side of the aisle, and bipartisanship collapses.

The other school of thought holds that “deficits be damned,” just as they were with the Trump tax cuts in 2017, and a 60-vote Senate majority could now muscle the infrastructure spending through without revenue sources. One snag with that strategy is the prevailing sequestration laws, which may require spending cuts to balance budgets. Sequestration rules could still put the Democrats in a stalemate in this chess match.

There is, of course, another play in the senatorial rulebook: the so-called “nuclear option,” whereby the controlling party eliminates the filibuster by a simple majority vote. The danger with this ploy is that no one party ever controls Congress endlessly. When the opposition party regains control, it will cram its own bills through and reverse every piece of legislation passed by its predecessors. Policies are then doomed to swing from one extreme to another; hostilities escalate. Such “killer chess” isn’t very harmonious with incoming presidential rhetoric about unity.

Given the realities of reconciliation, sequestration and filibuster, building a bipartisan coalition with sufficient pay-for revenues is the superior strategy. This must start with coordinated grassroots advocacy from governors, mayors, county supervisors and commissioners, municipal leagues and school boards. Without 10 solid GOP votes in the Senate, infrastructure is dead until FY 2022. Only a full-court press from home-state constituents, especially in key red and purple states, is likely to win a supermajority. Those senators will want to hear about specific vital projects that cannot get underway with only local funding.

Don’t be surprised to see a dozen or more such home-base construction projects in selected red states earmarked in a final infrastructure bill seeking bipartisan support. Swing-vote lawmakers may hold their noses for the voting video, but privately many will want their names on a bridge, tunnel or civic edifice.

The White House has the most high-value pieces in this chess game, with its catbird-seat ability to embed porky projects to secure GOP votes. But without bottom-up support from state and local leaders, such votes will be vulnerable to watchdog media attacks. Active grassroots engagement adds legitimacy to the entire process, even if it comes from pawns on the board in the grand scheme of this political game.

Without a bipartisan infrastructure bill clearing Congress this spring or summer, Democrats’ fallback strategy will likely be enactment through FY 2022 budget reconciliation — with taxes to pay for it. Republicans will object, but progressives want to repeal most Trump tax cuts and loopholes anyway.

But failure to drum up and deliver GOP senatorial votes for a bipartisan infrastructure bill this spring brings special jeopardy to governors and local officials in red states, because their states and communities will risk being on the losing end of whatever clears Congress — checkmate — if Democrats are compelled to go it alone in October.

Which brings us back to the actionable options for state and local officials: Either start robust lobbying campaigns now, to gain grassroots support for enactment of a bipartisan bill before Capitol Hill’s summer recess, or sit empty-handed until FY 2022 begins in October and hope for the best in what then could become an antagonistic and agonizingly tight chess match under a midterm spotlight.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.

Girard Miller is the finance columnist for Governing. He can be reached at
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