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Infrastructure Watch: Build Back Better… Never?

In the last six months, we’ve seen Democratic leaders twist themselves into knots to explain why they agreed to a “two-track infrastructure plan”: a “bipartisan bill” that only had a small fraction of President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda, and a Build Back Better Act reconciliation package that attempted to rescue much of what Republicans and conservative Democrats negotiated out of the “bipartisan bill”. In the last 24 hours, we’ve watched Democratic leaders twist themselves into knots to explain why the Build Back Better Act died on the Senate’s legislative vine. What else must we worry about dying in the days ahead?

WARNING: Though this may seem like a “stale” and “boring” column on the internal political fights in Congress, we do address some darker subject matters throughout this story. This has been another one of the most depressing writing experiences in my life, so reader discretion is advised.
So, yeah: We told you so.
Joe Biden, Build Back Better
Photo by Andrew Davey

During the summer and early fall, we pointed out why progressive Democrats in the House did not want to rush to essentially pass a somewhat larger highway bill extension. Essentially, they were taking the advice of a storied Russian proverb that firebrand Republican President Ronald Reagan famously repurposed to describe America’s emerging relationship with the Glasnost-era Soviet Union: “Trust, but verify.” Like Reagan’s cautious approach to resetting America’s foreign policy on the Eastern Bloc, progressive House Democrats were carefully eyeing Senate Democrats and their own conservative House Democratic colleagues to ensure that both of Biden’s big infrastructure bills would reach his desk this year.

Keep in mind that the bulk of what Biden promised on the campaign trail last year landed in the Build Back Better Act: climate change action, a longer-term solution to make the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance features more affordable and accessible, home care and child care, affordable housing, and working-class tax breaks. That all fell out of the “bipartisan infrastructure deal” (also known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act) once a clique of conservative Democratic Senators decided to pursue “Republican buy-in” and essentially turn it into a somewhat more generous highway bill with a little extra money for some environmental programs. 

On Fox News Sunday yesterday, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) essentially shot dead this once promising opportunity to enact the bulk of Democrats’ legislative agenda: “I can’t vote for it and I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can’t. I’ve tried everything possible. I can’t get there.” Manchin actually claimed he “tried” to negotiate in good faith. But as The American Prospect‘s David Dayen aptly noted, the latest stripped-down version of Build Back Better came incredibly close to Manchin’s own July 28 secret reconciliation agreement with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York). Despite Democratic leaders paring down the overall package to a $175 billion per year over 10 years deal that Manchin found acceptable, despite Democratic leaders ripping any and all carbon pricing structures out of the climate portion of the bill, and despite Democratic leaders’ seeming willingness to gut the bill further, Manchin still operated from a place of NO.

There’s simply no point in sugarcoating this: Manchin just shat all over Biden’s presidency. It’s no wonder why the White House Press Office issued such a scathing statement yesterday morning. However, progressives and leftists have been warning since the dawn of the “two-track infrastructure plan” that Democratic leaders entered into treacherous territory by placing so much blind faith in a clique of moderate and conservative Senate Democrats who never followed through on the kinds of commitments that they demanded of Biden and the rest of the party. Why did Biden allow a small clique of the least trustworthy Democrats to dictate their legislative agenda, and why did he prioritize a somewhat more generous highway bill over America’s more pressing needs? 

Yes, really: We told you so.
Joe Biden, 2020 Election
Photo by Andrew Davey

On April 24, 2019, we specifically warned, “Voters do, however, deserve answers on the above-mentioned real issues, and they absolutely deserve answers on the clear and present danger to our (“small-d”) democratic system that we’re facing right here and right now. […] Democracy can’t wait on Biden or any of these other Democrats to indulge in ‘silly season’ melodrama while punting on the real-life horror show that’s happening in the White House now.”

Even before 2019, we could see how then President Donald Trump was tearing down American Democracy in real time. By early 2020, it had become painfully obvious. And by November 10, 2020, we tried our best to make this crystal clear: “[Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election are] part of Trump’s attempt to pull off a coup to stay in power. Yes, really – Our democracy is under attack. Yes, I know that their lawsuits thus far have been so laughably absurd that they’re being laughed out of court nearly everywhere they’re trying to overturn the election results. However, just because Trump and his team are not succeeding in convincing the courts to help them with their coup attempt does not mean we’re completely out of these dark and dangerous woods just yet.”

Donald Trump, QAnon, impeachment
Photo by Andrew Davey

Though Trump’s attempted coup ultimately failed on January 6, he nonetheless laid the foundation for the next coup(s). As the Brennan Center details, 24 states have enacted laws to further restrict Americans’ voting rights. As we have noted on these pages, the same architects behind the January 6 Attack have consolidated their power over the Republican Party. And as we’ve been warning for some time, these same fascist forces have pushed to normalize violence in our public sphere to the point where January 6 has almost been completely memory-holed. 

Why didn’t Democrats act sooner to pass a new national voting rights law? Why didn’t they even try to pass federal court reform that could have stopped the current Republican-appointed Supreme Court supermajority from further gutting voting rights, abortion rights, gun safety, religious freedom, and so much more? Why didn’t they change the filibuster rules in order to actually pass voting rights legislation, court reform, Biden’s full infrastructure package, and more? And why haven’t they used more of their federal law enforcement tools to take down the criminal networks who continue to threaten to take down American Democracy?

Once more: We told you so. 
Joe Biden, budget, Build Back Better
Photo by Andrew Davey

On October 18, we specially warned, “Democrats have fallen into a serious credibility gap by failing to establish a record of consistently delivering on their campaign promises whenever they win enough governing power to do so. Whether it’s the consistent failure of delivering sufficient action on climate change, the on-again-off-again efforts to fix our health care system, the repeated failures to raise the federal minimum wage, the consistent failure to protect immigrant civil rights and deliver comprehensive immigration reform, or additional policy realms where Democratic presidents and congressional leaders have been consistently inconsistent at best, Democrats’ ‘strategic retreats’ and ‘pivots toward moderation’ backfire on them once voters see that they again failed to deliver on their campaign promises. Instead of appreciating the ‘smart strategy’, they just notice broken promises, and they have a harder time believing Democrats’ next round of campaign promises on the very same issues where they broke their prior promises.”

Given, Joe Biden never really promised a “political revolution” or “big, structural change”. In fact, we sounded the alarms in 2019, after Biden told an audience at a private fundraiser, “Nothing would fundamentally change.” While Biden was specifically reassuring wealthy donors that he would never try to harm their opulent standard of living, it was a major clue as to how Biden envisioned his future presidency. 

Once Biden secured the Democratic presidential nomination in April 2020, he began to change his tune, and his subsequent promises to “Build Back Better” resonated with over 81 million American voters who found hope in Biden’s message of fixing America’s economy, our health care system, our climate catastrophe(s), our systemic racism, and our democracy itself. Spoiler alert: There were likely never enough voters motivated by “bipartisanship”, “civility”, or “decency” to push Biden over the top. When people are struggling to survive – and when people are inundated by propaganda that projects one’s dark desires onto others – vague promises of “bipartisanship”, “civility”, and “decency” are simply insufficient

One of the most bizarre aspects of Biden’s presidency is how it’s gradually devolved into echoes of those early days of Biden’s 2020 campaign, when his candidacy was publicly defined by political anachronisms that felt so awkwardly detached from the five-alarm fire that had already begun to surround and threaten American Democracy. After President Joe Biden used his inauguration to call for a renewal of American Democracy, a slew of critical legislation – including comprehensive voting rights bills – languished in the Senate after passing the House. Donald Trump’s impeachment trial dragged into February, then Senate leaders abruptly ended it so that it wouldn’t delay their scheduled “home state work period”. After a brief burst of chatter over Senate filibuster reform, the White House and Senate leaders brushed it aside to focus on “infrastructure talks” that ultimately brought us here. And despite the ample evidence showing who plotted and orchestrated the January 6 Attack, the masterminds mostly remain free. At most, a few of them face minor charges while federal prosecutors focus more on lower-level ground troops.

One more time: We told you so.
stimulus, coup, Parler, terrorism, Washington D.C., Build Back Better, infrastructure, democracy
Photo by Andrew Davey

On September 30, we sounded the alarms (again) amidst the autumn-long drama over the debt ceiling: “We will find out one way or another how committed our democratically elected leaders truly are to saving American Democracy. They can take a hard look at the antiquated rules that prevent them from doing their jobs, and they can actually start to fix the problems at the root of this crisis, or they can continue to gamble on legislative gimmickry as our future teeters on the edge. American voters made their choice last fall, and the politicians they chose must now choose whether or not to respect their choice and protect their future.”

When raising the debt ceiling and passing critically needed COVID-19 relief aid make the shortlist of the most noteworthy achievements of this Congress, it should be alarmingly obvious that we’re living in a moment of democratic crisis. Republicans are already plotting more pain for future debt ceiling deadlines, and Democrats’ failure to deliver greater change imperils not only their chance at saving their tiny Congressional majorities, but their failure only fuels further doubt that our democratically elected government can even function any more. 

Sadly, this is where we must conclude this column: Can our federal government even function any more? 2021 began with a horrifying plot to tear down American Democracy, followed by hopes to “Build Back Better”, then a slow and steady whittling away of those hopes for a better future. We end 2021 with perhaps the last best chance to “Build Back Better” torn down. What else will be torn down before our elected “leaders” take action to “stop the steal” of our better future?

If you or someone you know is facing a major life crisis and struggling with thoughts of suicide, help is available. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always there at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). So is the Crisis Text Linewhere you can start a conversation with a volunteer counselor by texting “START” to 741741. For LGBTQ+ youth in need of immediate help, the Trevor Project has a 24/7 hotline at 1-866-488-7386 and a text option (text “START” to 678678) available.

The cover photo was taken by me.

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