Joe Biden gets an infrastructure deal.

What happens now?
Isaac Saul Aug 3, 2021
️I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 12 minutes.

We’re covering the news of an infrastructure deal. This is a big story, so we’re skipping today’s reader question to keep the newsletter digestible.

Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America

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New podcast.

Last week, I sat down with Jorge Felipe-Gonzalez, a Cuban historian who is writing a book about Cuba’s Transatlantic Slave Trade. Felipe-Gonzalez has also recently published articles in The Atlantic about what’s happening in Cuba. We discussed the U.S. embargo, why people are protesting and what he was hearing on the ground. You can listen to it here.


Quick hits.

  1. Two special election primaries are taking place in Ohio today, with Democrats’ direction under Biden and Trump’s grip on the GOP both on the ballot. (Coverage)
  2. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) tested positive for Covid-19, despite being vaccinated, after attending a Saturday night party aboard Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) houseboat. (Coverage)
  3. The White House, Congress and states are all pointing the finger at each other to prevent a housing crisis by extending a moratorium on evictions. (Coverage)
  4. The number of children traveling alone who were picked up at the Mexican border by U.S. immigration authorities likely hit an all-time high in July. (Associated Press) Meanwhile, the Biden administration will keep a Trump-era CDC rule in place that allows it to turn away migrants during the pandemic. (Coverage)
  5. The Biden administration hit its goal of 70 percent of adults getting at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine a month late. (Coverage)

What D.C. is talking about.

Infrastructure. On Sunday, a group of bipartisan senators unveiled a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, totaling 2,702 pages, and authorizing more than a half-trillion dollars in new spending to address roads, bridges and other traditional infrastructure projects. It’s called the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. On Monday, Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins said she thought it was possible the bill could pass the Senate by the end of this week, and called it the “most significant investment in our infrastructure since the construction of the interstate highway system.”

In April, President Biden released a $2.5 trillion infrastructure plan (Tangle covered it here). Since then, he has moved to passing a single, bipartisan infrastructure bill, and then pledged to try to get additional spending on everything from health care to climate change — as much as $3.5 trillion — via the reconciliation process, which is a Senate rule that allows one party to pass major legislation without the other’s support so long as it meets certain parameters related to the budget. This bill is the bipartisan agreement on hard infrastructure.

Some highlights of what made it in: $110 billion invested in roads, bridges and major projects. It’s the largest investment ever in public transit, with $39 billion to modernize public transportation systems, improve access for the elderly or people with disabilities, and repair more than 24,000 buses, 5,000 rail cars and thousands of miles of train tracks.

There’s also $15 billion to buy electric school busses and build charging stations across the country. There is $28 billion for power grid infrastructure, in part to improve the resiliency of clean energy, and $46 billion to mitigate the damage of floods, wildfires and droughts. Some $21 billion is going to environmental clean-ups.

$65 billion of the bill is allocated to ensure every American has access to broadband internet. $55 billion will fund clean drinking water initiatives. $66 billion will go to Amtrak. $25 billion will go to renovating airports, and $15 billion will go to repairing ports.

The proposal will be paid for through cost cuts, measures to reduce tax avoidance, $250 billion in unused Covid-19 relief funds, and increased tax enforcement on crypto currencies.

What’s not in the bill: None of the “human infrastructure” that Biden advocated for in April is in the bill, which includes universal preschool, paid family leave and free community college. Many of the climate change provisions are also removed, save for investment in electric vehicles and disaster mitigation. The Biden administration has said they will pursue those goals separately. The bill also does not authorize any increased taxes or increased funding for the IRS, which had been one of the proposals to pay for the bill.

What’s next: The Senate will need to approve the bill, then it will go to the House for a vote, and then Biden’s desk for a signature. Plenty could still go wrong, but it’s already cleared most of the hurdles where bills typically die. Perhaps more important will be the reconciliation bill, with trillions of dollars of other spending. Many House Democrats say they won’t support the infrastructure bill without that additional legislation. And just one Senate Democrat could sink the reconciliation bill. So Biden’s team needs to pass both — nearly simultaneously — while keeping both progressive House members and moderate senators like Joe Manchin (WV) happy, or potentially lose both bills.


What the left is saying.

The left is divided on the bill, with some criticizing it for not doing more and others hoping it’ll be a historic win once paired with the reconciliation bill.

In Slate, Jordan Weissmann said “you don’t care about the infrastructure bill… which is why it might pass.”

“Why should anybody get excited about this bill?,” he wrote. “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,” Weismann said. “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.”

In Jacobin, Ben Burgis said the bill “slashes a range of vital spending programs contained in the original” while getting cheers from centrist pundits.

“Whether the ‘bipartisan’ gutting of the infrastructure bill is all the fault of Joe Manchin or Joe Biden and his frequently professed enthusiasm for renewed bipartisan cooperation, it’s a disaster for the working class,” Burgis said. “The original bill had $387 billion for ‘housing, schools, and buildings.’ The bipartisan version has $0. The original infrastructure bill had $400 billion for ‘home- and community-based care.’ The bipartisan version has $0. Even ‘clean energy tax credits,’ an absurdly inadequate response to the climate crisis, plummeted from $363 billion to $0. Other climate measures were also scrapped.

“Democrats say they’ll pass a separate bill through the reconciliation process to address the areas where the infrastructure bill does nothing,” he added. “We’ll see. Powerful players have promised they won’t vote on the infrastructure bill if the reconciliation bill isn’t approved, but it’s hard to avoid the sinking feeling that we’ve seen this movie before. In 2009, for example, the House Progressive Caucus was vowing not to support any version of the Affordable Care Act that didn’t include a public option. If the infrastructure bill does end up getting voted on before the reconciliation bill, it’s all too easy to imagine one or two moderate Democrats (which would be all it would take) having second thoughts.”

In The Washington Post, Eugene Robinson said the bill will do a “lot of good” but was not proof of a healthy democracy, as Biden says.

“The president has a right to claim vindication — but only in a narrow sense,” he wrote. “It took marathon negotiations and the patience of Job to persuade 17 Republican senators to move forward on legislation that will shower their constituents with money, jobs and other benefits. During Biden’s long years in the Senate, infrastructure spending was as close to noncontroversial as major legislation could be. The old cliche description of a lawmaker’s job was ‘bringing home the bacon,’ and virtually all senators were carnivores.

“Given the partisanship that now deranges even the more self-interested aspects of our politics, that any major initiative proposed by a Democratic president made it past the threat of a Republican filibuster is a victory,” he wrote. “The question is whether this is a harbinger of good things to come or an aberration. I always prefer to be optimistic, whenever possible. But I also try not to allow hope to triumph over experience.”


What the right is saying.

Many on the right support elements of the hard infrastructure bill, but are critical of the process and wary of the political blowback.

The National Review editors called it a “pathetic Republican surrender.”

“The decision of Republicans to collaborate with Democrats is both bad policy and makes little sense politically,” the editors wrote. “As we have been saying for months, despite what the media (and evidently, some Republicans) will tell you, America’s infrastructure is not crumbling and is not deeply in need of repair. There is not an economic justification to spend money to stimulate an economy that will recover on its own as the nation emerges from the pandemic (growth accelerated at an annual rate of 6.5 percent in the second quarter, the Bureau of Economic Analysis announced on Thursday). Also, it is not as if the government is in the black. The Biden administration’s own estimates foresee debt as a share of the economy surpassing the World War II record this year. And Fed chairman Jerome Powell, who had been insisting that inflation is going to be transitory, has conceded that it will take longer to abate than he previously expected.

“The myth that the group of Republican negotiators has been helping to perpetuate is that there are two completely separate pieces of legislation under consideration: One, a $550 billion bipartisan plan that focuses on traditional infrastructure; and two, a $3.5 trillion social-welfare bill that includes a host of liberal priorities — subsidized college and child care, expansion of Medicare and Medicaid, elements of the Green New Deal, and perhaps even immigration amnesty,” they added. “In reality, the two bills are clearly linked. Biden has said so. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has communicated this by moving both bills on parallel tracks. And Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she would not even bring the bipartisan bill to the House floor for a vote unless the Senate passes both bills.”

But Republican Sen. Rob Portman (OH) celebrated the bill in a Wall Street Journal column.

“We can all agree that America’s roads, bridges, rails and ports need repair, and that without more investment in these long-term, hard assets, and the digital infrastructure needed to expand high-speed internet, we will continue to fall behind other countries,” he said. “As a percentage of its economy, China spends nearly four times what the U.S. spends on infrastructure. Presidents Obama and Trump advocated robust programs to invest in infrastructure. Neither succeeded because of partisan disagreements on how to pay for it.”

“When the Biden administration turned its attention to infrastructure earlier this year, it proposed a $2.65 trillion ‘infrastructure’ bill with destructive tax increases and billions in spending unrelated to core infrastructure,” he added. “I joined Republican colleagues in strongly opposing the bill. First, that the legislation covered only core infrastructure, not all of the so-called human infrastructure in the $2.65 trillion Biden proposal… Second, we committed not to raise taxes to pay for the needed infrastructure investments. Instead of the largest tax increase in U.S. history, which the Biden approach would have delivered, we agreed to no tax hikes. Finally, we agreed to make it a truly bipartisan process, building the vote from the middle out. The result is the new Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which will make a long-awaited and historic investment in the nation’s infrastructure.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board, however, criticized the proposals to pay for the bill.

“Deficit financing is better than increasing taxes, and Republicans at least jettisoned the taxes (until Democrats raise them in their budget reconciliation bill),” the board said. “They also deep-sixed President Biden’s plan to give the IRS $40 billion to harass small businesses, which Democrats claimed would raise hundreds of billions of dollars in new revenue. Their IRS stimulus was dubious, but so are most of the bill’s remaining offsets.

“Start with using 10 years of savings from various programs to offset five years of spending,” they wrote. “This includes extending by a decade a guarantee fee that government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac charge on mortgages they back. Congress imposed the 10-basis point fee in 2011 to cover the cost of the government backstop on Fan and Fred. Extending the fee through 2032 is expected to raise $21 billion, but the taxpayer costs will be far greater if the housing giants start to lose money again after the Biden Administration takes steps to ease underwriting standards… The bill would extend Medicare provider payment cuts by a year through 2031, just inside the 10-year budget window. Senators are counting that as saving $9 billion, but Congress is almost certain to override this provision once hospitals squawk, as they surely will.”


My take.

The politics of this are fascinating.

I disagree with the thrust of the National Review editors’ argument — that this bill is not needed and our infrastructure isn’t crumbling. As someone who spends a lot of time driving, flying and using public transportation across the United States, that strikes me as delusional. The fact that we are the richest nation in the world and still have lead in our children’s drinking water or swathes of the country without high-speed internet is bad enough. But when you add potholes, traffic congestion, outdated bridges, terrible airports and constantly delayed or deteriorating public transportation, well, yeah… we need it.

But I do think they are mostly right about the politics of this moment. It’s bizarre to see Republicans pretending these two bills aren’t happening together, and it’s mind boggling to see that Biden may actually get away with it. The bills are happening together, and we’ll almost certainly get both or neither. I don’t think House Democrats have the chutzpah to tank this agreement in the name of larger promises on the reconciliation bill (nor should they, it’d be bad for the country), but Republicans in the Senate could easily sink the bill on the obvious reality that Democrats are going to ram through another few trillion dollars of spending the moment this is done. Yet they haven’t.

The question is why? Partly, I think the reason is the same: they believe it’s good for the country. Many of them are safe enough not to be scared of Trump’s criticisms, most of them will happily oblige the party and hammer Democrats for whatever comes after this bill, and most of them also understand this is going to be good for their constituents and will give them something to celebrate back home. Very few people find infrastructure objectionable, even less so when it’s tied closely to roads, water, and expanding internet access. Many more will find it delightful if that money makes its way into their communities which, given the billions of dollars at play, it likely will.

On the bill itself, it seems mostly like a great investment to me. Penn Wharton did a long-term study on the bill that says it will raise our GDP, increase government revenue, and improve economic efficiency and productivity. Sign me up. Plenty of folks are rightly worried about inflation, but the numbers have started trending in a better direction recently and this bill’s long-term spending shouldn’t do nearly as much to spur inflation as pumping $2 trillion of stimulus into the economy. “There are good reasons to believe this bipartisan infrastructure spending won’t be inflationary,” economist Michael Strain said. “Its focus is on improving longer-term productivity, not near-term demand. By strengthening the supply side of the economy, it would ease inflationary pressures. In addition, the spending would be spread out over a decade.”

That tracks with what Noah Smith told me when I interviewed him about fears over the debt and deficit.

The biggest concern is still how they’re going to pay for it. As with much of Senate spending, there’s still some sleight of hand going on with plans to cover the cost. I’m certainly not a fan of going after crypto currency holders instead of beefing up the IRS funding, and The Wall Street Journal accurately described the trickery of the Medicare savings. Using $200 billion of unused money from economic relief programs is good governing, but the whole pie is incomplete. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget made that clear in their analysis, and until this group has an actual plan for figuring it out they should be honest about running up the deficit.


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A story that matters.

It looks like Covid-19 restrictions are about to get a lot tighter (again). In Louisiana, a deep-red state, the governor has announced a reinstatement of a mask mandate for all residents who are indoors. Schools, businesses, universities, churches, and any other indoor public settings in Louisiana will require a face mask for entry beginning on Wednesday. In New York City, restaurants and gyms will now require proof of vaccination. On Monday, Supreme Court justice Breyer denied a request from a Maine church that sought to block the enforcement of Covid-19 restrictions. Together, these stories paint a larger picture of a nation responding to the Delta variant, and in many cases responding by instituting new mandates — even in states that avoided those mandates (or abandoned them first) during earlier waves of the virus.


Numbers.

  • 173,000. The miles of highway and major roads that are in poor condition in the United States, according to a White House fact sheet.
  • $11 billion. The amount of money in the infrastructure bill allocated for transportation safety to reduce car accidents and cyclist accidents.
  • $1 billion.The amount of money in the infrastructure bill that will go toward “reconnecting communities” physically divided by highways and other infrastructure.
  • 110 million. The number of Covid-19 vaccines the U.S. says it has shared overseas.
  • 43,600. The approximate number of patients currently hospitalized with Covid-19.
  • 45,300. The approximate number of patients who were hospitalized with Covid-19 on August 3 of 2020.

Tonight!

I’ll be sitting down with Braver Angels and former Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi at 8pm EST,  to discuss the state of the media and politics in America. The event is free and will be livestreamed. You can register for it here.

Don’t forget: Subscribe to Tangle this week to donate half your subscription revenue to Bowery Mission, a homeless shelter in New York City.


Have a nice day.

Three years ago, Lawson Lundberg was born prematurely in a hospital in Portland, Oregon. At the time, doctors told his parents he would have significant delays in his cognitive development, along with hearing issues. For the first two years of his life he only heard a few words. And then, this year, he underwent a sudden change. He began learning things and saying words his parents didn’t remember teaching him. Before they knew it, at 3-years-old, he could name every flag, country and capital in the world.

His parents, stunned by this development, had his IQ tested professionally. Lawson scored a 151. For reference: Albert Einstein’s IQ was estimated at somewhere between 160 and 180. His parents signed him up for the national intelligence organization Mensa, where he is now one of the group’s youngest members. Lawson is now officially considered a child prodigy. (Good News Network)

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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