Jamaal Bowman Is Right — the Left Should Draw a Line in the Sand Over Infrastructure

On infrastructure, Joe Biden is sliding back into the disastrous “bipartisan” mode of negotiations that sank so may progressive initiatives in the Obama years. Jamaal Bowman has now drawn a line in the sand rejecting that approach — and others in Congress should join him.

Jamaal Bowman speaks during a news conference outside of the Democratic National Headquarters in Washington, DC on November 19, 2020. (Caroline Brehman / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

In centrist-speak, “bipartisan” has long been a term of praise regardless of what is actually being referred to. For some Democrats in particular, affixing the label to any bill is not only an inherently virtuous act but one that ordinary members of the public are bound to celebrate.

It’s a strange and perplexing assumption for several reasons, the most obvious of which is the idea that average voters are sufficiently tuned into the wheeling and dealing of elite brokerage politics to care about the finer points of the legislative process. In the abstract, there’s also nothing intrinsically good or bad about a piece of legislation being partisan or bipartisan: what ultimately matters is the content.

It’s for these reasons that the rationale currently being offered by the Biden administration around its infrastructure bill are so obviously wrongheaded and self-defeating. “In the White House there is a belief,” Politico reported last week, “that the public will reward the president for reaching a bipartisan agreement on infrastructure.”

“Seeking out a bipartisan agreement” naturally means seeking out Republican votes and, to this end, Biden’s team has inevitably begun the familiar process of scaling down its already inadequate ambitions in a quixotic mission to win over a handful of GOP lawmakers who probably won’t vote for the bill anyway: the initial $2.3 trillion figure being first reduced to a more modest $1.7 trillion before, in its latest incarnation, coming in at just $1 trillion in a form that would also roll back proposed corporate tax hikes.

A recent op-ed in (of all places) the Financial Times concisely summed up how this process is almost certain to play out:

Here is the historic template for how post-Lyndon Johnson Democratic presidents negotiate with Senate Republicans. First, halve the size of your desired outcome so that you can commence by meeting Republicans in the middle. Second, allow Republicans to negotiate that down to a quarter. Third, watch Republicans unanimously vote against your bill regardless. Fourth, take a lot of well-deserved flak from your base for having self-emasculated on behalf of your political enemies and wasted valuable time. Fifth, congratulate yourself for being bipartisan. Finally, rinse and repeat for the next big reform.

For many years, centrist Democrats have considered the very idea of negotiation synonymous with the practice of offering concessions to the Right (it being taken for granted that left-wing lawmakers, insofar as there have even been any, will treat whatever is put in front of them as the best of all possible worlds and obligingly give it the desired rubber stamp). Though still regrettably small in number, there are now more left-wing members of Congress than at any time in living memory. Given the Democrats’ razor-thin majority in the House, a few lost votes could potentially mean a great deal and, for this reason, a series of recent tweets from New York’s Jamaal Bowman suggest we could soon see why.

“If what I’m reading is true,” Bowman said (referring to a report from the Washington Post on the latest round of infrastructure negotiations), “I would have a very hard time voting yes on this bill. $2 trillion was already the compromise. @POTUS can’t expect us to vote for an infrastructure deal dictated by the Republican Party.” He continued:

The crises we face are immense and urgent. We have an economic crisis, a climate crisis, and a crisis of racial injustice. We have a historic opportunity to act, and history won’t judge us kindly if we let it pass us by. Republicans have given Democratic governance the middle finger since the day President Biden was inaugurated. We can’t — and won’t — reward them by keeping Donald Trump’s corporate tax cuts in place and slashing our infrastructure package in half. Racist infrastructure has damaged districts like mine for generations. Their holistic care is not for compromise. Republicans don’t only discredit this — they’ve worked to unravel it. We can’t compromise against the best interest of working class people. No Republican vote in favor of an infrastructure package should supersede our mission: to build an America that works for the people, not for massive corporations. Getting Republicans on board is not necessary. Getting the American people back on their feet is.

Bowman is exactly right: there is no substantive political case for bargaining down an already compromised infrastructure proposal. If the Biden administration is intent on pursuing such a course, it can and should suffer consequences for scaling down its own plans — and have to contend with lawmakers willing to vote “nay” before allowing the bogus quest for bipartisanship to water down yet another major piece of legislation.

At time of writing, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib had all retweeted Bowman’s thread, an encouraging sign that some left wing members of Congress may be willing to withhold their votes from any infrastructure bill diluted in a bid to secure Republican support. They should, and other Democrats in the House and Senate should join them.