Bipartisan Gestures on Infrastructure Won’t Save Us from a Climate Apocalypse

Democrats like Manchin should forget about negotiating a weak infrastructure bill with Republicans and focus on something that can save America.

It seems darkly fitting that an unprecedented deadly heatwave is descending on America as Congress dithers over meaningless gestures at “bipartisanship” on infrastructure. Nature doesn’t care about Senate comity. The power lines will melt, and the streets will buckle regardless. People will die as power grids fail and buildings collapse. A religious person making an honest attempt to read the portents might even call it a sign from God. The message could not be more clear: An infrastructure deal that does not address climate change in a transformative way is no deal at all.

Unfortunately, the Senate is in danger of acquiescing to Republican hostage-taking and gamesmanship. The result could doom the country to trillions of dollars and untold lives lost as a result of climate-change-induced disasters. Against this backdrop, the current negotiations in the Senate are taking on an almost farcical character, somewhat akin to arguing over floral decorations on the banquet deck of a sinking ship.

The current state of negotiations over the infrastructure bill goes something like this: Centrist Democratic senators like Joe Manchin don’t want to pass President Biden’s original ambitious infrastructure plan with only Democratic votes via reconciliation because they want the “bipartisan” imprimatur on whatever they pass. But Republicans want to run out the legislative clock, don’t want to give Biden a victory, and won’t support anything close to what the moment demands. They have therefore been stalling and whittling the “bipartisan” bill down to a mere fraction of its former self while ensuring that almost all it is dedicated to preserving and expanding car-and-fossil-fuel-based infrastructure and giving away public goods to private equity. So, Democrats are attempting a two-step process: Pass a weak “bipartisan” bill while also moving forward with a reconciliation bill that takes care of progressive priorities.

The problems with this approach are numerous. The legislative calendar makes it difficult to align the two simultaneously. Republicans, of course, want the second bill to fail while getting what they want out of the first bill–and the best way to do that is by passing the former with no strings attached to the latter and then putting the screws to red state Democrats to weaken or even scuttle the better bill entirely. Sen. Manchin has said he will support the reconciliation bill regardless–but he hasn’t said with what provisions and other centrist Democratic Senators have not yet made such firm commitments.

Progressive Democrats in both the House and the Senate have (wisely) signaled they may scuttle the first bill if there are no binding promises made on the second. Indeed, House Speaker Pelosi is indicating that she wants to see the Senate pass the larger reconciliation bill first. But Republicans still haven’t found 10 votes to break a filibuster on the bipartisan bill as it is; Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is demanding that the link between the two bills be broken as a condition of his support, and GOP Senators like Lindsey Graham are already crying crocodile tears at the notion that the two might be conjoined or that the reconciliation piece might happen first. Republicans aren’t trying to reach a bipartisan agreement–they are trying instead to break Democratic unity and sabotage both bills.

The obvious upshot is that trying to prioritize bipartisanship on a life-or-death infrastructure bill is an irresponsible fool’s errand.  There is no sense in which trying to bridge partisan divides with bad faith Republicans is a greater intrinsic good than actually solving our dire infrastructure and climate crises. It’s not even clear that the fig leaf of bipartisanship is more helpful for the careers of red state Democrats than passing a good infrastructure bill would be. Anyone willing to potentially sacrifice the lives of millions and the future of the country in a vain attempt at placating a Republican Party in the thrall of an extremist infotainment cult is taking an unacceptable and selfish risk.

There will be some who claim that the bipartisan bill does have some significant climate spending. But as Alex Sammon writes at The American Prospect, the figures involved are little more than a joke:

Of that half a trillion dollars, the vast majority is going, predictably, to repaving roads, expanding highways, building out airports, and burnishing other fossil fuel–heavy infrastructure, transportation, and land and water use patterns. There’s money, too, to revamp the fossil fuel–intensive parts of the energy grid: $79 billion is being bandied about as climate-related, going to electric cars and decarbonization of the entire American grid system nationwide and other nominally “green” activity. But broken out, it looks even less substantial. There’s just $15 billion for electric-vehicle infrastructure and electric buses and transit combined, along with $21 billion for “resilience,” $21 billion for environmental remediation that is pretty inarguably not climate-related, and $73 billion for power infrastructure, some percent of which presumably will be green.

Even at that generous $79 billion number, that means 14 percent of the infrastructure package is being dedicated to environmentally aligned projects, with electric cars and grid modernization, though those are the least ambitious parts of the environmental program—no major expansion of public transit, no major renewable-power generation programs. The other 86 percent of the package is largely going to expand fossil fuel–heavy infrastructure, including highways, ports, oil- and gas-reliant energy systems, and more (there’s money for water storage but no regulations on water use patterns).

Nor is it at all clear what would even be included in the Democrats-only reconciliation bill, which is intended to cover a wide variety of family-oriented economic priorities like healthcare. Bernie Sanders wants a $6 trillion bill. Joe Manchin wants only $2 trillion, ostensibly because of the national debt (even though the interest rate on debt is incredibly cheap and borrowing for infrastructure more than pays for itself.) With such a wide variance, it’s very difficult to know just how much more would go to expansive and transformative climate mitigation priorities.

It is maddening that while younger Americans search for housing based on where they might become climate refugees and ponder whether it is responsible to even have children if they are doomed to perish in a greenhouse civilization collapse, a few mostly old white men are more concerned with how pleasant it might be to greet each other in the Senate cafeteria.

History–if there are still historians left in the decades to come–won’t care at all whether adherents of the party of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, and Donald Trump voted for a shriveled deal. They will only care if our leaders met the crisis of the moment with the urgency it requires.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.