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Bipartisan blip: Infrastructure deal is last of its kind without systemic change

Minority Leader Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) watches as Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) arrives first for his press conference after the weekly policy luncheon on Tuesday, August 3, 2021.
Greg Nash

The Senate has done the unthinkable: It passed a significant piece of bipartisan legislation.

After months of intense political negotiation, the $550 billion infrastructure bill offers a reprieve for the American people from the constant bickering, and a return to the level-headed dealmaking that depends on the upper chamber.

The naysayers of political compromise who have relegated bipartisanship to a bygone era were proven wrong. The controversial Senate filibuster — which has been both embraced and excoriated by both parties at moments of varying political advantage — ultimately helped force a two-party solution that will be more sustainable over the long-term having earned bipartisan buy-in.

But let’s not conflate this moment with momentum: Lacking systemic change, bipartisanship in Congress will be fleeting.

Getting to “yes” even on a politically popular issue like infrastructure was not easy or inevitable. The problem has less to do with the politicians themselves, and much more to do with their incentives. Party primaries loom large, pushing our leaders to their respective corners; until primaries are reformed, successes like infrastructure may remain elusive in the future.

In theory, supporting a bipartisan infrastructure bill should be a slam dunk for any lawmaker; it’s the chance to spend money on popular projects and create many jobs back home. Yet, doing so in today’s political system may imperil the job legislators care most about: their own. That’s because any kind of compromise is usually anathema to the narrow yet powerful base of both parties that effectively decides most elections in party primaries. 

Despite his own efforts to bolster the nation’s infrastructure when in office, President Trump opposed the bill and warned Republicans: “If this deal happens, lots of primaries will be coming your way!” Why? The success of a bipartisan bill, he argued, would give the Democrats a political victory ahead of the midterms. These days, there’s no pretending that actual policy even matters.

Meanwhile, progressives including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.) threatened to tank the agreement if they could not get their way on a much larger package that they aim to pass on a party-line vote using a parliamentary maneuver known as budget reconciliation. To them, a bipartisan deal represents an ultimate failure — capitulation, rather than principled compromise.

Ultimately, there was more to be gained than lost for the White House and a critical mass of GOP Senators who put country over party and pressed forward on a solution –– led by Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and Mitt Romney (R-Utah). Of the group, Murkowski and Portman are the only two senators who are up for re-election in 2022. Each represents a different path forward for the Republican Party, the U.S. Senate, and our politics.

Portman decided to retire in January, stating that “it has gotten harder and harder to break through the partisan gridlock and make progress on substantive policy.” Like primaries across the country, the race to replace him is a contest of fealty to Donald Trump. The leading candidate, marine veteran Josh Mandel, is supporting a challenger to Ohio Republican Congressman Anthony Gonzales whom he called a “traitor” for voting to impeach the former president.

As solutions-oriented leaders like Portman retire, they are increasingly likely to be replaced by ideological firebrands. 

On the other hand, while Sen. Murkowski has already fielded a Trump-backed primary challenger next year, she is virtually guaranteed a ticket to the general election where her fate will be decided by all the voters in Alaska — not just the base of her party. That’s because Alaskans adopted an electoral reform last year that will replace the state’s partisan primary with a nonpartisan primary in which all candidates compete, the top four finishers advance to the general election — and whoever earns majority support through an instant runoff wins.

In short, Murkowski is more likely to be rewarded rather than punished for reaching across the aisle to bring billions of dollars to the Last Frontier — for projects ranging from expanding broadband access to shoring up the state’s critical ferry system.

Abolishing party primaries liberates our leaders to govern in the public interest. Alternatively, sticking with today’s broken electoral process is a decision to leave our politics on autopilot — where pragmatic policymakers are eventually replaced by political performers, creating a feedback loop that will only further polarize the electorate.

Our nation’s political infrastructure is crumbling, and the bridges between both parties are collapsing. Similarly, we must invest in our democracy — by advancing nonpartisan electoral reforms that put voters first and fundamentally improve governing incentives.

The Senate’s infrastructure breakthrough demonstrates that bipartisanship is still possible, but it will be short-lived and all too inadequate if we fail to address the “primary problem” in our politics.

Nick Troiano is Executive Director of Unite America and a former independent candidate for Congress. Unite America seeks to enact nonpartisan electoral reforms that can foster a more representative and functional government.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bill Cassidy bipartisan infrastructure deal Bipartisanship Donald Trump Lisa Murkowski Mitt Romney political polarization primary challenge Primary election Rob Portman Susan Collins U.S. Senate

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