Transformational legislation should be bipartisan again

When they controlled the White House and both houses of Congress four years ago, Republicans never substantively engaged with Democrats on their overhaul of America’s tax code. Now, in much the same vein, Democrats are plowing ahead with a Build Back Better (BBB) plan absent any Republican input. 

The irony is that in both areas, the parties shared a range of common goals. In 2017, Democrats might well have supported efforts to lower the corporate rate and enact a middle-class tax cut. Today, Build Back Better addresses challenges, including the child tax credit, that separate bipartisan bills would address. But in both cases, the party in power has chosen to ignore the bipartisan possibilities on the pretense that bipartisanship can’t work.

Many in D.C. seem unwilling to even consider the counter-example sitting right in front of them. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that President Biden recently signed into law represents the largest public works investment since President Eisenhower worked with Congress to build the Interstate Highway System. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework was born of months of thoughtful negotiation between Democrats and Republicans including Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) at one end of the Capitol, and the House Problem Solvers Caucus, co-chaired by Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), at the other. And yet that model of legislating — one in which both parties have a meaningful role to play — is not even on the table when it comes to Build Back Better.

That’s not to suggest bipartisanship is easy. The infrastructure bill passed thanks only to 13 House Republicans providing enough “yes” votes to more than offset six Democratic members of the left-wing “Squad” who voted “no.” These 13 courageous members have been attacked relentlessly by some of their partisan colleagues, with most receiving threats to their careers and even their lives. That points directly to just how out of control the extremes on both sides have become. But it should also pierce the ridiculous idea that the best way to get big things done in Washington is to steamroll the other party. 

The lesson to be learned from the success of the infrastructure package is that bipartisanship is not only still possible, it’s also a more dependable and durable path to follow. But that’s how legislating should be done, members representing different constituencies discussing each other’s ideas, seeking out expert opinions about what would and would not work and where there could be unintended consequences, and compromising to get important bills enacted. 

Imagine if Build Back Better were set aside and Washington began the process anew using the same process that led to the success of the infrastructure package. Committees could start debating the child tax credit program favored by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), which the liberal New York Magazine said is “better than Biden’s.” Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Kirsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have a good parental paid leave proposal. Both House and Senate Republicans have offered tangible and credible ideas to combat climate change. Neither party would get everything it wanted in the final package, but in the balance, a bill much more aligned with the broad public interest would emerge, and that would help restore faith in our democratic process. 

The advocates of the existing Build Back Better package describe it as the most ambitious transformation of government since President Johnson’s Great Society in the 1960s. And yet the Great Society was implemented through more than 80 bills passed over several years after detailed scrutiny by members of both parties in Congress. Build Back Better is being advanced by one party — with the narrowest House majority since World War I and a 50-50 Senate —and it provides one and only one party’s answer to some of America’s most serious problems. If this bill passes, its provisions could easily be repealed by a future Congress controlled by the other party. That’s why the White House and leaders in Congress should stop their headlong push to pass a one-party reconciliation bill.    

Given the rancor in Washington, there is certainly no guarantee that Congress debating any of these bipartisan ideas would lead to bipartisan legislation. But we’ll never know if no one bothers to try. Americans should demand that their leaders at least make the effort, especially for policies as transformative as those in the Build Back Better Plan. Now is the time for President Biden and Congress to build on the momentum of passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill and try to solve more of America’s problems the same way. 

Margaret White is the executive director of No Labels.

Tags Bill Cassidy Bipartisanship Brian Fitzpatrick Build Back Better Act Female members of the United States House of Representatives Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Joe Biden Joe Manchin Josh Gottheimer Members of the United States Congress Mitt Romney Presidency of Joe Biden Susan Collins United States Senators

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