Members Only | August 23, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

In this colossal game of infrastructure chicken, progressives must stand firm

Passing the core infrastructure bill without the accompanying human infrastructure bill will only exacerbate economic inequality. 

Joe Biden

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It appears we’re moving toward a massive investment in infrastructure. The Senate recently passed a $1.2 trillion “core” infrastructure bill as well as a $3.5 trillion “human” infrastructure budget resolution.  

The core infrastructure bill, called the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed with a supermajority of 69 votes on August 10. This bill provides funding for, among other things, the repair of roads and bridges, an expansion of light rail systems and the modernization of the country’s electrical grid. In what was a surprise for many, 19 Republicans voted for the bill, bypassing the threat of a filibuster. This was a small but major legislative victory for the Biden administration.  

The moderate Democrats are focused on investing in the US as an economic entity. This is certainly needed. But they cannot do this at the expense of investing in “us” as a people. 

On Wednesday the Senate then approved a budget resolution for the fiscal year 2022 that would expand the country’s social safety net. This was not bipartisan but passed on a party-line vote 50-49 through a process called reconciliation. The reconciliation process starts with the chamber budget committee setting general goals to be reached and the funds allocated to meet them. Committees are then tasked with crafting the policies to meet those goals. As an example, the Senate Budget Committee has given instructions to 11 Senate committees, one of which is the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. This committee has been given a budget of $726 billion to be used for, among other things, universal pre-K, tuition-free community college and job training programs. The separate committees then craft policy for meeting their goals, which is then combined into one omnibus bill for voting within each chamber. The Senate is now in that time-consuming reconciliation process. 

The two pieces of legislation are now in the Democrat-controlled House where legislation is passed with a simple majority. The House returns this week. It would seem as if major hurdles have been overcome. 

You first, no you first
But the Democratic Party is now fighting with itself.

A handful of moderates want the smaller core infrastructure bill passed and signed into law first before the arduous reconciliation process on the human infrastructure budget ends. Nine have made this pledge in an open letter sent to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Nine nay votes are more than enough to prevent the passage of any bill. (The House Democrats hold a slim majority of three).  

Meanwhile, a larger portion led by the progressive wing, say they will not vote on a core infrastructure bill until the Senate completes the reconciliation process and passes the human infrastructure bill. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, always quotable, tweeted on August 7: 

“If mods want to blow up the infra deal, that’s on them. I know this is tough for some to understand, but the US is more than a handful of suburbs- communities outside them aren’t disposable. And just bc something is “bipartisan” doesn’t mean it’s good. Look at Wall St bailouts. War was bipartisan. Tax cuts for the rich were bipartisan. Wall St bailouts were bipartisan. Fossil fuel giveaways were/are bipartisan. Just because something is “bipartisan” doesn’t make it intrinsically good for people or worthy of passage. Substance matters.”

The logic is clear for this wing of the party. If the core infrastructure bill passes first, moderates may then withdraw their support for the human infrastructure bill – the bigger, more impactful piece of legislation. Pelosi has sided with the progressives and agreed to not bring the core infrastructure bill to a vote until the Senate has completed the reconciliation process.

In this colossal game of chicken, progressives must stand firm.

They have received a recent boost, with both senior House Democrats and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee urging the moderates to support the budget resolution.

Income inequality, not economic growth
The letter submitted to Pelosi by the nine moderates stated that “the legislation will help create millions of good-paying jobs a year across the nation and lead to continued strong economic growth.” 

Democrats should be focusing less on economic growth and more on economic inequality and its damaging effects on the social lives of people. Our gross domestic product can rise, but that does not mean everyone benefits equally from that growth. Our gross domestic product (GDP) has, with some bumps along the way, steadily risen over the past several decades. Meanwhile, income inequality has increased by about 20 percent since 1980.

Yes, more people will be put to work as laborers to rebuild infrastructure. But their incomes will pale in comparison to business owners and elites. Consider who will gain the most:

  • The business owners with the government contracts to do the rebuilding
  • Other businesses that will grow because of these infrastructure investments
  • Owners of stock in those businesses
  • Highly educated professionals securing employment in management, technology, and research and development 

Passing the core infrastructure bill without the accompanying human infrastructure bill will only exacerbate the problem of economic inequality. 

Yes, jobs are important. They will allow a person some measure of dignity and a climb out of poverty. It will be a living wage and they will be able to purchase the latest flat-screen television. But it will hardly make the lives of poor and working-class people any easier or manageable. They will still struggle to pay for healthcare and childcare. Higher education will still be cost-prohibitive. Affording housing, especially in large cities, will be a struggle.  

The focus on appeasing the economic interests of businesses and elites in the guise of increasing GDP with a simultaneous hollowing out of the social safety net is a major reason why America has low life expectancy and highest suicide rates, lower rates of academic achievement, and high rates of child poverty when compared to other wealthy countries. This is despite America having the highest GDP in the world. It is also why white American male’s life expectancy has dropped over the past decade. Social scientists Anne Case and Angus Deaton attribute this drop in life expectancy directly to white males dying “deaths of despair” because their prospects for achieving the American dream are so dim. 

Investing in “US”
We need to make it easier for our citizens to live meaningful, rewarding lives. A mother should be able to pay for quality daycare for her children. A father of three should be able to look forward to all of his charges going off to college if they so desire. Health care should not be a privilege for those with professional jobs. A married family should be able to find adequate housing. A middle-aged person whose job has been obsoleted by new technologies should be able to find retraining and start a second career. 

This is not “pushing America towards socialism” as the Republican senator from Tennessee Bill Hagerty said on Fox News recently. No, it is an investment. The moderate Democrats are focused on investing in the US as an economic entity. This is certainly needed. But they cannot do this at the expense of investing in “us” as a people. 

Rod Graham is the Editorial Board's neighborhood sociologist. A professor at Virginia's Old Dominion University, he researches and teaches courses in the areas of cyber-crime and racial inequality. His work can be found at Follow him @roderickgraham.

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