“Nancy Pelosi has done it again. The most successful Speaker of the House in modern history has notched up another win by sending a bipartisan infrastructure package to Joe Biden for his signature. The bill is the biggest investment in America’s infrastructure since President Eisenhower created the interstate highway system in the 1950s, and has been a long-standing goal of both parties. Donald Trump’s promise to bring home similar legislation during what his White House dubbed “infrastructure week” became a running joke as his presidency imploded. Pelosi, given the space she needed to operate by a very different type of president, actually did it.
There is a great deal to celebrate in the package, which independent economists say may create over half a million jobs. As well as investing in America’s physical infrastructure like road, rail and broadband networks, it also makes the country’s first major investment in helping communities prepare for extreme weather events caused by climate change. There’s also chunks of money to upgrade the electrical grid and protect it from extreme weather, to expand the nation’s network of electric vehicle charging stations, and to invest in experimental forms of clean energy.
No-one should mistake this for anything other than a major victory for the Biden administration, which even managed to persuade a sizeable number of Republicans in the Senate and the House to vote in favor. It’s exactly the type of major bipartisan win which Joe Biden promised during his campaign, and which naysayers said he would never achieve.
But getting this sort of win meant making a lot of compromises, and some of the most important policies put forward by the administration didn’t make it into the final bill. Republicans and moderate Democratic senators like Joe Manchin were happy to vote for legislation which boosts the construction industry and brings federal dollars home to their states. But at the same time, they stripped out provisions which would have made the legislation truly transformational, including a so-called Clean Energy Standard which would force power companies to increase their production of clean energy and set the country on the path to producing 80% renewable energy 2030.
Legislative sausage-making is rarely pretty, and the infrastructure bill makes for an impressive first year for Democrats, especially combined with the American Rescue Plan Biden signed in March, which saved the economy from a Covid-induced slump. But the party can’t rest on its laurels. Biden promised a presidency which would be not only impressive but transformational, rising to the challenge both of climate change and of beating back the anti-democratic forces which have seized control of the Republican Party. And in order to do that, there is still much work to be done.
The first step is to make sure that the party’s next major piece of legislation, the Build Back Better Act, doesn’t suffer the same fate as the infrastructure package. A grab-bag of social care and climate provisions, the bill would – among other things – provide universal access to preschool, reduce childcare costs, and spend over half a trillion dollars on tackling climate change. Although Democrats don’t need Republican votes to pass it, moderate senators like Manchin and Krysten Sinema have already insisted that popular proposals – such as universal paid family leave and free community college – be removed from the plan. If Democrats water it down any further, they’ll have missed a once-in-a-generation opportunity to show how the party can improve people’s lives.
Passing an expansive social care and climate bill is also necessary to maintain faith between moderates and progressives, something that is key if the party is to sustain the high levels of turnout which it will need to win future elections. Pelosi managed to convince many progressive lawmakers to vote for the infrastructure package because they have been assured that Build Back Better will be passed too. But moderate Democrats are still playing games, delaying a vote on progressive priorities until they receive an estimate of how much they will cost from the Congressional Budget Office.
There is also a broader problem that Democrats must face, which is that even a transformational year of legislating might still not be enough to protect the party from the sort of bludgeoning which recent election results suggest it may face in the midterms and the presidential election of 2024. Public opinion souring against an incumbent party and president is a predictable feature of American politics, but it carries particularly sinister implications given the Republican party’s transformation into an anti-democratic, authoritarian force. Saving the economy, supporting parents, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, and taking the biggest-ever steps to tackle climate change ought to be enough. But what if it isn’t?
Indeed, although progressive energy is currently focused on spending bills, next year a new challenge awaits – what to do to protect American democracy from the return to power of a party which seems hellbent on destroying it. So far, Democrats have made the bet that providing material gains to voters is the best way to ensure that the party keeps winning elections even in the face of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and unbalanced institutions like the Senate and Electoral College. But even if that is a sound strategy for now, eventually the party’s luck will run out. As Pelosi and Biden end the year on a high note, they also need to remember that without democratic reform, everything they have accomplished – and much more besides – might eventually be lost.
Andrew Gawthorpe is a historian of the United States at Leiden University, and host of the podcast America Explained“