What Biden’s infrastructure deal says about our civic fabric

Written by Derek Monson

June 25, 2021

A bipartisan group of 10 U.S. senators recently announced a compromise had been reached on President Joe Biden’s proposal to invest in our nation’s physical (e.g., roads and bridges) and digital (broadband internet access) infrastructure, with the president endorsing the agreement shortly after its announcement. The deal, according to news reports, includes nearly $600 billion in new spending on infrastructure and no tax increases. The deal has not been passed by Congress, so it remains to be seen whether it will have the support to become law.

What does this agreement between senators and a president of different political parties on a major piece of federal legislation and spending say about our civic fabric? It says that there’s a basis for hope for a renewal of our federal civic institutions, and suggests that the greatest obstacle to the renewal of those institutions is a lack of political will among elected officials to do what they are supposed to do.

In the national political scene today, a bipartisan compromise on significant legislation does not happen very often. This is not to say – despite what news headlines might suggest – that Congress does not pass meaningful laws anymore. To the contrary, data shows that Congress continues to enact hundreds of new laws each year and that the number of pages of new federal statutes each year has remained relatively stable since the late 1970s.

However, the difficulty in coming to bipartisan compromise on major pieces of federal legislation has negative impacts, such as eroding trust that national institutions of government can do what our Constitution is designed to require of them: achieving consensus through compromise.

That a group of bipartisan congressional legislators and the president can reach a compromise despite disagreement on significant legislation reminds us that achieving the design of our Constitution is still possible. It offers hope that vital institutions such as Congress that have lost so much of the public’s trust can still renew themselves and fill their role in our constitutional system.

Additionally, what made this compromise deal possible? The will of the 10 senators and the president to strike a deal. If elected officials want a deal badly enough – more than they want to score a pure, ideological victory – they will reach one. Conversely, if they are not reaching a compromise on significant national legislation (e.g., The Equality Act, For the People Act, etc.) it is because they lack the political will to compromise that is necessary to achieve a legislative agreement.

Both of these lessons are important for understanding the state of our federal civic institutions. Clearly, there is evidence pointing to hope for civic renewal at the federal level. But that hope relies upon elected officials having the political will to act in a way that renews those institutions, by fulfilling their role as envisioned by the U.S. Constitution. In this case, that means Congress fulfilling its constitutional role of enacting federal law via the consensus-focused compromise that the U.S. Constitution envisions as the means by which Congress fulfills its role.

This is not to simply paint a rosy picture of the state of federal civic institutions. Much work needs to be done across branches of federal government, and there are many obstacles to that work being done. But it is to say that predictions of our inevitable civic decline or imminent civic collapse are no more accurate than the overly optimistic prognostications.

We have real reason for hope and a lot of obstacles to overcome. But that is not a bad place to be.

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