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Infrastructure Bill Is A Golden Chance To Kill The Idea That Only Dems Need to “Pay For” Their Bills

3 min read

Among the countless examples of inane “Washington group-think” is the notion that only Democrats have to “pay for” their legislative priorities (i.e., enact corresponding tax increases and/or spending cuts to match the costs of new programs).  

Republicans do not remotely consider themselves so constrained — in part because they also are not challenged on the point.  Tax cuts for the wealthy? Unburdened and free.  Increased spending for the military-industrial-complex?  Unburdened and free.  Reduced environmental, safety and regulatory compliance?  Unburdened and free.   Even spending for shared goals — when a Republican is president — such as disaster relief or  Covid relief? . . . Unburdened and free.  Ask yourself to name a single Republican priority that they have been required to “pay for”?

Democrats, however, are expected to propose, pass and take a political hit to “pay for” every proposal on their agenda.  It is beyond appalling that Democrats have fallen for this framing, but they have (as evidenced in primary and general election politics, as well near all Dem legislative proposals).

But, in the midst of this ridiculous situation, what do we now have?  Republicans are principally opposing Biden’s infrastructure program based on the proposed tax increases to finance it. As Politico dramatically headlines it with faux machismo: Republicans draw “red line” for Biden in Oval Office showdown:

Republican leaders told President Joe Biden on Wednesday that they will draw a hard line on raising taxes to pay for infrastructure, demonstrating the substantial challenges ahead for a potential bipartisan deal on Biden’s infrastructure and jobs plan.

. . . . “We're not interested in re-opening the 2017 tax bill. We both made that clear with the president. That's our red line,” McConnell said at a press availability. “This discussion … will not include revisiting the 2017 tax bill.”

See?  Republicans are not just defending tax cuts for the wealthy (of course they are), but instead believe that they can kill any Democratic legislative accomplishment by thwarting the financing for it — because Democrats, alone, need to fund their bills, right?  And this also allows Republicans to pretend that they all favor the underlying infrastructure spending, stimulus and associated jobs.  

But, what a gift here!  Take Republicans up on it.  The only discussion now should be what infrastructure spending we need and what infrastructure spending Republicans will support or defend on the merits.  We won’t get Republicans to agree to anything, but make sure the debate is on the substantive merits, not the financing debate.  You know, the way every Republican proposal is debated (even if foolishly).

Democrats must say: “OK, we can’t reach agreement on the financing and we will resolve it the same way all government funding is resolved.”  Maybe some or all of this will be addressed in annual budget and spending negotiations.  Maybe it will be deficit financed, or will be addressed in a reconciliation bill.  Either way, Democrats made their financing proposal public and Republicans can make their financing proposals too.  If Republicans want tolls, fees and regressive taxes, let them propose and defend that in the ordinary budgeting course.  

All of the current dysfunction arose out of the responsible practice of Democrats decades ago in passing “dedicated taxes” for major social legislation, such as FICA, Medicare, Medicaid, disability, unemployment insurance and the ACA.  But Republicans have responded cynically in three ways: (i) pretending to oppose the “pay for,” while really opposing the underlying policy (or doing anything under Democratic leadership), (ii) twisting “dedicated taxes” into the false notion of stand-alone programs and then leveling hysterical charges, such as that Social Security is a “Ponzi Scheme,” and (iii) increasingly in modern times demanding that every program — even routine, required spending like Infrastructure — requires a “dedicated tax” when passed by Democrats (only).

At some point, Democratic leaders have to stand up for themselves (and us).  This infrastructure negotiation provides the perfect opportunity to correct and end a peculiarly debilitating example of Washington “group think” that makes no sense, hand-cuffs only one party, and thwarts progress and smart policy making. 

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