McConnell Wields a Cruelly Narrow Definition of Infrastructure Like a Bludgeon

Back in late March and early April, as President Biden’s multitrillion-dollar infrastructure plan began to take shape, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made it clear he would oppose the large-scale investments envisioned by the administration.

By the early summer, after months of negotiations between the parties in Congress and with the public pushing for large-scale infrastructure spending, it now seems that there is bipartisan support in Congress for a more limited — though still nearly trillion-dollar — package. This package, if it passes, will shore up investments in basic infrastructure such as roads and bridges, drinking water supplies, electric vehicle charging stations and public transit systems. If President Biden signs it into law, it will, even in its truncated form, be a big deal, generating jobs and improving communities for years to come.

Yet, it should have gone much further. Instead, to get toward any sort of fragile bipartisan consensus, the administration had to drop plans for more ambitious investments, forsaking many of its bolder climate investments. It also jettisoned what the administration had labeled the American Families Plan, in the process ratcheting back ambitions for what looked and sounded like a new War on Poverty, the centerpieces of which were massively expanded federal investments in education, health care access and social programs.

These more ambitious proposals, to be funded by moderate increases in the corporate tax rate –from 21 percent up to 28 percent, essentially reversing a key provision of the 2017 tax law passed by a GOP-led Congress — have now been bundled into a separate package of legislation, which, if it passes, will do so with no GOP support.

Last week, Biden got himself into a political mess by ad-libbing the notion that he would veto the bipartisan bill if Congress didn’t also pass the more ambitious additional legislation. While he quickly walked that proposal back, the comment gave McConnell — who is far more concerned with finding ways to politically undermine the Biden administration than with actually working toward a bipartisan bill to shore up vital infrastructure — cover to backpedal on his commitment to the legislation. By Monday of this week, the “bipartisan deal” looked to be in real risk of disintegrating into an acrimonious political food fight. And, as the week went on, the acrimonious exchanges involving McConnell, Pelosi, and other congressional leaders continued.

In opposing large-scale investments in the environment, or in health care systems, or in early childhood education as somehow Democratic boondoggles, McConnell and the Republicans are attempting to impose an artificially narrow understanding of what legitimate “infrastructure” investments look like. In their world, it’s all about bricks-and-mortar. It’s the sort of hard-hat understanding of infrastructure that Trump, the hotel-and-real-estate-developer-cum-president,embraced. If you can physically see it, it’s real; but if the investments are, instead, aimed at educating minds, or making bodies healthier, or making the environment cleaner and safer, well,that’s somehow illegitimate and ought to be taken off the table.

This capricious definition of what qualifies as genuine infrastructure projects is entirely hubristic. The well-known UC Berkeley professor of cognitive science and linguistics George Lakoff has written extensively on how the Republicans have used language to powerful effect to shape the terms of the policy debate over the past generation. For example, he describes how they successfully convinced many people in the U.S. to think of the estate tax as a nefarious “death tax,” or to think of onerous restrictions on abortion as simply being “pro-life.”

Since the spring, polls have shown that a sizeable majority of Americans support a large-scale infrastructure package. And that support has only grown over the months. By mid-June, two-thirds of Americans supported the ambitious proposal that the Biden administration had put on the table. Huge majorities of Democrats and Independent voters realize that the country’s disorganized infrastructure is in need of urgent upgrades, and that part of what qualifies as “infrastructure” is the environment, as well as the health and educational opportunities of the U.S. population.

Biden’s team has bowed to McConnell’s political hostage-taking strategy and hugely scaled back its original plans not for lack of popular support, but because of McConnell’s willingness to burn the house down to keep his increasingly right-wing base online. And that McConnell feels confident in this strategy, and might even put the kibosh on the bipartisan deal arranged by several of his own senators, is largely due to the fact that, for years, the GOP has set an extreme agenda and then worked feverishly to shape the language in which that agenda is framed so as to maximize its effectiveness.

A majority of the public might support major infrastructure investments, but in a political system as gerrymandered and otherwise skewed to favor the GOP as is the modern U.S. system, McConnell can disregard majority opinion and prioritize the issues most likely to drive GOP voters in key states and congressional districts to the polls.

This isn’t a calculus that makes for good governance; after all, banishing major green investments from a once-in-a-generation infrastructure bill, even as the Western half of the country is being hobbled by drought and by searing heat, is a recipe for long-term disaster. But, as Lakoff knows, it is indeed a strategy capable of securing short-term political payoffs. And, these days, that seems to be all that the GOP leadership, unmoored as it is from a coherent set of ideological beliefs, cares about.

The Democrats have a window at the moment to enact sweeping social reforms. They have a majority in both the House and the Senate — albeit a narrow one. They control the White House.And they have public opinion on their side. Given all of this, it would be political malfeasance to let McConnell and the minoritarian Republicans seize control over the infrastructure investment debate. Putting money into education, or the environment, or health care isn’t “soft” or “illegitimate.” These are vital expenditures, and the sooner Democrats reclaim the narrative on this, and go on the offensive against McConnell’s hostage-taking antics, the better.