Progressives Must Reject a Bad Infrastructure Deal, Even if it Means Passing Nothing at All

by Keaton Weiss

At the start of negotiations, President Biden seemed to throw his weight behind the progressives’ $3.5 trillion reconciliation package to supplement the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill.

But as centrists in both the House and Senate raised objections to what Joe Manchin calls a “reckless expansion of government programs,” Biden began to cave to their demands. A couple of weeks ago, he lowered the proposed amount to $2.3 trillion. Just yesterday, he came down even further – his new number stands between $1.75 and $1.9 trillion.

Up to this point, progressives in the House, led by Pramila Jayapal, have held firm as a block, insisting that no deal would be done unless it includes a robust social spending package to invest in things like free community college, Medicare expansion, and universal Pre-K. But as Biden reverts to form as a lifelong corporate tool and traitor to his working class roots, progressives now find themselves facing their biggest test yet: will they follow Biden’s lead and appease their centrist counterparts, or will they hold the line?

Unfortunately, the former is beginning to look more and more likely. Jayapal has conceded that tuition-free community college is likely to be nixed from the bill, but also expressed “optimism” that an overall deal would be brokered, and that the Democrats would successfully pass both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and an additional reconciliation package.

This is unacceptable. Progressives must be willing to get up and walk away from a bad deal, even if it means not passing any infrastructure package at all.

Inadequately funded social programs that require stringent means-testing and bloated bureaucratic oversight are not worth passing from a policy standpoint. As Jacobin writer Meagan Day brilliantly explains in her article “Why We Need Free College For Everyone – Even Rich People,” means-testing is a scam designed to save rich people money in the long-term by keeping their taxes low (because means-tested programs are much cheaper than universal ones), and create divisions among middle and working-class people, who often find themselves on opposite sides of the income threshold that determines who receives government benefits and who doesn’t.

The Affordable Care Act is a perfect example of this principle in action, as qualifications for health insurance subsidies are determined by individuals’ and families’ incomes as they relate to the poverty level. In effect, Obamacare is a subsidy for the working poor paid for by everyone else, including the lower-middle class, who must pay full price for insufficient healthcare, as they don’t qualify for assistance.

Applying this same neoliberal model to Pre-K and community college tuition assistance isn’t just bad policy, it’s political suicide. After getting rolled in the ACA fight, progressives in the House lost what little cache they had, appearing as feckless fringe actors who had been brought to heel by the moderate party establishment. Accepting a subpar reconciliation package would send the exact same message, only this time it would come with the added humiliation of having made an initial show of strength only to cave under pressure.

If House progressives embarrass themselves and their base in this manner, they should never again expect anyone to knock on doors for the next AOC, Jamaal Bowman, or Cori Bush. If after all of this, Manchin and Sinema, two corrupt obstructionist conservative Democrats, can drag them down to their number (at or around $1.5 trillion), then they will have proven House progressives are the same pushovers they were back in 2009, dooming an entire generation of progressive candidates, politicians, and activists to another decade of obscurity.

Additionally, this moment is a rare opportunity to turn the pundit class’ propaganda on its head, and prove that progressives are in fact the “pragmatic” ones in Washington, and that the so-called “moderates” are the “purist” ideologues who will hold up any and all progress unless they get their way. As Jayapal has pointed out already, 96% of the Senate’s Democratic caucus is on board with the progressives’ plan – Manchin and Sinema make up the remaining 4%.

Moderates are now forfeiting their claim to “pragmatism,” a price they’re apparently willing to pay in order to keep their corporate donors happy. To concede to their demands in these negotiations would be to hand such a claim right back to them for no reason at all.

Imagine Jayapal and the progressive holdouts finally settle for $1.9 trillion – we all know how this will be covered in the press: Manchin and Sinema will be hailed as the courageous and responsible adults in the room who knew all along that the juvenile progressives would give up sooner or later, after they threw their little tantrum. Once again, centrists will be lauded as the “dealmakers” who “get things done,” and progressives will be right back where they were 12 years ago after getting browbeaten in the Obamacare debacle.

For Jayapal to doom herself, her colleagues, and her movement to such a fate would be inexcusable and unforgivable. They must reject a bad deal, even if it means making no deal at all.

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