Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. This week, the US Senate approved a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. Now, I was having trouble envisioning 1.2 trillion so I turned to an instructional video used to help school children understand big numbers.
Speaker 1: Let's review a couple of large numbers. A million has six zeros. A billion has nine zeros, and a trillion has 12 zeroes.
Melissa Harris-Perry: 12 zeros is a big number and to understand just how big the instructional guide calculates how long it would take to count those one trillion infrastructure dollars.
Speaker 1: You get 31709.9 years. That's a long time to be counting your money.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nearly 32,000 years of counting. That's big. We've established that this is a big bill. What do American households, communities, and businesses stand to gain from this big spending? Topping the list includes repairing physical infrastructure like roads and bridges, replacing led pipes and upgrading electric wires and metal rails. There's big money allocated to expand cable and fiber optic wires into rural areas. There are grants for clean energy expansion and public transportation, but the grants aren't as big as progressive Democrats had initially hoped for.
Amazon, FedEx and UPS will be big winners because they will make big profits from the big dollars allocated to expand ports of entry. Big pharma is a big loser because these companies are actually going to owe the government for Medicare drug waste. It's a big bill with big winners and big losers, but the reason the Senate infrastructure bill is such a big deal is not what's in it. It's because of how it passed the seemingly intractable Senate with meaningful bipartisan support, the vote of 69 30 included all Senate Democrats and 19 Senate Republicans, including Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell. At one point during the vote, the Senate chamber was downright chummy. Take a listen to Chuck Schumer.
Chuck Schumer: If we all sit in our seats and try to stick to the 10 minutes or as close as we can get to it, we can finish. 10 minutes. We can get this done quickly. If we all finish voting by five, he can bang the gavel and get us to do it quicker than 10. Let me, I ask unanimous--
Chuck Schumer: Thank you. That's the most Republican applause I've gotten in a little while. I appreciate that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now the bill heads to the house, where Democratic leaders have clearly signaled their intention to support this bipartisan measure.
Speaker 2: As we know, Nancy Pelosi has made it very clear that we are all for this scaled down package because it is bi-partisan. We are supporting the president in trying to establish bipartisanship.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Bipartisanship is precise what President Biden promised back in November 2020.
President Biden: There will be no blue states and red states when we win, just the United States of America
Melissa Harris-Perry: This week, it looks like president Biden just might be able to build a $1.2 trillion bridge across the aisle. Is it time to celebrate the end of partisan obstruction and returned to the good old days of bipartisan cooperation? Not so fast. I just have to ask, is bipartisanship actually a good thing? Are bi-partisan laws more effective or more fair? After all, some of the most bi-partisan eras of the American Congress were troubling, to say the least. Throughout the early 20th century, bipartisan cooperation by conservative Republicans and Southern Dixiecrats routinely blocked racial justice efforts. The post 911 Patriot Act, which many have argued seriously endangered American civil liberties, was bi-partisan to the point of being nearly unanimous.
My big question is what's the big deal about bipartisanship? Here to help unpack this big question is Ron Christie, Republican strategist, former special assistant to George W. Bush, and a longtime friend of the show. Welcome back to The Takeaway, Ron.
Ron Christie: Melissa, it's always great to be back with you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Thanks. Also Nicole Hemmer, a research associate with the Obama presidency oral history project at Columbia University. Welcome, Nicole.
Nicole Hemmer: Thanks so much for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nicole, I'm going to start with you. Is bipartisanship better? Is it an absolute good that we should always be pursuing in trying to make public policy?
Nicole Hemmer: No, it's not an absolute good. You've already named some of the, legislation or the wording of the legislation that bipartisanship created during the 20th century. I would add to that the internment of Japanese Americans, which was a bipartisan effort, the defensive marriage act in the 1990s was bi-partisan. Bipartisanship itself, we treat it like it's this positive value when really it's just a description of how legislation has passed. There has been partisan legislation that has been good for the country. I don't think that, in and of itself, bipartisanship is a good thing or something worth pursuing just to say that you've passed something bi-partisan.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ron, and yet it feels to me on the one hand, I got to say, I agree with Nicole on this, that I worry about the tool itself being held up as the value. On the other hand, that is how democracy works. That we value as much as we do the outcomes, that we say it matters to have everybody's input. What's your thought on this?
Ron Christie: Well, I'd say my thought here is a simple one and I strongly believe in bipartisanship. If you go back to the early 1970s and you look at the Clean Air Act, for example, you have a Republican president working with a Democratic legislature. You look at George H.W. Bush with the Clean Water Act, bipartisan support. You look for the gentlemen that I worked for, President George W. Bush. He insisted that his No Child Left Behind legislation would not go through the Congress unless he had the support of the key Democrats in the key committees.
I think what we see today are partisanship and partisan wrangling, but when you look at the notion of both sides coming together to find the common good, I think that's what our government is all about and that's what it should be all about.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That question of the common good, we're going to talk a little bit later in the show with some folks from Texas about this question, for example, of protecting kids. Everybody, I'm just going to go with this, except for a few outliers. Everybody wants a better life for their kids. Everybody wants their kids to be healthy. Yet Nicole, I just want to point out, we have really different concepts of how we get there. One might say that open borders is a way to provide for children. Allowing immigrants to make choices, to make a better life for themselves and their families. Others, people of good will and good conscience, could say actually you got to close the borders in order to protect children and in order to make life better for our kids.
How do we take an end goal and have the real contestation to get there without just thinking, "We got to all be on the same page?"
Nicole Hemmer: Well, not pursuing bipartisanship doesn't mean that you don't have debate. Certainly, we have seen robust debates within, say, the Democratic party over the Affordable Care Act. Even the bipartisanship itself doesn't necessarily reflect what the common good is or what the public wants. If you're talking about making children safe and growing up healthy, there are gun reform legislation proposals that have vast public support from Republicans as well as Democrats. Yet the only way they'll probably ever be passed is through partisan legislation. There's a disconnect, I think, between bipartisan public support and actually the meeting of minds, bipartisan legislation.
Bipartisanship itself doesn't necessarily give us a way to tackle those questions, but it also doesn't foreclose things like robust debate or taking into account public opinion.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love this idea of maybe a slightly more complicated way of thinking about how this policy sausage is being made. Ron, here we are, there's a doubt we're living in a time of greater partisanship not only on the part of those who are governing, not only our legislators, but also a greater sense of partisanship and partisan division in the ordinary folks who are really taking their partisan identity as the key to their entire lens of the world. I'm wondering, if you're a policymaker is there a way to actually get your preferred policy through by not being bipartisan?
In other words, maybe you're a Democrat who's fiscally conservative, you'd actually prefer the Republican way. You go ahead and let the Republicans take the fall for it. You get reelected, but it's actually your policy preference. Is that just crazy town?
Ron Christie: I wouldn't call it crazy town, Melissa. What I would say is that it shouldn't be about wearing a red jersey or blue Jersey. It should be public policy objectives and outcomes that benefit the constituents that that policymaker was elected to serve. Now, I spent nearly nine years in Capitol Hill. I spent four years in the White House and it's much harder to demonize someone that you like, someone that you work with. They might just happen to be on the other side of the aisle. I think the problem that we find ourselves in right now with partisanship is that if you don't know a member of the other party, if you don't interact with people, it's a lot easier to demonize them and to hold them out as straw man for an argument that you of course are putting forward from a partisan nature.
I just worry that we have become so polarized and so personal in our politics that it would be a really strong move for these elected officials to take a step back and say, "It's not about me, it's not about my party, it's about our country that we should be focused on."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ron, would term limits help make that possible?
Ron Christie: Yes. I think there are so many people who come to Washington with great intentions, Melissa, of advancing public policy objectives. As we've all seen, it can be intoxicating at best and it can be downright power hungry at worst. People don't like the relinquishing power once they have it. Sometimes it's best to go back to the constituents who sent you to Washington, as opposed to being a creature of that environment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nicole, I'm wondering as I'm thinking about term limits, about other structures that contribute to either more bipartisanship or more division. It seems to be one of the key structures that we're contending with right now is the way that the Senate filibuster currently works. I'm wondering if historically that filibuster actually was meant to cause bipartisanship, but now it seems to be creating divisiveness?
Nicole Hemmer: I'm not sure that the filibuster was ever meant to cause bipartisanship. It was a way to ensure that minority voices could hold the floor and could be heard but it didn't necessarily then lead to those voices being included in the legislation itself. As you know, it had been used for pretty nefarious purposes, especially around things like civil rights. The filibuster is a huge obstacle to passing legislation. What we have seen is that the filibuster has not necessarily generated a flurry of bipartisan reforms in recent years, it's just stopped any legislation from happening at all. That's a different outcome than getting to that bipartisan promised land.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ron, talk to me about one more structural aspect here. Obviously when we hear from senators, they have whole state that they have to represent. States are inherently more likely to have at least some purple aspects to them but one of the things we've really seen in the US house has been redistricting in a way that creates safe partisan districts. It feels to me like that does work against any bipartisan goal.
Ron Christie: I really think it does. You look at the average reelection rate for a member of the House of Representatives. You're talking over 90%. Some of the lines in all of our favorite states across the United States, you can see lines going hundreds of miles in one direction and then taking a sharp left or a right turn for another. Why? To protect the incumbent. I think a lot of people around the country, Melissa, are looking at this and they're saying, "This seems to be more of the incumbent protection program than it is having competitive districts and competitive races where newcomers perhaps could have their ideas heard."
When I look at my home state of California and you have a system where the top two vote getters in the primary go on to the general election. There has to be a different way, a better way than just allowing the same folks, regardless of party affiliation, to come back to Washington year after year.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love this point that. Now we've started to dig into the idea of how do we get new voices in? Maybe that's through term limits. Maybe that's through really changing how we do districting for the House. Of course, also beginning to address the ways that the filibuster works. Nicole, there is another piece here. It's in part how all of these structures together have worked to generate ideological wings in the party. It was the tea party wing with Republicans. Now we're seeing a very progressive wing in the Democratic party. On the one hand, you want these ideologies to have a space to speak. On the other hand, you often hear from moderates in both parties that these more ideological wings have ripped apart the possibility of partisanship.
Nicole Hemmer: I'm not sure that those partisan wings are necessarily to blame. We've had these different caucuses that organize within the parties for quite a long time. I think the ideological nature of them is part of the issue, that the parties have sorted ideologically. Certainly within the Republican party. There was a wing in the 1990s that was constantly challenging, Newt Gingrich from the right. You had the tea party caucus and other freedom caucus that are doing that, that have left a little space for any bipartisan voting. I don't think that you can do away with those caucuses either, they are who those members of Congress are.
That itself, as well as how the parties operate, particularly how the Republican party operates, is why you're seeing this entrenched anti-bipartisanship. That needs to be addressed as well as these other structures, because it's not just the house, of course, that has bluff legislation. It's happening in the Senate as well, where you do have people representing both Democrats and Republicans in these states.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ron, I'm wondering if you see issues areas? The fact that this is happening on infrastructure is almost textbook. It's the one thing everyone is supposed to be able to on. Build the roads, build the bridges. Are there any other issues where we can imagine, particularly between now and the midterms, some genuine bipartisan cooperation?
Ron Christie: I hate to say this but no, I really don't. I look at infrastructure as being one of those areas that all representatives want their constituents to have safer drinking water or better roads to come on or in bridges to cross. That really seems to be about it. When you look at health care, when you look at foreign policy, the parties are so divided and so partisan and their view of the world, both domestically and internationally, this might be our last best shot before we get into the trenches of the 2022 midterm election to get something done in a bipartisan fashion. I hate to say it. I am not optimistic about the two sides coming together to do too much too soon.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nicole, does a long view of American history give you any sense of optimism on this?
Nicole Hemmer: Well, only in those grand cyclical sense. There is a, chance that in 10, 20, 50 years, that we will have a different arrangement of our politics. I think if we're taking the view of how politics has unfolded in the last, say, 30 years, we have been on a trajectory away from passing and paying for legislation. That, I think, is going to continue for the foreseeable future because there are so many incentives that support the system as we have it now. Once those incentives change, then we can talk about a different kind of politics. As long as incentives have pushed particularly the Republican party away from any compromise or legislating with the Democratic party, I think that we'll see moments like this more as an aberration than as the way of doing business in the Congress.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Give me an example of one of these incentives.
Nicole Hemmer: On the right there are incentives like the conservative media, that push and punish legislators who work with the other side. Somebody like Mitt Romney who had been the Republican nominee for president in 2012 has been pilloried in conservative media outlets for working with Democrats. As long as there's that cost to a bipartisan legislation, there's going to be a wariness of engaging in it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ron, are there incentives that you see as key to shifting how this works?
Ron Christie: I do. I think elections have consequences, and I think this is what you see when you have one party in control of the entire Congress. The 2022 election cycle, it's very likely the Democrats will lose their majority in the House and could lose it in the Senate. That will bring the parties closer together. That will have them in a position where they actually have to negotiate on priorities. Rather than poking each other in the eye and slinging barbs and insults, they'll actually have to sit down. The midterm election could provide us an opportunity to move forward in a nonpartisan application policy where both sides try to compromise and get what they're looking for from a policy perspective.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ron Christie and Nicole Hemmer, thank you both for joining us. Please come back and join us again.
Ron Christie: Count on it. Good to be with you both.
Nicole Hemmer: Anytime. My pleasure.
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