WASHINGTON — Although he may not have planned it, President Joe Biden picked an auspicious date for unveiling his big infrastructure program. Exactly 34 years ago Wednesday — March 31, 1987 — the House voted overwhelmingly across party lines to override President Ronald Reagan’s veto of an $87.5 billion highway and mass transit bill.
It wasn’t even close. The final vote tally was 350 to 73, with 102 Republicans, including most of the House GOP leadership, joining all but one Democrat to defy their party’s president and push the bill forward. The Senate joined in overriding the veto two days later.
Rep. David E. Price, D-N.C., who now chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, recalled the vote as one of the first he cast as a newly-elected member of Congress. It underscored, Price said, what was once true: “Two spending programs reliably enjoyed broad, bipartisan support: Transportation reauthorizations and medical research.”
Biden’s big new infrastructure program involves far more than roads, bridges and mass transit, but he hopes to remind Republicans that once upon a time, in a Washington of long ago, the two parties were capable of coming together to build stuff.
“Historically, infrastructure had been a bipartisan undertaking, many times led by Republicans,” Biden said in a speech in Pittsburgh outlining the plan. “There’s no reason why it can’t be bipartisan again. The divisions of the moment shouldn’t stop us from doing the right thing for the future.”
His plan is Exhibit A in the paradox of Bidenism.
The president is transforming the nation’s political assumptions by insisting that active government can foster economic growth, spread wealth to those now left out and underwrite research and investment to produce a cleaner environment and a more competitive tech sector.
But all this comes wrapped in a big but thoroughly traditional government spending program that offers a lot of things to a lot of constituencies — and benefits to a great many voters.
“There is something old-fashioned and decidedly nonradical about Biden’s invitation to see enhanced infrastructure as a vital national interest and to mobilize government to get it done,” Price said in an interview. “The same goes for thinking of nationwide broadband as today’s rural electrification,” the latter a reference to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s popular initiative to bring electricity to a previously unlit countryside.
As a result, said Molly Murphy, a Democratic pollster, “Republicans will face a tough challenge in trying to make something like infrastructure into something radical.” Which is why, she added, that the GOP will try to focus their attacks on other aspects of the plan. “Polling,” she added, “has consistently shown broad support for the idea that rebuilding infrastructure is the best way to create jobs and get the economy moving.”
It’s no accident that Biden went to western Pennsylvania on Wednesday to announce his big initiative. The venue itself, a carpenters union training center, underscored his marriage of the old and the new: That the only way to restore the wages and living standards that the old economy, at its best, afforded workers was through major new investments in American manufacturing, new green energy jobs and enhanced job training.
“If we act now, people in 50 years will say this is the moment America won the future,” Biden declared, opening his speech with a simple declaration of his working-class loyalties: “I’m a union guy.”
Making an argument against the plan will be challenging for Republicans because its structure means they cannot claim he didn’t try to pay for it — but they cannot abide the way he chose to do so.
In particular, Biden would partially (but not fully) roll back the Republican’s 2017 corporate tax cut. The GOP reduced the corporate rate from 35% to 21%; Biden would raise it, but only to 28%. By confining all his tax increases to the upper reaches of the economy, Biden has put his conservative critics in a position of opposing spending designed to broaden prosperity in order to defend tax benefits that flow to corporations and the very few at the top.
And to the extent that some of Biden’s progressive allies — among them Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey, both Massachusetts Democrats — criticize the plan for not spending enough (they have a point in certain areas), they will further undercut claims on the right that the plan is radical.
Biden’s plan will certainly not sail through Congress as is. Differences among Democrats will have to be ironed out. It’s far from clear how many, if any, Republicans are willing to go back to the old days of working in tandem with Democrats on behalf of what the great 19th-century Whig politician Henry Clay called “internal improvements.” But we have, at least, moved from “infrastructure week” as a standing joke into a monthslong effort that will test whether our government is still capable of doing big things.
E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: