Democrats in disarray? The surprisingly normal politics of infrastructure negotiations

Matt Glassman | September 8, 2021

On August 24th, the House adopted S.Con.Res.14, the congressional budget resolution for Fiscal Year 2022 previously adopted by the Senate on August 11th, setting up consideration of a $3.5T package of spending under the reconciliation process. The budget resolution was adopted 220-212 in the House and 50-49 in the Senate, with every Democrat in both chambers voting for it and every Republican voting against it. (Senator Rounds was not present for the vote.)

Despite the strict party-line vote, much media attention in August was focused on a dispute within the House Democratic majority. A small group of moderate Democrats, led by Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5), emerged in mid-August, publicly threatening to oppose the budget resolution unless the House first passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a $1.2T measure approved by the Senate on August 10th in a bipartisan vote (69-30), containing traditional infrastructure spending for roads, bridges, and transit.

Meanwhile, members of the House Progressive Caucus announced they would not vote for the bipartisan bill until the Senate agrees to the larger, yet-unwritten, reconciliation package. Only after several weeks of tense negotiations was Speaker Pelosi able to secure a deal to get the budget resolution through the House; the budget resolution was deemed passed in a separate vote on an unrelated rule, which also provided for later consideration of the bipartisan bill (September 27), but not immediate passage of it.

What should we make of this fight? Here are four dynamics to consider.

Intra-party disputes are a normal feature of legislative politics

Despite the daily dramatic media stories during the runup to House passage of the budget resolution, disputes between majority party factions is perhaps the central feature of House politics. The American two-party system based on geographic electoral districts naturally creates large, diverse political parties, full of members with disparate views on economic and social issues, as well as significant ties to regional and local interests. There is never a perfectly unified majority in the House on major policy such as infrastructure spending. Every bill is a negotiation.

The primary mechanism for resolving these disputes is mediated bargaining between the factions. Often, negotiations are done in private, with chamber and committee leaders collecting input from factions and individual members in order to iteratively craft legislative language and procedural strategy that satisfies everyone, with the factions themselves jockeying all the while to maximize the outcomes for themselves.  Sometimes, as with the budget resolution debate in August, factions take overtly public actions—like the letter moderates signed threatening to not vote for the bill—but those too are just strategic attempts to influence the bargaining process.

Narrow divisions create a focus on factions, but also empower leaders

The 117th Congress features the narrowest majorities in both chambers in decades. In the contemporary era of polarized congressional parties, this places an increased demand on the majority party; unlikely to find votes from the minority, Democratic chamber leaders need to craft bills and strategies that can keep virtually their entire caucus on board in order to pass budget resolutions and reconciliation bills. One obvious consequence of this is that any small group of House members—and any single Democratic Senator—can be a veto player, theoretically able to block legislation by withholding their votes.

While there has been a significant amount of media focus on this—will the House moderates sink the deal? Will the progressives?—the factions have less leverage than it appears. As my colleague Josh Huder has written, the veto these groups hold is a negative power. They can block things unilaterally, but they cannot achieve their goals on their own. Unless they prefer nothing to pass, they have to resign themselves to bargaining and seeking the best possible outcome for their views, in a context where they will ultimately agree to some deal.

This, in turn, empowers party leaders. The structure of the House makes the majority leadership the only workable forum for factional bargaining. The Speaker, in particular, has the procedural, political, and logistical tools at her disposal to coordinate, secure, and enforce intra-party deals. This doesn’t mean the Speaker gets everything she wants, but it does expand her influence in a standoff between factions. Furthermore, it is almost never the leadership’s goal to “defeat” one faction or another; such tactics would only erode future leadership influence. Pelosi, like any legislative leader, is seeking adjustments that leave all factions satisfied.

Everyone wants to get to yes

What makes Pelosi’s job somewhat easier on the reconciliation bill is that she doesn’t have any factions that are fundamentally opposed to the legislation. All of the Democrats ultimately want a bill to pass. Some, like the House progressives and Senate liberals like Bernie Sanders (I-VT), want an expansive array of new spending, coupled with significant tax increases. Others, like the House moderates and Senator Manchin (D-WV) prefer a small package of spending and alternative revenue measures or mechanisms to offset the costs. But there do not appear to be any House Democrats who can credibly threaten to prefer no bill to any of the plausible post-negotiation deals.

This is partially a reflection of the modern relationship between individual representatives and partisan dynamics. A generation ago, many House members had significant bipartisan local support, such that they could dissent from their party’s major policy agenda and comfortably win reelection, relying on a local coalition that included opposition party voters. Many House members routinely ran 10 or 20 points ahead of their party’s presidential candidate, giving them a huge cushion to oppose the administration or congressional leadership when locally appropriate.

Those days may be gone. Contemporary partisanship has reduced most House members to running barely a point or two ahead of their presidential candidate, if at all. This, in turn, makes the president’s approval rating a key input of voter behavior in congressional elections. As a result, many House members may feel compelled to support the president’s agenda priorities even when they conflict with local concerns; to sink the administration’s core policy program can be as potentially ruinous for a swing district member as voting for a somewhat unpopular bill. Moderate Republicans faced this dilemma with the SALT tax in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act; many moderate Democrats may face it this year with President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.

Explanations are an important feature of representation

While members and factions go about negotiating the policy features of the reconciliation bill, they are also carefully cultivating their explanation of what is in the bill, what happened during the negotiations, and why they ultimately agreed to deals (or not) and voted for bills (or not). Votes on bills are binary; members can only vote yes or no. But the underlying legislation is complex, and the relationship between any major bill and a member’s constituency is going to be full of nuanced policy, and political trade-offs. Members routinely spend large amounts of time and resources explaining votes in the context of their representing their district.

The performative politics sometimes associated with the explanations are often maligned by observers, but they play an important role. When moderate House Democrats sign a public letter threatening to not vote for a bill they almost certainly will vote for in the end, they aren’t just participating in what critics call Kabuki Theater, they are actively shaping future politics. The outcome of the reconciliation process is now pretty well known; virtually all House Democrats are going to vote for the bill. What is unknown is the contents of the bill, and how the public will come to understand the bill. The public behavior of members during the negotiations will shape these unknowns, adjusting the contents of the final legislation, and shaping the future public politics that result from it.

The moderate members loudly stating their opposition to Pelosi’s plans by a media primed to magnify conflict are engaging in effective position-taking to preserve their seats in an upcoming difficult election.  Their opposition to more liberal positions is on record—a win for them, and they feel safer going into the election as a result—but also a win for Pelosi, who wants to keep her majority.  And Pelosi has swatted down yet another loudly trumpeted non-threat from (often) little known backbenchers.  The disarray is a normal function of a deliberative democracy—but it is also beneficial to all.

Matt Glassman is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute


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