Saturday, May 22, 2021

Three-Dimensional Chess Is Good Enough For Me

11-dimensional chess is fun to think about, but 3-dimensional chess actually exists. Star Trek–compliant set via eBay from WorthPoint.

Funny thing happened when I heard how the Biden administration offered a compromise infrastructure package for Republican consideration yesterday, cutting about $550 billion from the original $2.25 trillion price tag, after Republicans failed to meet a Tuesday deadline to offer their own counterproposal—or rather didn't happen: no howls of protest from those who fear Biden's appeals to "bipartisanship" are a Clintonian effort to chop down his own program. Perhaps because Republicans rejected it so swiftly most of us didn't even notice it flying by.

I'm here to tell you the administration wasn't expecting anything different. The proposal didn't give in on any principle, for one thing: it suggested reducing spending on traditional bridge-and-highway infrastructure, the stuff the GOP professes to like, and broadband access, to levels more like the ones the Republicans had suggested, and shifted some of the less traditional proposals (on R&D and manufacturing, backing "homeshoring" of industry and competition with China) to other bills making their own way through the process, but it didn't give any concession to McConnell's demands on the semantics of the word "infrastructure", and it didn't give an inch on the tax issue:

The president’s new offer makes no effort to resolve the even thornier problem dividing the parties: how to pay for that spending. Mr. Biden wants to raise taxes on corporations, which Republicans oppose. Republicans want to repurpose money from Mr. Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic aid package, signed in March, and to raise user fees like the gas tax, which the president opposes.

Mr. Biden “fundamentally disagrees with the approach of increasing the burden on working people through increased gas taxes and user fees,” administration officials wrote in their memo to Republican negotiators. “As you know, he made a commitment to the American people not to raise taxes on those making less than $400,000 per year, and he intends to honor that commitment.”

(There is a kind of concession to neoliberalism in general, in the form of a Republican proposal for an "Infrastructure Bank" to leverage the contributions of private companies to the program, but I'm not in a mood to complain about that—I've been saying for a long time that progressives need neoliberal allies to get through the current phase and I haven't changed my mind.)

Actually there was one faint howl of progressive protest, from Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, but it was pretty carefully respectful on the subject of Biden himself ("Despite President Biden’s efforts to engage with Republicans, they have shown no willingness whatsoever to negotiate in good faith with Democrats to confront the intersecting crises we face.... Voters across party lines support President Biden’s vision and the American Job and Family Plans. Let’s not waste time trading the necessary scope and scale of this critical infrastructure package for Congressional Republican votes that have yet to and will never materialize"), and more attention was going to a different New England senator, Budget Committee chair Bernard Sanders of Vermont:

[Democratic] leaders are under increasing pressure from progressives to move a bill unilaterally through the budget reconciliation process in the Senate.

They have quietly taken steps to make that possible in case the talks collapse. Aides to Senators Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, and Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont and the chairman of the Budget Committee, met on Thursday with the Senate parliamentarian to discuss options of proceeding without Republicans under the rules.

That's the second dimension of the administration plan; Schumer's cooperation makes it clear, if there was any doubt, that this is not some maneuver of Sanders's own (as some overexcited Twitterati may have thought). It is gratifying, though, to have a chance to acknowledge that Sanders does know exactly what he's doing, and is very well qualified for the role—after years of feeling a little bad when I had to say I didn't think he would make a very good president, I'm happy to say he has a ton of power right now and deserves it; it doesn't make me giddy, like Elizabeth Warren's power on the Finance Committee, but I am enjoying it. 

But in any case as long as Minority Leader McConnell holds fast to his refusal to permit his troops to vote for an infrastructure plan that costs more than $600 billion or gets all its funding from the taxation of the rich, the bill will have to go through the reconciliation process, under Sanders's direction.

The third dimension, which is getting more or less no attention at all, is that of the legislative earmark, an ancient custom in which individual legislators used to bargain their support for a particular bill by wangling special little gifts for their constituents—that firehouse in Topeka and the like. 

(This song, performed by the late Harry Nilsson and composed by Randy Newman, may be the best single statement ever made about American legislative politics as well as part of  the greatest expression of Newman's genius—Nilsson was just that much better a singer—and the whole album seems to be on YouTube.)

It was eliminated by otherwise tradition-loving Republicans in 2011, ostensibly in order to combat legislative corruption, but in fact (I think) in the hope of putting some teeth into John Boehner's (always doubtful) control over his members by preventing them from dealing with the enemy outside his supervision. Which was of course a total failure. Anyhow, Democrats have now brought earmarks back, under the name of "community projects funding", with some useful anti-corruption measures (the requests have to be entirely public, and legislators have to certify no relatives are going to benefit from the project being funded), and have been tempting Republicans to sign up for some of that stuff:

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, met [in March] with his Republican counterpart as a first step toward restarting their use.

“I never understood why the Republicans did away with them,” DeFazio said in an interview Friday before he met with Rep. Sam Graves (Mo.), the ranking Republican on the committee. “If you’re talking about transportation money, you can give all the money to your state bureaucrats in the state capital, or you can give all the money to the secretary of transportation.”

House Republican members seem to be participating, but Republican senators are decidedly not, since House minority leader McCarthy is the weakest in a long line of weaklings, but Senate minority leader McConnell is not, and they're under his orders not to vote for the Jobs Act under any circumstances whatever, and I see no reason to doubt them. But (as we saw when we were watching Republican House members trying to take credit for the local benefits of the American Rescue plan they voted against) Republican legislators are finding themselves more and more interested in the idea of doing something for their voters.

I should stress that Biden's counter-offer to Republicans is not a bluff. That in itself is an extremely important principle: bluffing doesn't work out. Should the Republicans unexpectedly decide to accept the Democrats' offer he will go along, putting off the reconciliation opportunity for a later moment but gaining the point that Republicans can cooperate. If not, the possibility of Republican cooperation is the thing put off for later, as election season approaches and earmarks look more and more enticing. 

The thing is that, in three-dimensional chess, which is a lot more predictable than 11-dimensional chess, you can evaluate all the likely outcomes, and in all of them in the present scenario, Democrats and voters win: they get all the funding now through reconciliation or much of it now through regular order and the rest through reconciliation later; the tax hike on corporations and earners over $400,000 will go through via reconciliation no matter what; and the return of earmarks will either break McConnell's power now or break it eventually, as legislators begin to get the feel of how nice it is to do something your voters want. Biden's medium-term game is to fund recovery from Covid, revolutionize infrastructure spending, and reform regression in the tax system, and god love him for all that, but his long-term aim is to teach Congress how to work like a normal legislature and stop being so crazy,

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