When Republicans had the trifecta—control of the White House, Senate and House of Representatives—they failed to pass any infrastructure bill, the largest of which was 200 billion in federal dollars. When Democrats had the trifecta, they succeeded in passing a bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. Why the difference in outcome between the parties?
Candidate Trump in 2016 and candidate Biden in 2020 both made funding national infrastructure a campaign priority. So, why the difference in outcomes? Short answer: flexibility on taxes.
Many Republicans are straitjacketed by their oath not to raise taxes. The core challenge with every infrastructure plan considered by the Trump administration was Republican disagreements on who would pay for increased federal funding of infrastructure. That is how the Trump White House ended up proposing a $200 billion “public and private”-funded infrastructure bill where much of the government funding was expected to come from cities and states, not the federal government.
Opposition from representatives of cities and states helped to tank that proposal. The Democrats, by contrast, were not shy about raising federal taxes on the wealthy and increasing other federal taxes to help pay the costs of their infrastructure proposal.
Of course, flexibility on taxes was not the only difference. Unlike Trump’s hands-off demand of congressional Republicans that “we need to get it done!” Biden did a lot of listening and negotiating and only at the very end pressured conflicted holdouts to support a fragile compromise that nearly every Democratic member could support.
Congressional members who met with Biden said that he was knowledgeable about the bill’s details and understood why they might feel conflicted in supporting such an ambitious and costly piece of legislation. He nonetheless felt that the benefits to the economy in the short-term from the 1 million-job stimulus and in the long-term from restoring the national transportation and electricity grids and extending broadband access to rural areas were worth the political risks.
Biden’s persistent, supportive guidance helped to bridge philosophical differences within the Democratic Party and helped to pass the largest federal public works legislation since Roosevelt’s New Deal.