The High Cost of Bipartisanship

President Biden speaks to reporters after a meeting on a bipartisan infrastructure deal outside the White House, June 24.


Sarah Silbiger – Pool Via Cnp/Zuma Press

Political types often complain there isn’t enough compromise and cooperation in Washington. Fiscal conservatives—to the extent we still exist—think there’s too much. I’d argue that the only thing that’s truly bipartisan these days is spending money. Exhibit A is the bipartisan infrastructure bill that received President Biden’s blessing on Thursday.

For a while it was unclear if a deal could be struck. Lawmakers have primarily been scrapping over the so-called pay-fors, Beltway-speak for the measures that might, at least on paper, raise the money for new spending. This is a regular hurdle to agreements in Washington, but not because of any sense of fiscal responsibility. Democrats only want to raise taxes on whoever they currently deem “the rich”; Republicans don’t like raising taxes on anybody. And neither party has any appetite for reducing spending even to offset increases elsewhere.

But the dirty secret is that politicians really don’t have to pay for new spending. Indeed, they rarely do—and even when they make a token effort, it usually involves accounting tricks such as “pension smoothing” and “changes in mandatory programs.” (If you don’t have any clue what either of those things mean, don’t worry. Most members of Congress don’t either.)

Those of us familiar with the spending process saw a sign last week that an infrastructure deal was probably coming: Republicans suggested that they wouldn’t allow the pay-fors to prevent a deal. Instead, the discussions shifted to forming agreements on how not to pay for the bill: Democrats agreed to GOP demands not to raise the corporate tax, while Republicans abandoned proposals on gasoline-tax increases and fees on electric vehicles.

With that, the fix was in. Once negotiations in Washington turn exclusively on deficit spending, deals become much easier to accomplish. Plus, with 1,000 billion dollars to spread, there was plenty of money to satisfy everyone. No wonder that one high-profile lobbyist called the infrastructure deal “Christmas.”

There used to be rules against increasing spending without paying for it. But this so-called PayGo rule from the 1990s expired in 2002. And though Democrats made a halfhearted attempt to reimpose it in 2010, the Congress regularly votes to ignore what spending restraints still exist.

Does this country need new infrastructure? Absolutely. America needs it so badly that it shouldn’t be anathema to suggest that we should pay for it. Or that Congress should give infrastructure priority over other spending. Are infrastructure banks and public-private-partnerships good ways to make the most of federal funding? Yes. But those things help stretch dollars. They don’t create new revenue.

Bipartisanship has value. But it comes at a price. And new debt is nothing to be celebrated.

Mr. Mulvaney was director of the Office of Management and Budget, 2017-20.

Journal Editorial Report: Bernie Sanders’s $6 trillion of spending is the real game in town. Image: Sarah Silbiger/Pool Via Cnp/Zuma Press

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Appeared in the June 28, 2021, print edition as ‘The Cost of Bipartisanship.’


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