What is the difference between bad policy and dangerous policy? I think that no matter where you are on the political or ideological spectrum, there is a significant difference. Bad policy is policy you dislike and disagree with, but which falls within comprehensible or acceptable parameters. You, liberal or conservative, believe the policy you think is bad will have adverse consequences—but you also think those consequences can be reversed with better choices once the public sees and experiences the mistakes that have arisen from it. That is, in fact, what politics is about.
The infrastructure bill that passed the Senate in August and the House in November—in both cases with crucial if limited Republican support—is an example of bad but not dangerous policy, in my view. It throws money around like confetti at a terrible time for money-throwing, when inflation is on the rise. But there have been bills like this before, and there will be bills like this again, especially when it comes to spending on public works.
In 1987, Ronald Reagan actually vetoed a highway bill that passed a newly Democratic-dominated Senate (Republicans had had the majority for six years after Reagan’s blowout 1980 election until the 1986 midterms) on the grounds of its profligacy. Then he had his veto overridden—a terrible blow to a president’s credibility—when 13 GOP senators decided they wanted taxpayer money spread around their states more than they wanted to hew to principle and restraint.
To show how bipartisan, or even nonpartisan, the love of infrastructure spending can be, consider this sentence from an inaugural address: “We will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation…rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.” That was Donald Trump, 2017. There was a huge fight in Trumpland during the transition period after the 2016 election when populists in his camp, led by Steve Bannon, wanted Trump to seize on infrastructure as a way of fulfilling his populist message—spending in America on America.
It would have been an interesting and unconventional gambit that might have thrown Democrats on the defensive. It would have given them a Hobson’s choice between supporting a president they wanted to run out of town or voting against a big-spending, big-government plan right out of their most luxuriant dreams. But Trump, for whatever reason, didn’t go for it. Had he gone for it, most of those who voted against the 2021 infrastructure bill would have voted in the affirmative.
It would have been bad policy then, too. But understandable within the classic boundaries of the American seesaw between the Democrats and the Republicans.
So what is dangerous policy? Committing $2 trillion to $4 trillion in entirely new spending in what would be the most radical expansion of the size and reach of the federal government in six decades—that is dangerous.
Creating giant new child-care entitlements and thereby empowering the public-education establishment that has become the national object lesson in bureaucratic self-dealing—dangerous. The semi-permanent return of national welfare 25 years after it was ended by Bill Clinton—dangerous. Direct federal construction of supposedly affordable housing that will only inflate housing prices and make homes less affordable—dangerous.
The passage of the infrastructure bill with Republican support (19 senators, 13 members of the House) is just an example of bad policy becoming law in response to normal political pressures. It would have been better if it hadn’t happened, but it’s something we know we can live with. The intrusions on and alterations in ordinary American life in the proposed “Build Back Better” bill is dangerous policy, and we will be heading down an irreversible path into a bleaker American future if (and I don’t think this will happen) it passes.
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