A view of the U.S. Capitol in Washington. REUTERS/Erin Scott

Congress is nearing a crucial decision. It can enact a bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan that will upgrade roads, power and water systems, broadband and other critical priorities. Or, it can surrender to purists on the left and right who oppose the plan because it does too little or too much.

The need is urgent. For decades, the nation has ignored or minimally patched its crumbling infrastructure.

California’s examples confront us daily. Overwhelmed freeways wreak untold damage on our economy and quality of life. Our struggling power grid relies on rolling blackouts to limp along. Our water supplies are reaching a crisis stage, with reservoirs at record lows.

Given the public support for infrastructure improvements, one would think this is an easy vote for Congress, certainly for California’s 53 U.S. House members and two senators. But the same hyper-partisanship that has bedeviled our politics and gridlocked our government for years is threatening to do it again. If that happens, we’ll extend our dismal record of refusing to launch a major infrastructure initiative back to when the Interstate highway system was built during the Eisenhower administration. 

I know a little about these kinds of negotiations. Yes, a lot has changed since my time in the House of Representatives in the mid-1990s. But one major mathematical fact has not:  Nothing can pass a closely divided House and Senate (where the minority wields the filibuster) without some bipartisan support.

I didn’t like it any more than today’s lawmakers do, but I accepted the inevitable: When crafting legislation, everyone goes away a little unhappy and a little happy.  If you demand all or nothing, you will get nothing. Every time. 

That’s why I voted for a major, closely contested budget bill that omitted several important local projects and included a controversial tax increase that directly impacted my constituents. As a Democrat in a mostly Republican district, I knew I’d pay a political price. But it was the right thing for the country.

Happily, I also worked on some successful bipartisan measures, such as funding Border Patrol agents and the creating the Sentri Lane, the successful commuter route  with Mexico.
I was part of the “Penny-Kasich caucus,” an informal working group headed by then-Reps. Tim Penny (D-MN) and John Kasich (R-OH). It was a forerunner of today’s House Problem Solvers Caucus,  a more formal (and successful) bipartisan organization.  Kudos to our congressman Scott Peters for being a member.

The Problem Solvers Caucus played a key role in resurrecting the infrastructure negotiations that derailed in early June. A related bipartisan group of senators may now control the proposal’s fate.

Recent polling by the non-partisan group No Labels, partnering with pollsters at HarrisX, found that residents of Peters’ district overwhelmingly prefer Democrats and Republicans working together rather than Democrats ramming through legislation without GOP support.

It will be tragic if the infrastructure package fails. As the minority party that can kill legislation with the Senate filibuster, Republicans must put country ahead of party and help America start repairing its dilapidated infrastructure.

Democracy is hard work. It takes an involved electorate and representatives willing to compromise. Dictatorship is “easy”—no compromise necessary! If I were a dictator, I long ago would have mandated high-speed rail in California.

Too many of us seem willing to give up on the type of democracy our forefathers envisioned. They reward politicians who posture like demagogues and proudly proclaim they will never compromise.

America should not give up on our democratic system.  Our elected officials must keep working for the public interest. Enacting the bipartisan infrastructure package is a great place to start. 

San Diego resident Lynn Schenk is a former member of Congress and was chief of staff to Gov. Gray Davis. She currently serves on the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

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