DAVENPORT, Iowa – Davenport's 81-year-old Centennial Bridge across the Mississippi River creaks under the weight of tens of thousands of cars and trucks every day. Rust shows through its chipped silver paint, exposing the steel that needs replacing.
This city's aging landmark is among more than 1,000 structurally deficient bridges in the area. The tally gives Iowa's 2nd congressional district the dubious distinction of having the second-most troubled bridges in the country.
So, it struck some Iowans as strange when the district's Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks voted against a bill that would pour more than $100 million in federal money to repair and replace bridges into southwest Iowa. Miller-Meeks objected to majority Democrats' handling of the bill, never mentioning its contents, a common refrain from the minority that overwhelmingly opposed it.
If anyone in Iowa was surprised that the Republican would oppose money for a glaring local priority, few in Washington were. Strategists and onetime party leaders note it's become so common for lawmakers to prioritize their party's line over district needs that it's hardly mentioned.
“The old all-politics-are-local axiom has been significantly eclipsed by one that says all politics are national,” said Tom Kahn, a 33-year Capitol Hill staff veteran who teaches congressional strategy at American University.
Democrats are banking on voter backlash to this trend. As they press to push through a $2 trillion spending package, following the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, they're hoping voters punish lawmakers like Miller-Meeks for opposing major new investments in health care, climate change mitigation and child care.
But even vulnerable lawmakers like Miller-Meeks — who was elected in 2020 with a winning margin of just six votes — don't appear worried about paying a price.
In New Mexico, Rep. Yvette Herrell, a GOP freshman, voted against the infrastructure bill and its $100 million per state for improving broadband internet access. A quarter of the homes in Herrell’s rural district lacked internet as of 2019.
In California's Central Valley, Rep. David Valadao could have told families of 194,000 children he supported expanding a middle-to-lower-income child tax credit in the Biden administration’s $2 trillion sweeping spending bill. Valadao's agricultural-heavy district has more children whose parents fit the requirements for the monthly $300 per child than that of any Republican targeted by Democrats. Valadao voted against the bill, which passed the House and is now stalled in the Senate after Sen. Joe Manchin stunned fellow Democrats by announcing last weekend that he would not support the bill as is.
Miller-Meeks’ office did not respond to several requests to discuss her vote.
In her written statement issued publicly after the vote, she said she would have supported an infrastructure bill that was not tied to the larger spending package, as Democrats for months worked to move them in tandem.
“I will not support a bill that is directly tied to a multi-trillion dollar reckless tax and spend package,” she said in the statement.
Miller-Meeks and others are offering the procedural explanation, when really they are following the national trend of party loyalty, demonstrating the shift from the time-honored politics of bringing home the bacon, GOP observers said.
“That’s a company line, as I would call it. I’ve seen that by others,” said former New York Rep. Tom Reynolds, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Things have changed. It used to be ‘I brought back a number of things for my district.’”
Now it's, I held firm against the opposition.
That’s due in part to former President Donald Trump’s still-heavy sway over the Republican Party. Trump called for party primary challenges for the 13 GOP House members who backed the infrastructure bill.
Defectors were blasted as “traitors” and “socialists” by some House GOP colleagues, such as right-wing Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton received a voicemail wishing death to him, his family and staff.
“There’s probably still room for people who are making their cases on local issues,” said John Ashbrook, a former aide to Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader. “But there is so much national pressure shaping your image if you’re a House member. Your fate is in the hands of the national mood.”
Miller-Meek had previously asked for money to improve Mississippi River infrastructure. She was among 38 House members from Mississippi River states who wrote to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Dec. 9 asking it to prioritize $2.5 billion for modernizing locks and dams.
The American Road and Transportation Builders Association diagnosed 1,064 of the bridges — 20% — in Iowa's agricultural and industrial 2nd district as structurally deficient. That is, provisionally safe but with chronic repair needs.
Two of them, including Davenport's Centennial, cross the Mississippi in the Quad Cities, a mid-sized, industrial metro area of about 475,000 people. The bridges lace Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, and Rock Island and Moline, Illinois, a national crossroads of river, rail and highway commerce struggling to maintain its status as a farm machinery hub.
Behind Centennial as the most traveled structurally deficient bridge is the 50-year-old Mississippi crossing on Interstate 280, a Davenport bypass that links to Interstate 80, one of the nation’s busiest freight routes.
Paul Rumler, president of the Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce, lobbied Miller-Meeks to support the infrastructure bill. Commerce slows dramatically during the annual repairs on multiple bridges, he said.
In June, the Interstate 280 bridge and the 55-year-old Interstate 80 bridge up river near Davenport were partially closed for repair, pushing westbound traffic back into Illinois for miles.
“Having a long-term predictable federal infusion of funding is helpful so that we can get out of this day-to-day maintenance and think about long-term needs,” Rumler said. “And the Quad Cities is certainly one of those places that has long-term needs.”
Planners are eyeing a new Mississippi River bridge at Interstate 80, a 3,000-mile femoral artery linking metro New York with San Francisco.
Aaron Tennant owns trucking and shipping companies on both the Iowa and Illinois sides of the Mississippi. This month, after six years under construction, a new bridge opened connecting the town of Bettendorf, Iowa, and Moline, Illinois, on Interstate 74. But last summer's delays cost Tennant productivity. It frustrated commuters and added extra stress to older bridges such as Centennial.
The Republican, who describes himself as “very conservative,” says he voted for Trump twice, knows Miller-Meeks well and that “she's done a good job.” But he doesn't understand why she voted against the infrastructure bill.
While the larger social spending package “troubles" him a bit, “Infrastructure funding is unique because that’s one piece I don’t mind having money spent on because it directly creates jobs."
Tennant said he would “have to have a conversation with the congresswoman to understand her position better.”