Is It Finally Infrastructure Week?

Update August 2: Weekend negotiations eliminated user fees that were troublesome to Democrats, according to AP, leaving the bill in precarious straights with deficit hawks. This will be an exciting week for infrastructure priorities — and probably will not be the end of the story.

Original Post Published July 29:

Yesterday, negotiators hammered out a deal on a bipartisan bill, which includes $550 billion in new spending. Last evening, the Senate voted to move the bill forward by a vote of 67 to 32, with 17 Republicans joining all the Democrats to begin debate on the measure.

The bill is not fully hammered out yet, and the Congressional Budget Office, which examines bills to see how much they will cost, has not yet produced a final number, but it appears that the bill will cost about $1.2 trillion over 8 years. It puts together unspent monies from other programs and from new “user fees” to pay for it. To appease Republicans the original plan to increase funding for the IRS to enable it to crack down on tax cheats was stripped from the deal. These tax cheats cost the United States about $1 trillion a year. Instead, the plan of the bipartisan negotiators is again to use regressive user fees rather than making the wealthy pay their fair share. 

The White House said the bill would create about 2 million “good-paying” jobs a year for the next decade. It provides $110 billion for roads and bridges, $39 billion for public transit, $66 billion for passenger rail, $73 billion to upgrade the electrical grid; $7.5 billion for electrical vehicle chargers on highway corridors, $17 billion for rebuilding our ports, $50 billion for addressing climate change and cybersecurity, and $55 billion for clean drinking water. 

The bill also calls for $65 billion to expand broadband internet, tying all Americans into the same grid and lowering prices. In the White House statement, Biden explicitly tied the expansion of broadband to the nation’s 1936 expansion of access to electricity through the Rural Electrification Act. Through that act, the government tried to level the playing field between urban Americans who had electricity through private companies and rural Americans who did not because the profit margins weren’t high enough to make it worthwhile for private companies to bring electricity to them. Electrification not only enabled rural Americans to enjoy the new products created in the early twentieth century, but also created a new industry of consumer products that helped the post–World War II economic boom.

This bipartisan bill remains precarious. It is always possible that the Republicans cannot muster the 10 votes they need to pass the bill, and continuing to tinker with it is simply a way to run out the clock on the congressional session so that the Democrats cannot get the infrastructure deal they want so badly. 

From the other direction, progressive Democrats have made it clear they will not accept this bill, which focuses on “hard” infrastructure like roads and bridges, unless it goes along with a larger “soft” infrastructure bill that focuses on human infrastructure. There are not enough Republican votes to pass that second measure over a Senate filibuster, so it will have to pass the Senate through budget reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority. But that means it will need all 50 Democratic votes, and Senator Kyrsten Sinema said she does not support the bill in its current form. She apparently wants adjustments, but what they are and whether progressives will accept them remains unclear.

Still, the idea of this new, sweeping infrastructure package becoming reality is huge. Former President Donald Trump, who wanted badly to pass an even larger infrastructure bill during his own term of office but who couldn’t do so, has responded to the idea that Biden might manage to pull this off with a demand that Republicans scuttle the entire thing. That several prominent Republicans are ignoring Trump illustrates the potential of this deal to weaken the Trump supporters in the party as the weight begins to shift toward measures that are popular with voters and away from the party’s more common obstructionism.

Adapted from historian Heather Cox Richardson’s daily blog
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