President Joe Biden’s administration will soon begin working in earnest to sell the country on what it describes as a package of transformative investments designed to help keep the U.S. economy competitive on a fast-changing global stage while simultaneously addressing climate change.
Biden will reveal the expected plan, with an estimated $3 trillion price tag, at an event in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, next week. It will be the first step by his administration to keep the promise he frequently made during his presidential campaign last year to help the country “Build Back Better” in the wake of the sharp economic downturn brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
During his first formal press conference as president Thursday afternoon, Biden said he found it “frustrating” that the United States has allowed much of its physical infrastructure to deteriorate.
Concerned that the U.S. lags far behind China and other global economic rivals, Biden promised a proposal that would “rebuild the infrastructure — both physical and technological infrastructure in this country — so that we can compete and create significant numbers of really good-paying jobs.”
A new New Deal?
Even before any details of the plan have been revealed, its rumored expansiveness is drawing comparisons to the New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression in the 1930s.
That combination of government works projects, unemployment relief and financial reforms helped lift the country out of the Depression and reshaped the economy and politics for a generation.
Republicans in Congress, however, reached back to the Roosevelt era themselves, with Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn saying the package sounded like a boondoggle — a term popularized in the 1930s to refer to wasteful government projects that spent taxpayer dollars for political reasons.
Biden’s package will follow on the heels of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which Democrats in Washington pushed through with no support from Republicans. While infrastructure is, nominally at least, a bipartisan issue, there are questions about how much Republican support the president can expect for this new initiative.
Infrastructure is generally considered to be one of the areas most ripe for bipartisan cooperation in Congress. Congressional committees are already working in bipartisan fashion on a major surface transportation bill that would replace existing authorizations that expire in September. In the Senate, the Committee on Environment and Public Works has introduced a bill to overhaul the nation’s water infrastructure.
But both of those bills fit neatly into the mold of traditional infrastructure proposals, while Biden is expected to define infrastructure far more broadly.
What counts as 'infrastructure?'
Biden's plan is expected to contain hundreds of billions of dollars each for the building and maintenance of the sort of thing that usually falls into the infrastructure category: internet broadband access, ports, highways, water and sewer systems, airports, railways, the electrical grid and more. However, there will be an estimated $400 billion directed to new green energy projects, including a national effort to install charging stations for electric cars and trucks.
Other funds would be dedicated to creating the facilities necessary to make affordable, high-quality child care more widely available. The administration reportedly wants to address other issues as well, including the lack of access to medical facilities in some parts of the country.
Michele Nellenbach, vice president of strategic initiatives at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, said widening the number of areas that fall under the banner of infrastructure is one thing likely to cost Biden Republican support.
“That’s where you’re going to lose them,” she said.
The Republicans generally define infrastructure as traditional bricks-and-mortar-type projects, and their response will likely be, Nellenbach said, “No, we don’t want to do all that other stuff.”
Paying for the program
Nellenbach said there are some areas of agreement in Congress on how to fund infrastructure projects. For example, there is a lot of common ground on funding roads and water projects by assessing user fees.
During a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Thursday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg discussed the possibility of replacing the gasoline tax that funds federal highway grants with a “vehicle miles traveled” tax, or VMT tax, to capture user fees from both gasoline-powered and electric vehicles. Representative Sam Graves, the ranking Republican on the panel, indicated his enthusiastic support.
However, Graves also warned the administration about stretching the definition of infrastructure to include other priorities.
“I don’t think the bill can grow into a multitrillion-dollar catchall,” he said. “A transportation bill needs to be a transportation bill, not a Green New Deal. It needs to be about roads and bridges.”
Other elements of the bill could create or enhance dedicated funding sources for particular sectors. But Biden is expected to propose paying for much of the plan by raising taxes on businesses and individuals earning more than $400,000 per year, and that will be difficult to sell to Republican lawmakers.
On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “We’re hearing the next few months might bring a so-called infrastructure proposal that may actually be a Trojan horse for massive tax hikes and other job-killing, left-wing policies."
The specter of China
The administration appears to hope that Republicans can be brought on board by describing the infrastructure push as essential to maintaining the U.S. role as an economic superpower.
Prior to Biden’s appearance on Thursday, Buttigieg raised the specter of China before the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
“We see other countries pulling ahead of us, with consequences for strategic and economic competition,” he said. “By some measures, China spends more on infrastructure every year than the U.S. and Europe combined. The infrastructure status quo is a threat to our collective future. We face an imperative to create resilient infrastructure and confront inequities that have devastated communities.”
Biden’s remarks on infrastructure were not prompted by a reporter’s question. The president segued into the topic after addressing China, saying, “China has an overall goal. And I don't criticize them for the goal, but they have an overall goal to become a leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country. It's not going to happen on my watch, because the United States can continue to grow and expand.”