We can’t accuse our president of not trying to do enough. His first 100 days were barely two-thirds over when he proposed what Peter W. Stevenson called in The Washington Post’s April 1st “The Five-Minute Fix” his “second proposal for a signature piece of legislation – this time focusing on more than $2 trillion in proposed spending on infrastructure and jobs.” But is it the bill we had expected, and why is it so cluttered?
Per Stevenson’s graphic, the bill’s “transportation infrastructure” section includes $115 billion for “highways, bridges, and roads” and $42 billion for “airports, water transit and ports,” adding up to $157 billion or about 7%. If we add the $85 billion for “public transit,” we’re still less than 11%, and would need almost half of the $80 billion intended for “passenger and freight rail” for heavy infrastructure to make up one-eighth of what Joe Biden wants to spend. It’s reasonable to add, under Stevenson’s “infrastructure at home” category, the “clean drinking water” ($111 billion), “high-speed broadband” ($100 billion), and “electrical infrastructure” (also $100 billion), to reach $592.375 billion or 26.3%.
The rest is projects of different kinds. The bill offers $174 billion for “electric vehicles,” which would be marginally acceptable if our federal government, subsidizing and otherwise pushing them for over 40 years with only 4% of auto sales, including hybrids, to show for it, finally gave up if those numbers didn’t greatly change by, say, 2030. I see $50 billion for “infrastructure resilience” (suspiciously vague), $45 billion for “transportation inequities” (subsidies for largely black neighborhoods?), and $30 billion for “other,” but no true infrastructure there. The “at home” section also includes $28 billion of “other,” and extends infrastructure’s meaning to include “affordable and sustainable housing” ($213 billion), “public schools, early-learning centers and community colleges” for $137 billion (perhaps worthy, but in an infrastructure bill?). The same can be said for the remaining four items, “research and development” ($180 billion), “manufacturing and small business” ($300 billion), “workforce development” ($100 billion), and “home and community-based care for elderly and disabled people” ($400 billion).
There is no problem with paying for maintenance we need, but the $1,658,625,000,000 proposed for other things works out to more than $5,000 per American. I can see why it could be the best technique to bundle things together, to allow congresspeople to vote only once and assure enactment of the parts of the bill they like, but is it the fairest to our citizens?
Here we have several different schemes. The core infrastructure proposal, that almost $600 billion, could, after some tweaking, get true bipartisan support and could remind us of the days when legislation often passed with healthy majorities. The others could each stand alone, where Biden would need to choose whether to force them through with little or no Republican support or to soften their content. That could, at least potentially, give us some idea on what is really important to our representatives and, hopefully by extension, to ourselves. It also would prevent people from being required to accept, for example, yet more Amtrak subsidies, about which late columnist Charley Reese said a quarter-century ago “either there is a market for intercity trains or there isn’t,” in order to get clearly needed bridge repairs. It would also let Congress assess the relative value of social programs, and adjust the dollars involved, as they determined which is more important for the 2020s United States, such as more care for older people or better local schools. It could also facilitate some well-needed debate about how much the jobs required should pay. All of this work could be bolstered by comments from constituents as well as by more incisive editorializing.
Separating the ideas seems most logical and effective to me. If I am wrong, what am I not understanding? Please let me know.