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Infrastructure Watch: Build Back Better… Soon?

After months of delays, prolonged negotiations, and confusing standoffs, the U.S. House is finally poised to pass the Build Back Better Act this weekend. Senate Democratic leaders are also promising to pass the Build Back Better Act by the end of the year. Is this too good to be true, or have Democrats finally read the memo? 

WARNING: This story contains some adult language, and some discussion of violence and terrorism. Reader discretion is advised.
Jacky Rosen, Joe Biden, Catherine Cortez Masto, Congress, infrastructure
Photo by Andrew Davey

Last time we checked in on the seemingly never-ending “Infrastructure Week”, the House passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (or the “bipartisan law”) on a 228-206 vote. One of the conditions that House progressives negotiated in exchange for (the vast majority of) their votes was for conservative Democrats to commit to voting for the Build Back Better Act (or the “reconciliation bill”) once the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) releases a fiscal score for Build Back Better and that score aligns with President Joe Biden’s assurance that it won’t worsen the budget deficit.

In recent days, the White House has been preparing for an inauspicious CBO score that dings Congressional Democratic leaders’ budgetary maneuvers in Build Back Better. Yet while an unfavorable CBO score may prove to be catnip for conservative Democrats who never wanted to commit to Biden’s full infrastructure agenda in the first place, it appears that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) has assembled enough Democratic votes to finally pass Build Back Better this weekend. 

As has become customary for most major Democratic Party backed legislation, Reps. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas), Susie Lee (D-Las Vegas), and Steven Horsford (D-North Las Vegas) all voted for the November 6 motion to prepare for a final vote on Build Back Better, while Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Carson City) voted against. The Nevada delegation voted similarly on the “bipartisan law”, even though 13 Republicans ultimately voted for it (and six Democrats voted against). And all three of Nevada’s House Democrats are expected to vote for final approval of Build Back Better, while Amodei is expected to continue voting against it. 

“Honestly, it’s a historic bill. It’s the most significant investment in infrastructure since the building of our interstate highway system.” 
– Senator Jacky Rosen, on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act
Nevada Democrats, infrastructure, Build Back Better
Photo by Andrew Davey

Just before President Joe Biden signed the “bipartisan law” on Monday, U.S. Senator Jacky Rosen (D) held a press call to tout its local benefits. According to a fact sheet provided by Governor Steve Sisolak’s (D) office, Nevada can expect: $2.5 billion for federal-aid highway apportioned programs, $459 million for public transportation, $403 million for water infrastructure, $293 million for airport improvements, $225 million for bridge replacement and repairs, $100 million for broadband infrastructure, $38 million for the expansion of electric vehicle charging stations, $12 million in cybersecurity infrastructure, and $8.6 million for wildfire prevention. 

According to Rosen, “Honestly, it’s a historic bill. It’s the most significant investment in infrastructure since the building of our interstate highway system.” She continued, “It’s a jobs bill. It will create thousands of well-paying union jobs here in Nevada.”

Rosen particularly highlighted the $65 billion (total national) broadband component of the “bipartisan law”: “Nearly 10% of Nevadans live in areas with no usable broadband internet. 15% of Nevadans have little or no internet access. About 70% of Nevadans only have one option for internet service. All of this leads to limited availability, spotty reliability, and high costs.”

Is this really a “big f—ing deal”, or a somewhat bigger than usual highway bill?
road, infrastructure, Build Back Better
Photo by Andrew Davey

As we’ve sought to explain this whole time, there’s plenty to notice and appreciate in the “bipartisan bill”. However, this does not necessarily make the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act “revolutionary”, a “game changer”, or a “big fucking deal”. 

In fact, as Governing Magazine’s Jake Blumgart details, over half of the “bipartisan bill” consists of routine highway bill reauthorizations. Going by Sisolak’s office’s estimate, 61.9% of the expected “bipartisan bill” funding for Nevada was always bound to happen as long as Congress passed another highway bill. While the total $105 billion in rail funding is more than Amtrak and local commuter rail systems have received in a while, the vast majority of “bipartisan bill” transportation funding still goes to roads – and there’s no requirement that state and local governments invest first in road repairs before building new roads for new outer suburban and exurban sprawl. Though the Biden administration has touted programs like Vision Zero, urban community re-connections, and tree plantings, the Senate cut down the total funding so low that only a small handful of municipalities will ultimately benefit from these pilot programs

stimulus, Build Back Better, infrastructure
Photo by Andrew Davey

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, America needs an additional $2.588 trillion in infrastructure investment just to allow for sufficient repairs and adequate overall condition. The “bipartisan law” only contains about $550 billion in new infrastructure investment, or about 21% of how much more we actually need. 

Just to further clarify, this is not some “idle complaint” or an “excuse to do nothing”. This is a reality check. When Democrats face increasingly virulent opponents who continually “flood the zone with shit” to manipulate media narratives, a somewhat larger than usual highway bill probably isn’t enough to overcome the flood of excrement that’s already overwhelming us all.

What does Steve Bannon have to do with this? Actually: a whole lot!

In the immediate aftermath of the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections, some Democratic politicians and national media pundits insisted that Democrats fared so poorly because House progressives delayed a “bipartisan bill” vote for so long that they somehow “denied Biden a win” before the elections. Yet as Inside ElectionsRyan Matsumoto has pointed out, Biden’s approval rating has remained underwater since the House’s November 6 infrastructure votes. And as we just explained above, the “bipartisan law” is a mixture of routine highway bill funding, some extra transportation funding, some extra funding for water and internet infrastructure, and a smattering of pilot programs that is not particularly designed to give Democrats an immediate or massive political benefit.

That’s why we shouldn’t be particularly surprised that the pomp and circumstance of Biden’s “bipartisan law” signing were quickly buried in the press under a flood of Republicans’ wild and crazy and reckless and dangerous publicity stunts: Steve Bannon putting on a show with his arrest for refusing to comply with congressional subpoenas, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona) shitposting death threats against Biden and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), former President Donald Trump making more excuses for his militia allies’ mission to murder his own Vice PresidentMike Pence – on January 6, the nonstop pundit shitposting over “wokeness” and “critical race theory“, and the astroturf #LetsGoBrandon movement. 

As we regularly say around these parts, this did not “come out of nowhere”. Fascist strategist Steve Bannon has said so himself: Bannon boasted in 2018 about his and Trump’s strategy to “flood the zone with shit” – or as Gaslit Nation’s Sarah Kendzior and Andrea Chalupa call it, “covering up crimes with scandals”. It’s been over ten months since January 6, and the leaders of the attempted coup to overthrow American Democracy have thus far gotten away with it. Whatever excuses that the Biden administration and the Justice Department have for ignoring or downplaying this still ticking time-bomb threatening our country, this whole “strategy” has already begun to backfire in spectacular fashion as the lead insurrectionists themselves shit all over Biden’s “bipartisan infrastructure law”.

Note to Democrats: It’s not good enough to “talk about popular ideas”. The deeds must match the words. 
Joe Biden, stimulus, Build Back Better, infrastructure, infrastructure watch
Photo by Andrew Davey

As we sought to explain a month ago, Democrats’ possibly only best chance of surviving the 2022 and 2024 election most likely involves fulfilling their 2018 and 2020 campaign promises, thereby proving to voters that they can govern well and deliver real benefits. Though this alone may not fix all their political woes, at least this can help restore voters’ trust in them, and in American Democracy in general. 

As we’ve been explaining for some time, the bulk of Biden’s “Build Back Better” campaign promises now sit in the Build Back Better Act. But even here, it only does so much: It hardly touches the affordable housing crisis, it doesn’t include any direct carbon pricing to strike cogently on climate change, it doesn’t directly address Americans’ stagnant wages, its second largest provision is a tax cut primarily for the wealthy and upper middle-class, and it doesn’t include any direct democracy protection like voting rights and anti-corruption enforcement. Yet with all that being said, there’s still plenty in the current iteration of the Build Back Better Act: $555 billion for renewable energy and additional climate action, $400 billion for universal Pre-K and child care for six years, $200 billion for another year of the enhanced Child Tax Credit, and $165 billion to further expand the Affordable Care Act’s patient premium support subsidies (meaning lower cost or no-cost health insurance through 2025). 

While the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has some tangible benefits, it’s still ultimately a somewhat larger highway bill. The Build Back Better Act probably amounts to Democrats’ last chance to fulfill many of Biden’s campaign promises before the 2022 election, unless Senate Democrats fix the filibuster that acts as a blockade on policies like voting rights, immigration reform, and minimum wage that have thus far been forbidden under reconciliation rules. Without Build Back Better and Senate filibuster reform, Democrats are likely left with the fast-fading American Rescue Plan and a large highway bill and a laundry list of unfulfilled campaign promises while Republicans continue to “flood the zone with shit” all the way to the midterm election and beyond.

“I’m confident we will pass [Build Back Better] by the end of the year.”
– Senator Jacky Rosen
Jacky Rosen, infrastructure, Build Back Better
Senator Jacky Rosen, Photo by Andrew Davey

Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) promised that the Senate will pass the Build Back Better Act once the House sends them the bill. During her press call on Monday, Senator Jacky Rosen echoed Schumer: “We’ll see the final text. We’re talking about it in our caucus all the time. I’m confident we will pass [Build Back Better] by the end of the year.”

Though Rosen has often positioned herself as a more moderate and bipartisan deal-making Democrat, Rosen nonetheless has regularly committed to ushering Build Back Better past the finish line. In a cogent rebuke to certain media pundits and political operatives who have attempted to use fears of inflation to sink Build Back Better, Rosen stated, “The reconciliation bill is going to lower costs and cut taxes for millions of Americans.” She then specifically cited child care and Pre-K and health care as real-world examples of how this will work.

We may be at the point where this kind of verbiage sounds so cliche, but it nonetheless must be said: The next six weeks may very well make or break Biden’s presidency, the future of the Democratic Party, and the future of this very country. If Schumer and Rosen prove themselves and their colleagues correct, they may soon point to actual goods actually being delivered to constituents. If they don’t, then not even favorable redistricting may be enough to save their House colleagues from the coming red-black tide.

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