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It’s Infrastructure Week Again? – A Stimulus Watch Update

“Infrastructure Week: It’s the hallmark of 21st century American politics.” OK, that statement may be a little too hyperbolic. But really, where do we begin with all the recent infrastructure talk that’s now becoming chatter of an actual bill passing the Senate this month?

How about this – We’ll start below with a closer look of the actual infrastructure plan that’s emerging in the Senate, then we’ll assess just how much of a big deal this infrastructure deal really is.

So what exactly is this Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act?
Jacky Rosen, Joe Biden, Catherine Cortez Masto, Congress, infrastructure
Photo by Andrew Davey

Since our last “Infrastructure Weekupdates, we’ve noticed a bit more Sturm und Drang in Washington. Basically, the crafting of what’s now the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (also known as the Sinema-Portman Amendment to H.R. 3684) has amounted to a bizarre bipartisan circus that’s mostly been driven by a small clique of Senators who lack expertise in public infrastructure policy. This helps explain why they’ve been circling around a “framework” that falls short of the $2.59 trillion worth of “hard infrastructure” needs that the American Society of Civil Engineers identified earlier this year, and why it strays far from the broader public demand (as identified in Data for Progress’ June national poll and a more recent national poll from Monmouth University) for a broader infrastructure agenda that includes action on critical matters like climate change and health care affordability.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is completely pointless. As it’s now written, the agreement reached by Senators Kirsten Sinema (D-Arizona), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a larger bipartisan group of eight Senators, and the Biden administration includes a grand total of $550 billion in new federal infrastructure investment. Getting further into details, it includes $110 billion for road construction and repairs, $66 billion for the nation’s rail system, $39 billion specifically for mass transit, $42 billion for airports and seaports, $65 billion to expand high-speed internet access, $7.5 billion for a national electric car charging network, $28 billion for national power grid upgrades, $55 billion for clean drinking water infrastructure, and $67 billion for environmental clean-up and climate mitigation programs.

road, infrastructure
Photo by Andrew Davey

While the investment end of the Sinema-Portman Plan at least has numbers that add up, the “pay-for” section largely doesn’t. Included in their “pay-for” gimmicks are: private activity bonds that double as a loophole to avoid federal prevailing wage law and a new “tax-free investment opportunity” for major Wall Street players; “unused” COVID-19 relief funds; “pension smoothing” that basically amounts to the kind of borrowing against what’s supposed to be guaranteed worker pension plans that got governments like the State of Illinois and the City of San Diego (California) into huge fiscal trouble; the kind of “unemployment fraud protection” that can result in the kind of long delays to unemployment insurance payments that we experienced last year if there’s insufficient investment in unemployment system infrastructure; customs fees; cryptocurrency tax compliance (this one actually has some merit, but again – how will they enforce?); and $56 billion worth of “dynamic scoring” that carries the risk of becoming “budgetary wishcasting” if it’s not conducted properly. 

Oh, and one more thing: Tucked deep within the Sinema-Portman Amendment is a $100 million pilot program to require state and municipal governments that request infrastructure funding under this legislation to “consider” public-private partnerships (or P3), as well as direction for Congress to conduct “Value for Money” analysis on P3 “cost savings”. Basically, if you’ve ever grown angry over toll roads that rack up costs and fail to address the transportation needs of communities they’re supposed to serve, you have plenty of reasons to view claims of P3’s “efficiency” very skeptically.

OK, let’s jump back to the bigger infrastructure deal in the works.

Due to the “vote-a-rama” amendment process, a group of Senators leaving town later this week to attend the funeral of former Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming), a potential for a chain reaction of new COVID-19 infections due to Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) experiencing a breakthrough infection, and the need for one more filibuster-breaking cloture vote before the final up-or-down vote of passage on the actual bill, it looks like the Senate won’t get to the cloture vote until next week at the earliest – and that largely depends on whether or not Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) cooperates with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) on the amendment process and schedule.

From here, things get more interesting, because there is that other side of the Congress we call the House of Representatives. So far this week, progressive Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) both warned that a large contingent of their fellow House Democrats will not support the Sinema-Portman infrastructure plan until Senate Democrats get moving on their tentative “human infrastructure” reconciliation proposal. After all, the Sinema-Portman plan is a “gut and amend” that replaces DeFazio’s own transportation with their own proposal, yet DeFazio has emerged as a seasoned infrastructure point person in the House while this Senate plan has focused more on “moderation and bipartisanship” than infrastructure expertise.

Catherine Cortez Masto, Violence Against Women Act, #MeToo, domestic violence, rape kit backlog, women's rights
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

And of course, there’s also the matter of what’s lacking in the Sinema-Portman plan: elements like carbon pricing and energy/transportation decarbonization that are central to any serious climate action plan; key health care needs like long-term patient premium support and prescription drug cost controls; immigration reform that includes long-term refugee protection and a feasible path to citizenship for immigrants who are currently stuck in some sort of undocumented status; and the kind of tax reform that can actually generate sufficient revenue to pay for infrastructure investment. White House officials and Congressional Democratic leaders have promised a reconciliation package that includes these larger “human infrastructure” needs, and a growing contingent of Congressional Democrats are calling on their colleagues to fulfill this promise.

Over two weeks ago, Senator Jacky Rosen (D) endorsed the use of the “human infrastructure” reconciliation package to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Last week, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D) went on the record and made her case directly to President Joe Biden: “A reconciliation bill that balances border security with a path to citizenship for Dreamers, TPS holders, farm and essential workers will create jobs, boost our economy, and lift up working families across Nevada and the nation. Let’s get this done.”

Let’s keep in mind the bigger picture on infrastructure… And on American democracy.

Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), who attended the immigration reform meeting with Biden alongside Cortez Masto and their fellow Latinx Democrats in Congress, warned, “If we don’t have reconciliation, I’m not sure that there’s a pathway forward.” And on CNN this past Sunday, Ocasio-Cortez issued this challenge to Senate Democrats: “If they approve our reconciliation bill we will approve their bipartisan bill. And if they try to strip immigration reform, if they try to, you know, claw back on child care, climate action, etc., then we’re at an impasse.”

Last week Senator Kyrsten Sinema suggested she can’t support the $3.5 trillion price tag of Democrats’ tentative reconciliation infrastructure plan, but her prior track record points to the likelihood that she and fellow “contrarian conservative Senate Democrat” Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) are more interested in extracting some legislative pound(s) of flesh from the reconciliation plan than destroying it entirely. 

But as we’ve previously discussed, Biden and Congressional Democrats really need to prove to voters that they can “do big things” that actually make a positive difference in people’s lives. While the Sinema-Portman bipartisan infrastructure plan includes some funding for some long-awaited infrastructure improvements, it doesn’t fully solve America’s infrastructure problems on its own, and it doesn’t even touch upon the crisis of the ongoing attacks on voting rights and American democracy in general. Even if Congress finally passes this one bipartisan infrastructure plan, that doesn’t even get them to the bare minimum of what they must do to restore Americans’ faith in our democracy and government.

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