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Stimulus Watch: Infrastructure Week, for Real?

Remember “Infrastructure Week”? For far longer than a week, reporters, pundits, and policy wonks have been honing in on President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposals and wondering what might become of them. Today, we’re taking a closer look at Biden’s infrastructure plans to see what’s in it for us – for our state, our economy, and our climate.

What’s in Biden’s new infrastructure proposals?
Joe Biden
Photo by Andrew Davey

Hot off his success in getting the American Rescue Plan to the Oval Office for him to sign into law last month, President Joe Biden is following that up with two more bills that we can’t just call “stimulus bills”, but also pertain to infrastructure improvements, economic justice, and even some tax reform. The White House has already released its own list of priorities for the American Jobs Plan, and we’re awaiting more details from them in the coming days on the American Families Plan.

So what’s the deal with all this infrastructure talk? In a marked contrast with former President Donald Trump’s frequent “Infrastructure Week” events that resulted in virtually nothing but cringe-tastic memes, Biden’s American Jobs Plan of a stimulus/infrastructure plan outlines actual investment proposals: renovate 20,000 miles worth of roads and bridges, eliminate all remaining lead pipes and deliver clean drinking water to historically underserved communities, modernize the nation’s electric grid in order to make America’s electric infrastructure more reliable and more prepared for further transition to renewable energy, and invest in rebuilding the nation’s long neglected manufacturing sector and supply chain.

All in all Biden’s infrastructure proposals have a price tag around $2.3 trillion over eight years, and it specifically includes $300 billion for Biden’s manufacturing plan, $621 billion for transportation (and that also includes funding to expand Amtrak’s rail network), $213 for affordable housing, and $380 billion for information technology (IT) programs like electric grid modernization and expanded broadband access. 

Why aren’t these infrastructure bills moving (yet)?
impeachment, Congress, COVID-19, coup, stimulus
Photo by Andrew Davey

As we’ve previously discussed, the U.S. Senate’s filibuster functions as a highly successful logjam that prevents most legislation from advancing regardless of whether a majority of Senators support such legislation. But unlike bills like the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and the For the People Act (Democrats’ omnibus voting rights and anti-corruption bill) that are stuck in the filibuster logjam, Senate Democrats can opt to move one or both of these infrastructure bills through Congress’ extra special process called reconciliation

Just as we saw with the American Rescue Plan earlier this year, Democratic leaders and progressive activists are zeroing in on a small clique of conservative Democrats in Congress (but really, mainly Senators Joe Manchin [D-West Virginia] and Kyrsten Sinema [D-Arizona]) to convince them to opt for reconciliation and/or change the filibuster rules to bypass Republican obstruction and pass Biden’s infrastructure bills while they have the ability to do so. 

Biden has made loud overtures to Republicans to give “compromise” a chance. But with Republicans’ “compromise” offers not even trying to meet Biden (let alone more progressive Democrats in Congress) anywhere near “the middle”, Biden’s bipartisan overtures likely have a far better chance of convincing Sinema and Manchin to join their fellow Democrats to pass something on their own than to convince enough Republicans to cut a mutually agreeable deal. It just remains to be seen what else Biden must do in order for Sinema to remove the “F–k Off” ring and give a thumbs-up.

Why do we need more infrastructure investment? (Hint: We need to look beyond short-term “quick fixes”.)
stimulus
Photo by Andrew Davey

While Nevada’s unemployment rate dropped some more to 8.1% last month, unemployment remains above pre-pandemic levels. When we factor in “gig workers” and the long-term unemployed who are not traditionally counted in the official unemployment rate, we’re likely fairly far away from full employment.

As we’ve been saying for quite some time, the COVID-19 pandemic has served as a rather brutal wake-up call to regions like Southern Nevada who have narrowly relied upon specific sectors like tourism, and upon vague concepts of “growth begets growth”, to prop up our economy. In order to guarantee a more sustainable economy going forward, we’re probably going to have to look beyond new casino resorts on the Las Vegas Strip (sorry, Resorts World) and look for new ways to bring new investment (including new jobs) into Nevada.

Obviously, there are short-term benefits to the kinds of traditional infrastructure projects, such as road repairs and commuter rail projects, that lead to a bumper crop of construction jobs and additional New Deal style jobs corps. But as we look more closely at the White House’s goals for the American Jobs Plan, particularly when it comes to the Biden administration’s willingness to use this infrastructure bill to also act on climate change, we see greater impetus for a new kind of stimulus.

Remember climate change? Yes, it’s still a humanitarian and global security crisis. And yes, we can actually seize the opportunity to renovate our economy by acting on climate change.
Photo by Andrew Davey

In recent weeks, the national media have stumbled upon something that so many of us Nevadans have tracking for some time: The Colorado River has less water than we’re accustomed to seeing, and the American West remains stuck in a mega-drought that’s likely being exacerbated by climate change. While we in Southern Nevada probably have more than enough water to keep chugging along (for now), this serves as another reminder that we can’t rely on the “growth” of the past (see above) to stay afloat.

As President Joe Biden has sought to reassure international partners that America won’t abandon global efforts to curb climate change again, he has also subtly warmed up to a concept that he and his allies sometimes coldly dismissed on the campaign trail in 2019. Though Biden clearly has different labels for his infrastructure proposals than former primary opponents and current U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) have endorsed, and that other progressive members of Congress like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) are now advancing, make no mistake that Biden’s plan provides a new opportunity for him to reach some kind of common ground with progressives and climate activists on the Green New Deal.

Bernie Sanders
Photo by Andrew Davey

Though key differences remain between Biden’s Jobs Plan and progressives’ Green New Deal bills, such as etymology, the timeline for net zero carbon emissions, and whether/when to phase out use of fossil fuels, there are several areas of overlap. Ocasio-Cortez has introduced legislation with Markey to launch a 21st century Civilian Conservation Corps, legislation with Sanders to invest $172 billion on eco-friendly public housing, and legislation with Rep. Cori Bush (D-Missouri) to provide up to $1 trillion for cities, territories, and Native American tribal communities to launch their own Green New Deal programs. 

These policies aren’t that far apart from Biden’s proposals on affordable housing, jobs corps, transportation infrastructure, and climate action. In contrast there’s a huge gap between what Democrats are discussing amongst themselves, and Republicans’ “counteroffers” that look less like attempts at good faith negotiation and more like well publicized trolling.

So what again are Republicans offering, and what do voters really think of all this?
QAnon, Donald Trump, COVID-19, corona scams, This Week in Corona Scams
Photo by Andrew Davey

According to The Washington Post’s new national poll, 60% of Americans say they prefer that Biden compromise with Republicans with only 30% wanting Biden to “try to enact his proposals without major change”, yet the same poll shows 52%-35% support for his overall Jobs Plan and 58%-36% support for Biden’s proposal to raise the corporate income tax rate from 21% to 28% to help finance the Jobs Plan. And in NBC News’ new national poll, Biden’s Jobs Plan enjoys stronger 59%-21% public support. Though there’s broad support for vague concepts like “compromise” and “national unity”, there seems to be firm majority support for Biden actually getting his Jobs Plan passed and done.

In the same Politico story where they highlighted Congressional progressives’ Green New Deal proposals, they also noted House Republicans’ “climate agenda” that was featured during their “Energy Innovation Summit”. This agenda includes “carbon capture technology” that has yet to prove itself as viable, “tree planting” (nice, but nowhere near enough), and the usual complaints about “hot button issues” like any kind of carbon tax. 

Donald Trump
Photo by Andrew Davey

Though much more ink has been spilled over Senate Republicans’ “infrastructure talks”, it’s important to keep some details in mind. Their “infrastructure proposal” only has about ¼ the public investment of Biden’s Jobs Plan and Families Plan, and even that figure may be misleading, as Republicans are counting “unused funds” from previous COVID-19 relief laws and already existing federal transportation funding programs towards their “infrastructure proposal”. And while Senate Republicans’ “infrastructure talks” might not sound as extreme as the more hard-line climate denial we’re seeing among House Republicans, it’s nonetheless noteworthy that they’re insisting on a definition of “infrastructure” that emphasizes carbon-dependent projects (like freeways) over cleaner infrastructure programs that could help America decarbonize our economy.

And finally, there’s this: For all of Manchin’s and other moderate/conservative Democrats’ words of praise for Senate Republicans’ “infrastructure plan”, even Manchin has condemned Senate Republicans’ reliance on regressive “user fees” (beyond the above-mentioned sweep of already existing federal funds) to pay for their proposal. And considering the broad public support for raising corporate taxes versus the probably-not-so-hot support for charging “user fees” that shift more of the tax burden onto working-class Americans, it’s hard to make a political argument for Democrats to agree with Republicans on “user fees” that Republicans could turn around and use against Democrats on the campaign trail next year. (And if you really think they could never be that hypocritical, remember how former President Donald Trump behaved during his final month in office.)

Speaking of Donald Trump, he and his legacy still loom large over… Well, everything in Joe Biden’s presidency, whether he likes it or not.
Donald Trump, impeachment
Photo by Andrew Davey

Here’s where we return to the subject of Donald Trump. During his presidency, Trump held “Infrastructure Week” events that felt like afterthoughts amidst the many crises of his presidency. After his presidency, Congressional Republicans are talking up “infrastructure” while Trump continues to exert control over their party. Trump has already begun to endorse primary challenges to Republican incumbents he deems “not loyal” (to him, that is), and he continues to shower praise on those who do as he says, as we’re continuing to see with the Arizona Republican legislators who are powering ahead with a dangerously unprofessional “audit” of the 2020 election that Trump already lost over five months ago.

Considering how much power Trump still has over the GOP, why are we to expect them to publicly cross Trump in favor of “good faith negotiations” with Biden? Maybe a miracle will occur on Capitol Hill, or maybe we’ll just see a continuation of the same dynamic that’s been in place since Barack Obama’s presidency – a dynamic that only strengthened during the Trump years, a dynamic that culminated in the January 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol, and a dynamic that was only reinforced with Trump evading conviction in the U.S. Senate for crimes that so many of us witnessed on January 6.

Joe Biden
Photo by Andrew Davey

I know this is a lot, so let’s try to boil this down to something more TL/DR friendly: We have real problems with our public infrastructure. President Joe Biden seems interested in long-term solutions, but it remains to be seen whether Democrats in Congress can get on the same page on how to actually get infrastructure legislation passed in a timely manner. And with Republicans in Congress mostly stuck in their dysfunctional relationship with former President Donald Trump, it’s probably a fool’s errand for Democrats to expect them to help pass any kind of infrastructure bill any time soon. 

If Biden is serious about turning his infrastructure bills into law any time soon, he’ll need to act with the urgency that America’s crisis of crises continues to demand. Here’s a helpful hint: It really is this bad, and I’m not just talking about potholes on the roads.

Editor’s Note, and April 28 UPDATE: The White House has released some new details on the American Families Plan, Biden’s third major economic reform legislative proposal. The $1.8 trillion plan includes permanent expansion of the American Rescue Plan‘s expansion of Affordable Care Act insurance tax credits for patients, an extension of the Rescue Plan‘s expanded child tax credit to 2025 (the Families Plan has a total of $800 billion in tax credits), automatic stabilizers to ensure more reliable unemployment insurance (UI) aid along the lines of a proposal that Rep. Susie Lee (D-Las Vegas) and Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D) have introduced, $200 billion for universal pre-school, $109 billion for free community college for any student who wants it, an increase in Pell Grant college student aid by up to $1,400 per year per student, $2.25 billion to expand access to affordable child care along the lines of Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan from last year, and $225 billion to establish a new national paid family leave and paid medical leave program that provides up to $4,000 for workers in need. In the days and weeks ahead, we’ll continue to keep track of the American Jobs Plan’s and the American Families Plan’s journey through Congress.

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