Biden’s radical infrastructure plan could rebuild America’s foundation

By Charlotte Robinson

TRADITIONALLY, US Presidents can only expend so much political capital in their first few months before Congressmen turn their attention to the midterm elections and their re-election campaigns.

At $1.9 trillion, the Covid-19 stimulus package already dwarfs anything previously passed by Congress – but with the introduction of The American Jobs Plan, Joe Biden is looking to eke out that capital and go even bigger.

The $2.25 trillion plan is designed to invest in America’s future; to create millions of jobs, to catch up with the likes of China and Japan, and rebuild its decaying infrastructure.

The $20 trillion-strong US economy relies on an extensive infrastructure network that was built decades ago, mostly by more than a dozen New Deal agencies created by Franklin D.Roosevelt. Long before Reagan declared the nine worst words in the English language to be “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help”, FDR ploughed government funds into building and improving tunnels, roads, sidewalks, viaducts, and much more.

Today many of these are crumbling, although Richard Geddes, professor and Founding Director of the Cornell Program in Infrastructure Policy, told Redaction Report that this varies sector by sector.

“Freight rail, for example, is in pretty good shape”, he said, but when it comes to roads, bridges, airports, drinking water systems, and wastewater treatment systems, “you see more deterioration”.

The US is the richest country on earth, and yet it ranks 13th in terms of the quality of its infrastructure according to the World Economic Forum. Geddes said: “We have the wealth to do it but there’s something wrong with the political incentives.

“Often (politicians) focus on building something new, because you’re thinking of the next election. At the expense of the maintenance of the old stuff, which doesn’t make the news.”

Though the plan includes $621 billion for conventional infrastructure projects, it also includes $213 billion on affordable housing, $400 billion for the care economy, and $111 billion on ensuring safe drinking water.

As well as funding for eliminating racial and gender inequalities, childcare facilities, climate-focused research, charging stations for electric vehicles, and bringing high-speed broadband to all Americans.

Republicans have criticised Democrats for trying to jam in social programs which have no business in an infrastructure plan – which is an obvious, if perhaps ineffective position to take given its popularity amongst Americans. Geddes argues, however, that this amalgamation of programs could “dilute the focus” of the plan when it goes to Congress. 

He added: “Childcare, for example, is important, but it’s a very different set of policies to civil infrastructure.

“There’s a different set of groups involved, that have existed for many years, and I think it makes it difficult to pass a serious, solid set of infrastructure bills.”

The consensus in Washington DC is that Democrats are combining several different areas of policy into one bill in order to ultimately push it through under budget reconciliation – a procedure that circumvents the 60-vote threshold of the Senate filibuster.

Expanding the traditional idea of infrastructure will indeed make the plan harder to pass, at least with any bipartisan support. But Geddes also points out that what is considered by some as social programs, such as creating caregiving jobs, are considered by some scholars as “social infrastructure”, because they are in the public sphere as well.

The plan earmarks $400 billion to strengthen caregiving for ageing and disabled Americans, expanding access to long-term care services under Medicaid, and raises the wages of home health workers.

There’s also a focus on education: $48 billion for a programme including job training courses at community colleges, apprenticeships, and career pathway programs for school students, $12 billion for workforce development – with calls for plans to train the formerly incarcerated – and $40 billion for retraining dislocated workers in sectors such as clean energy.

It’s not surprising that for the GOP, this plan reads like a manifesto for massive social change. When the bill goes to Congress, Republicans will not be at the ready with their pens to sign it, but instead make some rather large corrections.

Broadband could be one area of agreement. “There was awareness before, but Covid really drove it home in the US,” Geddes said.

“People have realised that there are huge gaps in communities access to high speed internet”. It’s something Biden’s plan seeks to remedy with an $100 billion investment.

Geddes makes the point that “the history of infrastructure is really the history of ensuring that no communities are left out”.

When applying this logic to the fields of climate change, the care economy, and ending racial and gender disparities, the Democrats can make the case that all parts of the plan are not only necessary, but do in fact fall under the umbrella of infrastructure.

But just how difficult will it be to pass? The Democrats, of course, currently control both houses of Congress, but unsurprisingly the more centrist senator Joe Manchin (D) is proving to be a stumbling block in negotiations. Manchin is thought to be the 50th vote needed to avoid a GOP filibuster, but is keen to remain in talks with Republicans for the time being – which could result in a scaled-back plan.

So far there have been bipartisan negotiations in the Oval Office, but some political commentators think Biden is just paying lip-service to his vision of unity. This is possible, and eventually it will come down to a question of what does Biden want his legacy to be more – consensus, or an overhauling of the US economy?

The American Jobs Plan undoubtedly sets out to accomplish a lot, but given the context of Covid-19 and its impact on the economy, it’s difficult to view it as too much. That said the economy is expanding, and the US has seen a bounce in consumer spending.

But in a country where nearly 10 million people are unemployed, and it’s very houses, roads, and sidewalks are rapidly deteriorating, the nine words Americans may want to hear right now are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help’.

Featured Image: Gage Skidmore @Flickr

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