The meaning of the word “infrastructure” suddenly depends on your politics.
President Joe Biden is using a sleight of hand by crafting a bill that might be traditionally associated with repairs to potholed highways to instead be his latest effort to reshape the US economy and social safety net. His move encapsulates the White House’s own sense of momentum and explains why Republicans are lining up to block his ambitions before they change the character of the country.
In one example, the President has stretched the definition of infrastructure to insert $400 billion in the bill to revolutionize home health care for the elderly and disabled. In another he’s also seeking billions to supercharge America’s development of electric vehicles to fulfill another political priority – the elimination of fossil fuels in the fight against climate change. And, after a year in which millions of workers relied on home internet connections to work remotely, the plan also includes $100 billion to build a high-speed broadband infrastructure that would reach the whole country.
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Biden and his Cabinet members argue that infrastructure undergirds every pillar of American life, from education to energy, and health care to manufacturing and that the need for investment is gargantuan. But the President’s audacity and his generous interpretation of a policy area that Washington has traditionally seen as confined mostly to transportation projects is already sparking a huge clash with his foes on Capitol Hill. After all, one person’s infrastructure plan is another’s left-wing power grab.
In the crucial early exchanges that can define a bill of this size, Republicans sense a chance to portray Biden’s second massive political gamble, following the passage of a $1.9 trillion Covid rescue bill, as the act of tax hiking “socialists” – a message they hope to ride to the recapture of Congress in midterm elections in November 2022.
In red states at least, infrastructure is still what it’s always been.
“When people think about infrastructure, they’re thinking about roads, bridges, ports and airports,” Missouri GOP Sen. Roy Blunt said on ABC News “This Week” on Sunday. “That’s a very small part of what they’re calling an infrastructure package that does so much more than infrastructure.”
The outcome of this duel over definition will likely help dictate the fate of Biden’s presidency and legacy, but also stands to have lasting consequences for the US economy and society as he seeks to boost workers and the middle class.
One country, two visions
The disconnect over infrastructure exposes the huge gulf in perceptions between Republicans and Democrats over the state of the country as the post-pandemic era approaches. It highlights a seminal moment in American politics with a new Democratic President eying a window in history to carve a record that will stand comparison with the great reforming Democrats of the 20th Century. And most fundamentally, the battle over the shape and size of Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure bill announced last week fleshes out the perennial fault line between conservatives and liberals on the role of American government.
The unfolding standoff over the infrastructure bill escalated on Monday even as another threat to its passage came into view. West Virginia’s Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin warned he and several other moderates wouldn’t back Biden’s proposed corporate tax hike from 21% to 28% to help pay for the mega-bill.
The White House will likely have months to try to finesse the package to make it more palatable to the likes of Manchin, a hugely influential figure given the importance of his vote in a 50-50 Senate. But his early trial balloon shows that with Republican votes unlikely for the bill, the action to watch will be inside the Democratic caucus in the Senate itself.
Biden, who was forced to intervene to get Manchin on board to pass the Covid relief bill, has yet to react to the West Virginian’s comment. But as he arrived back from Camp David Monday, the President gave a clear signal that he understands the early debate to define the infrastructure bill could be critical.
“It’s kind of interesting that when the Republicans put forward an infrastructure plan, they thought everything from broadband to dealing to other things was … infrastructure. Now they’re saying that only a small portion of what I’m talking about is infrastructure,” Biden said. “So it’s interesting how their definition has changed but they know we need it.”
Biden’s old Republican Senate sparring partner, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has already made clear the breadth of the bill means it will get no Republican support as conservatives try to define it as a Trojan horse measure concealing a myriad of long-standing liberal priorities.
In Kentucky on Monday he bemoaned “another round of massive spending with a huge tax increase,” and said it would have to be “completely recrafted” to win GOP votes, though the Senate’s parliamentarian handed Democrats a potential advantage with a ruling that could allow them to pass the bill without Republican votes. But it is not yet clear whether they will be able to use it for all or some of the infrastructure bill, a factor that could complicate their hopes of passing it against McConnell’s opposition.
It will not be surprising if Biden has to thread the needle with Democratic senators if the bill makes it through the House. The rise in the corporate tax rate would partially reverse the centerpiece of a previous attempt to remodel the US economy under Donald Trump’s 2017 tax bill, the highlight of the ex-President’s sparse legislative legacy.
Biden’s Cabinet is pushing back hard against the perception that the measure is too wide, too expensive and overturns traditional perceptions of infrastructure.
“At the end of the day, I don’t want us to get lost in the semantics,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
“People can call them whatever they like. At the end of the day, this is a jobs plan, and that’s the President’s focus.” The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, however, conceded that he should have been more “precise” after wildly exaggerating a Moody’s Analytics analysis to say the bill would create 19 million jobs.
‘We need to update understanding of infrastructure’
The infrastructure bill does not completely trash orthodoxy. It hands a windfall to Amtrak that has the often neglected railroad network dreaming of new routes in new states. It overhauls leaden water pipes and upgrades airports and ports where delays cost the economy billions in lost productivity.
A modern interpretation of the term “infrastructure” might also admit the billions the President proposes to spend on making broadband universal for the entire nation – a step that will boost the economy, especially in rural areas.
But a sticking point for critics of the bill is the $400 billion that Biden plans to splash on home and community health care that would overhaul social care in the United States.
“We absolutely do need to update our understanding of infrastructure,” said Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
“Infrastructure at its core is that which enables commerce and economic activity. What could be more fundamental than care giving services? If you think about it – even the people who are building bridges and tunnels need care – for their kids, for their aging parents.”
The alliance says home health care is becoming even more of an economic necessity as the aging of the Baby Boomer generation risks creating an economic drag that better care could counter by allowing more younger family caregivers to stay in the workforce. Making home care jobs more attractive and better paid could result in an important economic benefit in itself. It would also allow more elderly citizens avoid care homes that proved to be incubators of disease during the coronavirus pandemic.
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Such reforms make sense to Democrats who believe in using the power of government to widen economic opportunity and build the infrastructure of a modern, humane society. Deploying federal power to nurture new Green industries also makes sense from such a standpoint since Washington is encouraging innovation crucial to future prosperity. That investments in the care economy and the elimination of fossil fuels also fulfills some of the goals of progressives may help explain the relative détente between left-wing Democrats and a President who prefers to position himself as a centrist.
However, Republicans adopt an opposite philosophical point of view, regarding the use of government power across such a wide arena as antithetical to growth, innovation and the market principles they see as underwriting decades of US prosperity. Conservatives see subsidies for new generation energy tech firms as an un-American approach to picking losers and winners in a free market.
The fight for the proposal in many ways is Biden’s next big power play in the latest struggle between unbridled capitalism and periods of building the liberal social safety net. That dynamic defined US politics through the eras of Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, and could now underwrite another presidency.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the ramifications of the Senate parliamentarian’s ruling.