If you’ve opened up Twitter over the past two weeks, you’ve probably seen some mention about a bill that could make or break Biden’s presidency. At 2,740 pages long, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act details every infrastructure talking point from Biden’s 2020 campaign. No one has enough time to read it, so let us explain it to you.
Oct. 1, 2021, was supposed to be the last day of negotiations on the bill in the House of Representatives, but Washington lawmakers had an eventful day as it turned into a postponement of proceedings. The postponement was due to the continued negotiations around a separate bill called the Build Back Better Act, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Like many of his predecessors’ campaign promises, one of Biden’s was a renewed investment in infrastructure. Unlike many of his predecessors, President Biden may actually pass an infrastructure bill. Negotiations around the bill began at the beginning of this summer and passed the Senate on Aug. 10, 2021, with all 50 Democratic votes and 19 Republican votes.
Infrastructure is a uniquely bipartisan issue, so why has it taken so long to get anything done? The answer comes down to money. “When political leaders allocate money, there’s a strong tendency to kind of deal with immediate emergencies and deal with what constituents want today, as opposed to making a longer-term investment that secures that infrastructure,” said Professor Emeritus of Civil and Environmental Engineering Joseph Schofer.
Schofer explained that our infrastructure is in decent shape, but “we’re catching up because we haven’t spent the resources necessary to maintain our public infrastructure in good condition in the past years.”
Now to the politically sexiest part of the bill: bridge and highway improvement. While it is important to keep our bridges safe, Schofer emphasized the importance of setting strict standards for determining which bridges need to be replaced. These standards ensure money is put only into bridges with structural concerns. On the topic of highways, Schofer encouraged lawmakers not to take the closest solution, but rather to think about long term forward-looking solutions.
While not as politically sexy as bridges and roads, the section of this bill dealing with broadband internet is just as important. It requires federal funding recipients to provide lower cost internet services and lays the groundwork for a permanent program to help low-income families get internet access. Last but certainly not least, this bill promotes clean energy through investing in electric vehicles and power infrastructure.
Sounds like some good ideas, right? Turns out the controversy is not with the infrastructure bill itself, but rather the Build Back Better Act (BBB). The BBB is a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill that addresses various social policy issues such as free community college, lower prescription drug costs and universal childcare.
In an August letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus shared that a majority of their members would not support the infrastructure bill until the BBB was passed in the Senate. The caucus is a group of 95 representatives and one senator who share a similar agenda and often vote together. The Progressive Caucus made this demand to ensure that their policies get passed by tying the BBB to the infrastructure bill because literally everyone wants the infrastructure bill passed.
When Biden went to the Hill on Oct. 1, he sided with the progressives that the BBB should be passed with the infrastructure bill. More importantly, Biden campaigned and won on the Build Back Better agenda, so he needs to pass it to fulfill his campaign promises.
Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), two conservative Democrats, are another story. Sinema has not interacted with the press and will not publicly state why she is not voting in favor of BBB, even when confronted about it in the bathroom. Manchin, on the other hand, has made it clear from the comfort of his houseboat that he will not vote for any bill costing more than $1.5 trillion.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), leader of the Progressive Caucus, has said that the Caucus wants to “get [its] priorities in and then [it] will figure out the actual cost.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) suggested funding programs for only five years instead of the proposed ten to secure Manchin’s vote.
At the end of the day, the future of the infrastructure bill is unclear, so let’s talk about what will happen in the coming weeks.
The major concern for this bill is the cost. As it stands, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that this bill will add $256 billion to the deficit. This is a major problem brought up by House Republicans who are currently being encouraged to vote against the infrastructure bill.
Funding the infrastructure bill is also a concern of Professor Schofer, who wants to see long-term funding for infrastructure programs.
“I don’t think there’s an emphasis on tomorrow,” Schofer said about the bill. He emphasized the important role of infrastructure in adapting to a changing world and addressing issues of equity and climate resilience. Even if the infrastructure bill passes, there is still work to be done to rethink our infrastructure moving forward.
“The challenge is to break that pattern and find a different way,” Schofer said.