Thursday, July 29, 2021

It's Still Not There


City of 2050, credit to VRayGuide/CGarchitecht.

Well, so, the Senate has agreed to consider the bill that it refused to consider last week because it didn't exist yet, although it still, in point of fact, doesn't exist:

The 67-to-32 vote, which included the support of 17 Republicans, came just hours after senators in both parties and the White House reached a long-sought compromise on the bill, which would provide about $550 billion in new federal money for roads, bridges, rail lines, transit projects, water systems and other physical infrastructure programs.

While a final Senate vote on the legislation is days away, the test vote on Wednesday marked a major victory for Mr. Biden, who has pressed for the plan for months, and a validation of his faith that a bipartisan breakthrough was possible even in a polarized Washington.

Well, it sort of exists, but contrary to some rumors it hasn't been passed, and it really hasn't been written yet, and it's honestly not very encouraging. It seems to represent $550 billion in new federal spending in contrast to Biden's request, in the traditional-infrastructure American Jobs Act, for $2.3 trillion, none of which is actually new spending but instead "repurposed" spending from the Covid relief bills, unemployment supplements not used by Republican states that dropped that program, "more robust reporting around cryptocurrencies", and "economic growth resulting from a 33 percent return on investment in these long-term infrastructure projects”, or in what looks like a more accurate report from Washington Post, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯:

it remains unclear if the funding provisions included instead would actually cover the full cost of the infrastructure deal, or if the package relies too much on potential budgetary gimmicks to obscure its deficit impact. Some Democrats and Republicans have maintained that infrastructure reforms cannot add to the deficit, even as its backers insist that the spending essentially pays for itself in the form of national economic gains.

The plan offers $110 billion to take care of a $786-billion backlog in needed road and bridge repairs. And $1 billion for removing the neighborhood-splitting freeways of the Robert Moses era, for which Biden asked $20 billion. Public transit will get $39 billion to confront a backlog of $176 billion (Biden asked for $85 billion in March). Replacing lead water supply pipes will cost $55 billion (Biden asked for $45 billion, but also $66 billion for other aspects of clean water infrastructure). The White House says, but the Times doesn't mention, $65 billion for broadband access, glad to see that. A proposal of $176 billion for development of electric vehicles seems to be reduced to $7.5 billion for electric charging stations and $2.5 billion for electric school buses.

In short, this bill looks like a piece of shit in its own right, and I'm not seeing what's the point. It's been my understanding all along that this two-track approach was going to divide the original Biden proposal into two parts, "physical infrastructure" and "human infrastructure", giving Republicans an opportunity to buy into the part they enjoy, getting their names on the signposts on bridges and highways, and giving Senators Manchin and Sinema and their quieter comrades (Kelly, King, Hassan, whoever) the opportunity to display how bipartisan they are, and take care of the rest through budget reconciliation, turning the political outlook in 2022 into something like 1934 (Democrats picked up nine Senate seats and nine House seats, just about the only time in US history a ruling party has improved its situation in midterms).

I still have hope that's the plan, but also today Kyrsten Sinema formally announced her opposition to the price tag on the big bill—

“I have also made clear that while I will support beginning this process, I do not support a bill that costs $3.5 trillion — and in the coming months, I will work in good faith to develop this legislation with my colleagues and the administration to strengthen Arizona’s economy and help Arizona’s everyday families get ahead,” Sinema said in a written statement.

—while the rest of us are seeing a necessity, I'm saying a necessity, to expand the scope of Infrastructure II to restore some of the items that seem to have been cut from Infrastructure I, in particular the vanished green energy spending.

If we get something like what was promised, we will be ensuring recovery from the Covid disaster, setting the economy on a very dynamic footing, slowing global warming to the point where disaster really might be averted (with an international example other countries will follow), and making life really better for many millions of Americans. And earn the political capital to enable us to reform our election system and protect the vote for those who have been disenfranchised by the new Jim Crow in recent years. Before the 2022 election, with any luck.

Or if Kyrsten Sinema wants to, and can, strip Infrastructure II down the way the "bipartisan" group has stripped down Infrastructure I, then it's less like 1934 and more like 1994 (after the Clinton administration failed, I'm not going to pause to assign blame on this, to move a very well-conceived health care program forward). That's not going to be AOC's fault, or the fault of Senator Ed Markey (who's just as significant on this), either, because the progressives are, for once, on the right political side of this issue.

I'm still confident President Biden and Majority Leader Schumer know how to analyze the situation as well as anybody can—and their concern with the Infrastructure I bill was about providing Manchin and Sinema with a victory they could brag about, not with the specific contents of the bill, which could always be transferred to Infrastructure II—but I'm finally starting to worry about whether it will work out.

Update: Senator Chris Coons on NPR, noting that the bill is indeed the largest infrastructure investment in US history, points out something else that makes an important difference in the way I'll look at it: it doesn't just appropriate particular amounts of money that you and I may think are disappointing, it creates the programs, for which more money can be appropriated later on, as and when Congress is able to do it. This is especially important for the electric vehicle and other clean energy stuff—they wouldn't be able to add funding to programs that didn't exist, and passing the programs themselves is harder than topping up their budgets. In that sense this bill does do the hardest work and ensures the possibility of further progress. David Dayen at The American Prospect singles out the Republican defeat of the proposal for a National Infrastructure Bank (the municipal bond market didn't like it) as a not so good thing, and is very pleased that the Democrats have resisted a list of privatization proposals as a financing method, so so am I. He's very worried about Sinema.

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