Infrastructure Deal Pitfalls

Terry H. Schwadron

June 17, 2021

However the on-again, off-again attempts at an infrastructure and jobs bill work out, the Senate floor is littered with broken alliances and serious divergence on what problems we actually are trying to fix. Democrats were mobilizing this week for to abandon negotiations and push through on their own, a risky proposition.

Before the final boasting gets underway about whichever side or faction claims a victory for bipartisanship or beating back a step too far by The Other Side, it feels as if we have lost sight of why we’re having an infrastructure debate altogether. It feels as if it has become way to important for senators to defend their turf than to put the country’s agenda first.

There seems no question about a need to fix roads, rail and bridges, airports and even to extend broadband. The only questions worth negotiation there are what actual projects the final numbers will support, and the ever-weird question about why Republicans want to protect tax cuts for the wealthy while charging you and me through user fees like gas taxes to pay for needed improvements rather than collecting current taxes from the wealthiest among us.

But a good part of the Senate, some Democrats included, seem willing to turn away from the exigent questions raise by climate change as if that is either not happening or that the effects are somehow not critical enough to make some important bets on the not-distant future. And they disdain the notion that we face a “human infrastructure” problem in areas ranging from child-care to education to job training.

What is so crazy here is that Joe Biden, at least, is doing a good job of describing and defining climate-related change as a jobs-building program as well as a bulwark about redirecting energy sources away from fossil fuels, for example. The idea of building American-made solar and wind equipment that the world wants, rather than relying on Chinese products and supply lines seems to fit with the strategic direction that Republicans and Democrats both say they want.

The marketplace is moving on its own towards climate change, but it will be severely hampered by unstable international supply lines.

And yet, a fair summary here is that in place of substantive talks about the best approaches, we have continuing efforts to whittle the admittedly huge Biden proposals to a tinier size of actual spending that will neither fully fix bridges and airports, nor position us towards the future, but that will protect tax cuts for corporations.

Politics Always

Biden and the Senate have traded an infrastructure problem for a political problem.

We get it.

To force a Democratic-only vote on the package of spending at the level where it could have effect means seeming to be deaf to Republican concerns. To give in to the Joe Manchin-Krysten Sinema insistence on Bipartisanship at all costs, essentially means giving up on a climate approach, as well as for more human concerns.

And for progressives, who essentially put Biden in office, there is a general wariness and weariness that once again, the Senate minority is dictating the outcome of this debate and outlining a future that continues to stick its head in the sand on the biggest issues that face us.

Here was Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-VT, surely the most outspoken progressive, last week as a group of 10 self-described moderates were talking about the makings of a deal: “The problem is this country faces enormous issues that have been ignored and neglected for a very long period of time,” he said. “Even if you look at infrastructure from the narrow perspective of roads and bridges, it’s inadequate. That’s not me talking, that’s the American Society of Civil Engineers.”

Amid all of the posturing, we’re still having bridges fall down, overcrowding at airports, bad rail days and a dangerous climb in emissions of ozone-destructive gases from zillions of cars now getting back on the road. In Miami, there’s active talk of building a $6 billion, 20-foot-high sea wall to halt flooding from rising seas in the city’s financial district. Agriculture is pursuing more weather-resistant plants, and forestry officials in the West are bracing for now year-round wildfires.

In other words, unless you are a U.S. senator, the rest of us see that we’re paying for infrastructure failures now and forever into the future as the ravages of a changing climate hit us most directly.

The Jobs Issue

At the same time, we’re facing a wide array of jobs issues, from beating back the effects of coronavirus, the imminent end to boosted unemployment rolls, a general demand for wages that match with rising prices, and a need to retrain and build out our workforce.

What’s on the other side of all this is culture warfare, a resistance to spend money on workers, a disdain for paying people to train for new skills, education programs that eschew the skills needed for a changing economy, and a hateful, even racist view towards bringing in more immigrants.

People need to get to jobs, investors and business need to know consumers can live, shop and travel. The marketplace already is gearing up for electric cars and trucks, and cities are moving ahead on their own. It is only the federal government that seems to be lagging here — with the sole reason of partisan politics at heart.

Donald Trump didn’t want to acknowledge climate for a variety of reasons, and in four years, he never got infrastructure proposals even to Congress as a proposal. All those bridge problems just got four years older. With Trump out, Republicans find a little more leeway, but only if they so trim any spending as to not raise taxes.

Yet, Republicans are the first out there after each jobs report to call Biden a failure.

Meanwhile, the richest people Republicans are protecting, are arguing about who will be the first to spend $20 million each for a ride into space, while working people are talking about the cost of child-care. Something in this conversation is out of whack.

As a political issue, these infrastructure questions are not going away, and Republicans or bipartisan moderates have yet to come up with a proposal that addresses the full set of issues.

If Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer can move them through with Democrat-only votes, they should do so and take the heat.


Journalist, musician, community volunteer