American infrastructure hasn’t had a major facelift in a while. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, there’s a water main break somewhere in the U.S. every two minutes and 43% of our public roads are in poor or mediocre condition.
Those same engineers issue a report card for the nation’s infrastructure every four years. Here’s how the U.S. did in 2021:
- Overall: C-
- Airports: D+
- Roads & Bridges: D
- Ports: B+
- Passenger & Freight Rail: B
- Waterways: D+
- Public Transit: D-
- Water Storage: D
- Water Infrastructure: C-
- Power: C-
Now, Congress is taking action and both parties are – wait for it – working together. The Senate passed a bipartisan bill, after months of negotiations, that would spend $1.2 trillion on infrastructure over five years. (“Bipartisan” means that lawmakers from both parties supported the bill. In this case, all 50 Democrats plus 19 Republicans voted for it.) The Senate has now kicked the bill over to the House of Representatives for a thumbs up or thumbs down.
Throughout the negotiation process for this infrastructure bill, members of Congress have been wrestling with three major questions:
- What should the infrastructure bill include?
- How much money should we spend?
- How should we pay for it?
Here’s some information to help you think about those questions.
What should the infrastructure bill include?
Most Democrats and a good number of Republicans in the Senate agree that the infrastructure bill should include a few things:
- Roads, bridges, railroads, and public transit (we often refer to this stuff as “surface transportation”)
- Broadband internet
- Water systems (to provide clean drinking water and deal with wastewater)
- Ports and waterways (for moving goods on ships, tugboats, and barges)
After some negotiations, senators agreed to add two more things to the bill they passed:
- Water storage (mostly dams)
- Electric vehicle charging stations
Many Democrats who support the Senate infrastructure bill, including President Biden, also want funding for things like childcare, caregiving for older people, paid sick and family leave, and tackling climate change. Other Democrats and most Republicans want to stick only to the hardhat-type stuff.
Now Congress is wrangling over what comes next. For example, some Democrats say they’ll only vote for an infrastructure bill if Congress also agrees to support other Democratic priorities – the ones we mentioned above – in a separate bill. And some Republicans say they will only vote for an infrastructure bill if Congress declines to pass that separate bill filled with Democratic priorities. So, two big questions remain at this point:
- Will lawmakers link the passage of an infrastructure bill to the passage of another bill that includes Democratic priorities?
- If the two bills aren’t linked, can an infrastructure bill pass on its own?
Here’s the case for linking those bills together: Infrastructure is more than just public works. The people who do things like providing care for children and older folks are the foundation of our society – call them “human infrastructure.” Plus, Democrats are the majority party and they’re entitled to push their priorities.
Here’s the case for considering those bills separately: If we try to reach consensus on two enormous bills, we’ll never get anything done. There’s broad agreement that we should make a big investment in infrastructure, and there’s bipartisan agreement on a bill making that a reality. Let’s make progress where we can instead of tanking a popular bill with a controversial one.
How Much Should We Spend?
Lawmakers in both parties agree that the federal government should make a major new investment in infrastructure, but they don’t all agree on how wide the federal government should open its wallet. The bill passed by the Senate would spend $1.2 trillion over five years – a lot less than what President Biden originally proposed, and a lot more than Senate Republicans originally proposed.
Generally, Democrats want to spend more money and include more things in the infrastructure bill, while Republicans want to spend less money and include fewer things.
Here’s the case for a bigger infrastructure bill:
- Building and repairing infrastructure will create tens of thousands of jobs. Plus, it will make the economy more efficient and productive. The increased productivity will in turn save our economy so much money that we’ll create even more jobs.
- The poor condition of our infrastructure leads to injury, sickness, and death. For example, poorly maintained roads can cause car accidents and lead pipes can cause lead poisoning in children.
- Paying for things like better public transit, a more efficient electrical grid, and more charging stations for electrical vehicles will help combat climate change.
- Our infrastructure has been getting worse for a long time and will continue to get even worse unless we make a huge investment in it.
- Lower-income people and people of color often bear the brunt of poor infrastructure. Improving our infrastructure is an important way to make our society fairer and more just.
- Arguing over whether a particular project fits within the traditional definition of infrastructure is a waste of time when we have so much need.
And here’s the case for a smaller infrastructure bill:
- The amount of money in the Senate bill is excessive. We could spend much less and still be making a historic investment. Plus, we just invested $6 trillion in Covid relief – we shouldn’t be passing yet another expensive bill right now.
- The condition of our infrastructure isn’t so bad right now that it hurts the economy.
- Increasing taxes on wealthy people and corporations won’t be enough to pay for all these ideas, which means we’ll either have to raise taxes on the middle class or increase the federal debt – possibly both.
- Climate change is not as risky as some say it is, and the environmental benefits of a huge infrastructure bill would not be worth the costs.
- “Infrastructure” refers to things like bridges, roads, and ports. Things like caring for people with disabilities are important but simply do not fit the definition of infrastructure.
How should we pay for it?
When it comes to paying for the infrastructure bill, the Senate bill has two main ideas:
- Do a better job of collecting taxes, particularly from corporations and wealthy individuals that find loopholes to avoid paying them. This requires increasing the budget of the IRS.
- Repurposing unused Covid relief funds.
Here’s the case for paying with better tax enforcement: The way we enforce our tax laws is unfair to middle and lower-income people. Wealthy people and corporations hire accountants and attorneys to help find loopholes and avoid paying taxes, but most people can’t afford to do that.
…and the case against paying with better tax enforcement: The IRS already makes too many people and corporations miserable as it is. We don’t need even more enforcement.
Now, here’s the case for paying with unspent Covid relief funding: The federal government spent a lot of money on COVID relief – some say too much – and now many state and local governments have enormous budget surpluses.
…and the case against paying with unspent Covid relief funding: The pandemic isn’t behind us yet, especially with new strains of the virus emerging. It’s going to take a while to recover, and we should keep this money available for Covid recovery.
The Bottom Line
Reading through all this, you might have had a clear sense of where you stand, or maybe you found a kernel of truth in several arguments – even if they contradicted each other. Thinking through the nuances and trade-offs of different solutions is all part of the policymaking magic. This is complex stuff! One thing’s for sure: when you get into the weeds, you’re likely to find some common ground with people who you wouldn’t typically think of as allies. And that’s how our nation can get things done.
Our thanks to the National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD), whose in-depth materials Civic Genius drew from to create this issue brief. Visit NICD to learn (much) more.