Heather Reams in The Hill: Boulevards of broken dreams

Why is it that when we all agree something is broken, it becomes much harder to fix?

So it goes with America’s infrastructure, or the stuff that makes modern life modern.  The roads, bridges, tunnels, dams, energy grids, water systems and sewers that America is built on separates us from our pioneering forefathers, and when they fail, it reminds us just how different we are from those hardy pioneers.

Back in the naïve days of early January, Washington watchers thought that for legislation to pass a contentious and narrowly divided 117th Congress, it would need near-universal bipartisan appeal – like fixing potholes, infrastructure spending. We knew a price tag would be hard to agree upon, but we were also certain that by looking where the gulf across the aisle was smallest, Congress could register good wins for America.

But something funny happened. Maybe it was a policy high from passing that swift and stunning COVID relief bill without a single Republican vote, or maybe it was genuine worry that they’d only have one more chance to check off their wish list, but progressives in Congress chose the path of least prudence and started packing national infrastructure measures with proposals that don’t fund actual infrastructure projects.

Infrastructure means different things to different people — one man’s critical public need is another man’s highway boondoggle. But a good rule of thumb is that infrastructure spending done right requires some degree of public oversight, and benefits the general public. It usually benefits the economy too, thanks to the built-in health, efficiency and productivity improvements.

For example, repairing a bridge might cut substantial time from the average commute for a region’s workers. That time savings translates into lower stress and greater quality of life for the commuters, and greater productivity for the area businesses. Even those nowhere near the bridge will benefit from fewer traffic backups that once rippled throughout the area.

Home care worker pay, job training programs, government-funded scientific research, and tackling inequalities based on gender may all be admirable topics for public debate, but they’re not infrastructure. They all appeared in President Biden’s initial infrastructure proposal.

Why is this important to Republicans? Because if you stretch the definition of infrastructure to include things that aren’t, you can’t measure the impact that infrastructure spending has on your economy. You can only see the price tag, not the return on that investment. Which means in the future, you can’t come back and ask America to invest in more improvements with a straight face. Infrastructure spending that reduces the economy more than it produces can only last so long.

To be fair, the president, appearing to learn the wisdom of not biting off more than America is ready to swallow, split his proposal into two: first, the “hard” infrastructure that needs builders and engineers, meant to boost our GDP; and second, the squishier “soft infrastructure” that involves a lot of social engineering but no engineers.

A bipartisan group of senators worked together and with the White House on the “hard” infrastructure package to repair, modernize and strengthen America’s roads, bridges, electrical grids, and water systems. After significant back and forth, and a lot of debate about how to pay for it, they settled on a $1.2 trillion package that includes $550 billion in new spending, which then passed in the Senate.

The House Problem Solvers Caucus and major business and industry groups across the U.S. have come out in favor of the plan.

It shouldn’t be surprising; the issue enjoys broad support across America. Far from being single-mindedly anti-spend, Republicans came to the table and negotiated in good faith — agreeing to spend about the same amount as President Trump proposed for infrastructure back on the campaign trail.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is not having it. Despite the support infrastructure draws across the country, and the urgent need for swift action, she says she won’t let the Senate-passed bipartisan bill see the light of day unless a $3.5 trillion progressive wish list of squishier “soft” infrastructure passes. A bill that Democrats have not yet shared with the American public, and aren’t even trying to make bipartisan.

Last week, nine House Democrats proved that sanity can appear across party lines, and called on Pelosi to drop the politicking and let the bipartisan plan pass without delay. They put their constituents and country above partisan manipulation and maneuvering, and in response, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives dismissed their appeal as “amateur hour.”

If investing to make the foundations of America more reliable, secure, non-polluting, and resilient is “amateur hour,” it’s far preferable to the “arrogance hour” that the Speaker is projecting.

She must not trust that what she’s selling has much merit; otherwise, she’d let the House members do their job: deliberate on and pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill that the Senate already sent over. Then, once it is shared with her fellow Americans, deliberate on the partisan non-infrastructure boondoggle.

File this under “why we can’t have nice things” — when politicians take something that we all agree is broken and bungle the process until it’s virtually unfixable.

Read the op-ed in The Hill here. 

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