Opinion

How Infrastructure Week Finally Happened

Thirteen Republican members of the House voted for the infrastructure bill now headed for President Biden’s desk. That may not sound like much, but given the intensity of G.O.P. partisanship — the loser in the New Jersey governor’s race still hasn’t conceded — getting even that many Republicans to back an initiative that might help Mr. Biden is amazing.

These votes suggest that politicians believe what polling indicates — that repairing roads and bridges, expanding broadband and more are immensely popular and that opposing the bill would be politically costly. (Six progressive Democrats voted against the legislation, but Nancy Pelosi, who said she had a “secret whip count,” might have been able to get some of those votes if she had needed them.)

But if infrastructure spending is a political winner, why didn’t it happen under Donald Trump? The Trump administration first declared Infrastructure Week in June 2017, but no legislative proposal ever materialized, and by the time Trump was voted out of office the phrase had become a national punchline. Why?

It wasn’t just incompetence, although that was part of it. The bigger story is that the modern Republican Party is constitutionally incapable — or maybe, given recent behavior, that should be unconstitutionally incapable — of investing in America’s future. And, sad to say, pro-corporate Democrats, whom we really should stop calling “centrists,” have some of the same problems.

Trump talked big about infrastructure during the 2016 election campaign. But the “plan” released by his advisers — it was actually just a vague sketch — was a mess. It wasn’t even really a proposal for public investment; to a large extent it was an exercise in crony capitalism, a scheme for taxpayer-subsidized private investment that would, like the “opportunity zones” that were part of the 2017 tax cut, mainly have ended up showering benefits on wealthy developers. It was also completely unworkable.

If Trump had wanted to get anything real accomplished, he would have had to turn to people who had some idea about what they were doing, who at least knew how to draft legislation. But he wasn’t willing to work with Democrats — and key Republicans in Congress, Mitch McConnell in particular, opposed significant infrastructure investment every step of the way.

Why this opposition? Much of it was ostensibly about how to pay for additional spending. Republicans were, of course, opposed to new taxes, especially on corporations and the wealthy; they also claimed to be against additional government borrowing.

But the first rule of deficit politics is that nobody really cares about deficits. Republicans certainly didn’t care when they rammed through a $1.9 trillion tax cut without any offsetting cost savings. The handful of Democrats still balking at Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which would invest in people in addition to steel and concrete, have held up a vote by demanding a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office. But they don’t seem to mind the fact that the physical infrastructure bill is partly paid for with smoke and mirrors and that the C.B.O. estimates that it will add hundreds of billions to the deficit.

As it happens, many economists now believe that given low interest rates, we actually shouldn’t worry about deficits. But that doesn’t stop politicians from selectively invoking deficit fears as a way to block government programs they don’t like.

In the case of mainstream Republicans, that basically means opposing everything that isn’t military spending. Anything else is “socialism,” which on the right has come to mean spending money in any way that helps ordinary citizens.

Indeed, it’s fairly clear that what conservatives fear isn’t that new government programs will fail; they’re afraid that the programs will be perceived as successful and will help to legitimize an expanded role for government in addressing social problems.

That is, they worry that government programs that actually help people could turn us into a “nation of takers” — maybe even a nation that taxes the rich to pay for aid to those in need.

Given this attitude, the only way Trump could have gotten an infrastructure bill would have been to bypass much of his own party and work with Democrats. But as I said, he wasn’t willing to do that.

Sadly, the handful of Democrats who may yet kill Build Back Better seem to share Republican unwillingness to invest in the future, albeit in milder form. They’re willing to spend on infrastructure, even with borrowed money. But they get cold feet over social spending, even though there’s strong evidence that such spending would greatly help the economy (not to mention their own constituents). Why? Well, Joe Manchin says he’s worried about us becoming an “entitlement society.”

At this point, however, indulging this nonsense would have huge political as well as human costs. Biden’s ability to finally get the infrastructure bill that eluded Trump for four years is an object lesson in what can be achieved if we sideline the ideologues and crony capitalists. Now Democrats should finish the job.

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