“Infrastructure spending is popular on both sides,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said. “Infrastructure investment is an area where we should work together,” House Majority Whip Eric Cantor once tweeted. And Republican-friendly business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Alliance for American Manufacturing are huge supporters of public works. Republicans have urged the Obama Administration to propose a major transportation bill, calling America’s crumbling infrastructure a natural issue for bipartisan cooperation.
Well, on Tuesday, the Administration unveiled a four-year, $300-billion transportation bill. It included a 22% increase in highway funding, a 70% increase in transit funding, and a provision allowing states to put tolls on interstates. At a time when one in nine U.S. bridges are rated “structurally deficient,” and nearly half the public lacks access to public transit, it’s a pretty ambitious piece of legislation. And this is probably the first you’re hearing of it, because it got virtually no media attention.
This is partly because Washington reporters are more interested in politics than the nitty-gritty details of policy. A hugely consequential Supreme Court decision upholding a key EPA air pollution rule didn’t get too much media attention Tuesday, either. But at least the policy mavens at The Washington Post’s Wonkblog made the EPA ruling their top story of the day; the transportation bill didn’t make their top five, or even their roundup of more than a dozen lesser policy stories.
This collective yawn does not just reflect the unsexiness of transportation policy; the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule is not exactly clickbait, either. It reflects the unspoken recognition that no matter how much Republicans say they care about infrastructure, they’re not going to accept any infrastructure proposals that come from President Barack Obama. They opposed his $50 billion “roads, rails and runways” proposal in 2010, and then again when it was expanded and incorporated into his American Jobs Act in 2011. They’ve blocked Obama’s plans for an infrastructure bank and a national high-speed rail network. They’ve also blocked Obama’s proposals for corporate tax reform, which is relevant, because the new GROW AMERICA Act depends on tax reform for much of its financing.
Other than its hideous acronym—it stands for Generating Renewal, Opportunity, and Work with Accelerated Mobility, Efficiency and Rebuilding of Infrastructure and Communities throughout America—GROW AMERICA has a lot of attractive features. It extends Obama’s commitment to “Fix It First,” focusing on upgrades for neglected infrastructure that will reduce the nation’s maintenance backlog rather than new projects that increase the maintenance backlog. And while transportation bills are known on Capitol Hill as “highway bills,” GROW AMERICA continues the Administration’s subtle shift towards passenger rail, freight rail, dedicated bus lanes, and other programs that don’t necessarily involve asphalt.
Obama did manage to squeeze one massive infrastructure bill through Congress—yes, you guessed it, his stimulus bill, which passed during his first month in office despite near-unanimous opposition from Republicans. GROW AMERICA would extend many of the innovations from the stimulus bill—including high-speed passenger rail, public-private partnerships to expand freight rail, and TIGER, a popular competitive grant program for innovative projects that don’t fit into a classic transportation silo. But there’s been some scaling back. For example, just three years after the President proposed a $53 billion investment in high-speed rail —and got nothing out of Congress—he is now requesting just $5 billion.
But that’s just a bow to political reality. Republicans say nice things about infrastructure but haven’t shown any interest in paying for it. As a result, the nation has failed to take advantage of historically low interest rates to invest more in our overcrowded airports, outdated railways and flimsy bridges. Through the stimulus and other programs, the Administration has helped promote a smart electric grid, a digitized health care system, and other investments that ought to be seen as infrastructure; spending billions of dollars on new concrete is not always the best approach to meeting the needs of a modern economy. Still, our national infrastructure—the traditional concrete kind as well as the new-fangled digital kind—clearly needs an upgrade. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave it a D-plus. And that was an improvement over the last report card.
Infrastructure advocates often complain that Obama hasn’t used his bully pulpit enough to push for an investment program. But he barnstormed the country for the American Jobs Act. He has talked about rebuilding America in every State of the Union address. His problem is not a lack of will or poor messaging. His problem is that he doesn’t have the votes. Republicans control the House, and they can block legislation in the Senate. If they were willing to pass an Obama infrastructure bill, then an Obama infrastructure bill might make news.