The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), for all intents and purposes, passed Congress on October 28, when Congressional Progressive Caucus leader Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) emerged from a caucus meeting and pronounced that the framework of the Build Back Better Act had their support. Progressives were holding the Senate-passed IIJA as a bargaining chip until they were satisfied with BBB.
Endorsing that bill effectively ended the negotiations for House progressives (despite more negotiations actually going on). A process fight about the sequencing of passage when progressives professed to support both bills wasnt going to fly, and it didnt. It was all over but the invitations to the signing ceremony.
Its easy to second-guess Jayapal. She spent months trying to link both bills together, as a substitute for trust between the partys factions. Everyone would have to leap together, the theory went. A deal, brokered largely through the Congressional Black Caucus, was enough to instill faith that the Houses corporate Democratic holdouts, after receiving a Congressional Budget Office score, will advance Build Back Better. But theyve hardly been the problem. One of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema is enough to derail Build Back Better on their own, and their primary concern seemed to be the infrastructure bill they helped write.
The best attempt at explaining Jayapals position is that she reached the best deal she thought she could from her vantage point in the House, and so she cut the deal and made Manchin and Sinema Joe Bidens, and the Senates, problem. In a 50-50 Senate, any member can counter the holdouts with demands of their own; Bernie Sanders roping in Bob Menendez for a better version of a SALT cap resolution is a good example. Manchin and Sinema have been exhausting but theyve never broken off negotiations, at least not yet. If in the end, President Biden signs a Build Back Better Act that roughly contours to what weve already seen, Jayapal will have an argument that she got as much as she could before cutting bait.
Whether this bill is a worthy investment in our future or a dream for consultants and corporate contractors now depends entirely on implementation.
As that messy process plays out, the typical spasms of elation from Democratic circles whenever any legislation passes manifested themselves on Friday night. A bill negotiated between non-infrastructure experts and Republicans, which leaned toward Republican ideas on spending policy and gave in to them completely on tax policy, is now being touted as the greatest advancement in public works in modern history. The sclerotic nature of Congress allows for that to be true and also not much of a statement about the policy. Whether this bill is a worthy investment in our future, or a dream for consultants and corporate contractors, the benefits of which are lost on the average citizen, now depends entirely on implementation.
Early returns are not encouraging. The $65 billion broadband investment could transform internet service in America, away from incumbent monopoly telecoms that have sat on the buildout for years, and toward municipal operations and co-ops that have proven themselves far more willing to build out fast, affordable broadband for all. The initial outline was written this way, to encourage competition.
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But the IIJA that passed prioritizes unserved areasones that the incumbents havent already corneredand only requires slow download speeds. Funding does not give priority to any provider, making it likely that big telecoms with strong lobbying operations will get the money. Thats especially true since there are dozens of state laws banning or restricting munis and co-ops from providing broadband, and the IIJA does not prohibit any of them.
Every time companies like AT&T or Comcast have received federal funding in the pastto the tune of tens of billions of dollars since 2009it has not appreciably increased Americas broadband adoption, or speeded up its service. This doesnt have to be this way, as the states controlling the grants can opt to not give the same companies the same subsidies and expect different results. But those decisions will make the difference between worthy and unworthy policy.
The $110 billion for roads, bridges, and major projects will be distributed under the standard formula for federal infrastructure grants to states. The House version of infrastructure, nicknamed Fix It First, set explicit standards that put repairs above building new roads, but the untrained deal-makers who assembled the IIJA in the Senate left that out. It will be up to the states to decide how to spend the road money. States do not have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a condition; theres an incentive program to do that in Build Back Better, but its not law yet.
Analyses of the IIJA show that by itself, it would only make a 1 percent reduction in carbon emissions.
Its for this and other reasons that modeling analyses of the IIJA show that by itself, it would only make a 1 percent reduction in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. If both bills pass, the IIJAs impact doubles, and the climate investments in Build Back Better make a far more significant dent.
Lead pipe removal has been a signature rallying cry from the administration and its allies: finally, America will remove every single lead water pipe. But this just isnt a realistic rendering of whats in the bill. The Biden administration initially provided $45 billion for lead pipe removal, which itself was a stretch to complete the job; this bill only has $15 billion, and doesnt mandate that it all go to replacing lead water pipes. We dont even know where all the lead pipes in America are. You know the IIJA comes up short because Congress stuck another $9 billion for lead pipes in Build Back Better.
Long-distance charging infrastructure for electric vehicles throughout the country is a potentially great investment to induce national electrification of cars. But one-third of the $7.5 billion investment is reserved for hydrogen fuel stations, despite its tiny footprint among vehicles. That makes the EV charger investment smaller than needed to truly blanket the country. The bigger problem is the lack of standardization. There are four types of plugs currently available in the U.S.; Teslas have a special plug, and so do the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi Outlander. The plugs for the Leaf and Outlander dont work for other vehicles. We dont have gas stations that only work for Toyotas. Government mandates are the only solution to this problem, yet they dont yet exist.
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Theres a $66 billion investment in rail, much of which will be buried in needed upgrades. Theres an easy way to increase service, but as Phil Longman has explained, Amtrak piggybacks off train tracks owned by consolidated rail giants, who would rather prioritize their freight service. Having disinvested in their operations for years in a profit-maximization scheme, rail companies have held up Amtrak service to try to get the government to pay for improvements that benefit them, and now theres a huge pot of money waiting to be extracted. The IIJA includes no statutory changes to give Amtrak more leverage for track access. And by the way, one-third of the rail money is not guaranteed and subject to future appropriations.
There are other minor annoyances in the bill, like a rural ferries program designed only for the vote of Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, and a mine reclamation project similarly designed for Joe Manchin. A large-scale privatization effort was mercifully cut at the last minute, but the management consultant industry won a lucrative mandate to write up reports on large-scale transportation projects. But an infrastructure bill can be expected to have some pork. What matters is if the whole enterprise is carried off well.
Projects for bridges, transit, ports, airports, electricity substations, and more that funnel money to outside consultants run the risk of producing a few new millionaires but not many other benefits. Bottom line: If the infrastructure money is effectively stolen, you wont have a successful investment.
Far too little attention gets paid to what happens after a bill becomes law. It will make the difference on whether the Biden administration will be seen as meeting its promises or just making claims that dont become reality. The only thing worse than promising advancements and failing to deliver is claiming that you did deliver, without follow-up. Biden can make the IIJA work, but it will take diligence and effort. Well be watching.