I’ve been reading, watching and listening to the reaction to President Biden’s infrastructure proposal, and one of the key criticisms from Republicans is that most of what’s in the bill is not actually infrastructure.
The Merriam-Webster definition of infrastructure is “the system of public works of a country, state or region. Also: the resources (such as personnel, buildings, or equipment) required for an activity.”
Certainly that would include the 620 billion dollars the bill proposes for upgrading the nation’s roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure. Even Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell believes that counts. “Infrastructure is roads, is bridges. It’s broadband. But beyond that, [democrats have] thrown everything but the kitchen sink into it,” he said this month.
So broadband counts, too, according to McConnell. That’s another 100 billion dollars of the plan. An additional couple hundred billion dollars would go to upgrading water infrastructure and the electric grid. Hard to make the case that those items don’t count as infrastructure. Ever played Monopoly? They’re literally public works.
Nearly 200 billion dollars more goes into electric vehicles. Republican Tate Reeves, the Governor of Mississippi, calls that a “political statement.” I would argue that a network of electric car charging stations across the country is infrastructure, and so is the fleet of vehicles that the federal government purchases and uses, just as Army tanks could be considered infrastructure for the military.
Beyond that, it is a bit more of a challenge (though not impossible) to call what’s in the bill infrastructure. The elements would certainly upgrade the nation’s efficiency, however, and save the United States money and time in the long run.
Consider the money that would go to public housing, education and manufacturing facilities. Much of it is for badly needed upgrades to the energy efficiency of buildings. Think about your house. If you were to make it energy-efficient with better insulation, high quality windows and more efficient appliances and lighting, it might cost you about $9,500 up front. But over 30 years, it would save you almost $20,000 in energy costs.
When it comes to commercial buildings, the American Society for an Energy Efficient Economy (a non-profit whose fans include Republican Senator Rob Portman) says efficiency retrofits can “typically reduce energy bills by 5–30% and comprehensive upgrades can reduce commercial building use by 20–50%.” Fifty percent!
Our existing structures were built long ago, before we knew as much as we now know about energy efficiency and climate change. Just as many Americans are choosing to upgrade their own homes with new heating systems or solar panels, a responsible Federal Government ought to upgrade the efficiency of public buildings — and for the sake of its own electricity production, incentivize private companies and citizens to do the same. Energy infrastructure is infrastructure.
There has also been criticism of the 400 billion dollars the American Jobs Plan would spend on shifting care for seniors to the home, as opposed to hospitals. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the aging population is soon expected to strain the U.S. medical system. As we’ve all seen during the pandemic, our hospitals are not built to handle a surge of patients all at once. And that’s exactly what’s coming in less than 10 years, when all baby boomers will have reached retirement age.
I could go on, although perhaps the key Republican complaint is not really about the word “infrastructure,” but rather the word “Biden.” After all, Republicans in Congress are not only opposed to the spending in the proposal, but also the plan to pay for it through tax increases on corporations and the wealthy. In other words, they don’t want to run up the debt any further to pay for infrastructure, but they also doesn’t want to raise taxes to pay for infrastructure. And yet, many claim to be in favor an infrastructure upgrade.
The former CEO of the US Chamber of Commerce wrote in 2019 that unless we act now to address our crumbling infrastructure, “it could cost businesses $7 trillion and destroy 2.5 million jobs by the year 2025.” Even if there are things in the American Jobs Plan that aren’t “infrastructure” in the traditional sense, the $2.3 trillion price tag is a bargain compared with the cost of gridlock.