Underselling the Infrastructure in Infrastructure Plan

By Robert Farley

Posted on April 14, 2021

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President Joe Biden has taken an arguably expansive view of infrastructure to justify some of the proposed spending in the $2.7 trillion American Jobs Plan. But some Republicans have gone too far with claims about how little in the bill qualifies as infrastructure.

In an interview on “Fox News Sunday” on April 11, for example, Republican Sen. John Thune claimed “only about 6% of the president’s proposal actually goes to what … everyday Americans would describe as infrastructure.” GOP Rep. Liz Cheney used the same figure in her appearance that day on “Face the Nation.”

There are, of course, reasonable disagreements about what counts as infrastructure in the American Jobs Plan, which includes large investments in such things as manufacturing, research and development, and long-term health care services for the elderly.

But Thune’s low figure doesn’t hold up when we counted the very things that Thune describes as infrastructure.

In his Fox News interview, Thune mentioned “water, wastewater” in addition to “highways, roads, bridges, perhaps broadband.” There are some other things that traditionally have fallen under the heading of infrastructure when proposed by Republicans, and we’ll get to those. But for now, let’s stick just to Thune’s list. (Cheney offered no examples other than to broadly say “less than 6% … is actually focused on infrastructure.”)

According to a breakdown of spending by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the plan includes $115 billion to “modernize bridges, highways, roads, and main streets in critical need of repair.” There’s another $17 billion to “improve ports and waterways.” And there’s $311 billion to build high speed broadband, to invest in power infrastructure, to upgrade and modernize drinking water supplies, replace all lead pipes and service lines and to monitor drinking water quality.

That all comes to nearly 17% of the total spending — nearly three times higher than the percentage cited by Thune.

When House Republicans released their Commitment to America plan in September, members promised, “We will upgrade and modernize America’s infrastructure by: Bringing highspeed internet to every household in the United States, launching a fiveyear plan to fix our roads, bridges, and airports, while cutting the permitting process time in half.”

So House Republicans were including broadband in their definition of infrastructure back in September. And they also mentioned fixing airports, something Thune did not. The American Jobs Plan includes $25 billion to improve airports.

The Biden plan also includes $80 billion to improve passenger and freight rail service. Thune didn’t list rail improvements, but former President Donald Trump has considered rail to be infrastructure in the past. In December 2017, Trump tweeted, “The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, WA shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly. Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!”

On “Fox News Sunday” a week earlier than Thune’s appearance, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt estimated that “if you stretch the definition of infrastructure some, it’s about 30% of the $2.25 trillion they’re talking about spending.”

To be sure, the Biden administration has taken a broad view of infrastructure.

In a White House press briefing on April 9, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said, “There’s been a lot of talk at this moment, as you know, about what infrastructure is and isn’t. I would argue that infrastructure is the foundation that makes it possible for people to live and work well.”

During remarks on the American Jobs Plan on April 7, Biden described the plan as “a blueprint for infrastructure needed for tomorrow — not just yesterday; tomorrow — for American jobs, for American competitiveness.”

“We need to start seeing infrastructures through its effect on the lives of working people in America,” Biden said. “What is the foundation today that they need to carve out their place in the middle class to make it — to live, to go to work, to raise their families with dignity, to ensure that good jobs will be there for their kids, no matter who they are or what ZIP Code they live in?”

Under that definition, Biden said, investing in clean energy to address climate change is part of infrastructure, because it helps to prevent the destruction of businesses or farms by floods or wildfires exacerbated by climate change. To that end, the plan includes a $174 billion investment in electric vehicles, including rebates to purchase them, incentives to build charging stations and a replacement of the federal fleet with electric vehicles. It also includes $46 billion to support clean energy manufacturing, $35 billion for climate change research and development, and $400 billion in clean energy tax credits (such as for weatherization of homes and commercial properties, for commercial clean energy generation and storage, and to encourage carbon capture deployment).

Biden also argues spending to ease the financial strain of caring for elderly parents is infrastructure. That is why, he said, the plan includes expansion of long-term home and community-based care services under Medicaid. That is estimated to cost $400 billion.

Again, people may disagree about whether those things qualify as infrastructure. We won’t get into that political debate.

But Thune goes too far when he says “only about 6% of the president’s proposal actually goes to what the American people … would describe as infrastructure,” which he defined as “water, wastewater” in addition to “highways, roads, bridges, perhaps broadband.” It’s actually nearly 17%.

And it would be even higher – over 20% — if that list were expanded to include other items, such as airports and mass transit, that Republicans themselves have included in past infrastructure plans.

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