January 21
Spotted in Congress: Actual concern about the nation's infrastructure! No, really. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
Spotted in Congress: Actual concern about the nation’s infrastructure! No, really. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

As I’ve noted here before, America’s behavior with respect to its critical infrastructure is six ways of insane. We’ve got ancient water mains, leaky gas pipes, crumbling roads and bridges; huge unemployment among construction workers; and cheap borrowing costs due to the recession. We could make big progress on those at a stroke with some repairs and upgrades, but unfortunately, the budget deficit gives American elites a sad, so our hands are tied.

Or maybe not! Some members of Congress are, it turns out, mulling an infrastructure proposal. It isn’t much, but it might just be crazy enough to work. And it has something resembling bipartisan support: its two chief champions are Dem Rep. John Delaney of Maryland and Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri. Here’s the deal:

The bill is an attempt to address twin problems: How to fund transportation with the traditional source — the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon — at death’s door. And how to entice U.S. corporations, which have stashed an estimated $1.45 trillion abroad, to bring that money home. Delaney’s plan would create a $50 billion federal fund to bankroll loans and leverage private investment for transportation and other infrastructure. The money would come from bonds bought by companies who want a tax break if they bring cash earned abroad back to the United States.

So, get some infrastructure money by buying off corporations with inconveniently huge overseas cash hoards. All my Christmases have come at once.

In many ways this is indicative of the state of America’s decrepit institutions and debate. A responsible nation would keep a close eye on its infrastructure, time bigger repairs and upgrades to push against the business cycle where possible, and appropriate money transparently, to avoid waste. 

But let’s face it: America is not a responsible nation. Here, we procrastinate until leaking natural gas is literally building to explosive levels in places in our nation’s capital, and because our national discussion is so captured by the austerian/anti-tax death grip, we have to come up with Rube Goldberg policy schemes to pretend like we’re not spending money. Naturally, this involves giving a big tax break to corporations who have so much cash socked away overseas they literally don’t know what to do with it. (That’s spending money, folks, just by an opaque mechanism.)

But, you know, at this point it seems worth a shot, mostly because it might actually work. Compared to just borrowing the money it’s a wretched proposal. But that’s probably not on the list of options. (Besides, making some marginal improvements by first buying off every interest group in sight is the American Way.)

Of course these corporations will pocket their tax break, and busily continue piling up their overseas Smaug-like hoards so they can start whining for another one (that’s what they did last time), but as a stopgap measure until we get a less-insane Congress, this is not totally horrible. I fear that right now, that’s as good as we’re going to get.