The Republicans’ biggest proposed “pay-for” is repurposing unspent coronavirus relief funds already appropriated. Much of that money is allocated to states and local governments to offset expected declines in revenue arising from the pandemic. But state and local governments are increasingly reporting little to no decline in funds. California, for example, recently announced it has a nearly $76 billion general fund surplus. It simply doesn’t need the $26 billion in federal aid that Congress allocated to the state in prior relief bills. Why not repurpose that money to do something everyone agrees is valuable?
Hiking transportation user fees, another GOP proposal, is also a tried and true way of paying for infrastructure projects. Republicans have floated the idea of indexing the gas tax, which has not been raised since 1993, to inflation. They also propose charging owners of electric cars, who obviously don’t pay the gas tax, an annual fee to pay for their share of the roads they use. One can imagine this idea spreading to other sectors addressed in the bill, such as raising fees and taxes that airplane travelers already pay to finance airport construction. Placing the burden for infrastructure improvements on those who use the facilities is the traditional way of paying for expanding and upgrading those facilities.
Democrats will surely object to excluding the president’s proposed changes to child-care subsidies and other ideas included in his original plan. Perhaps those ideas can be addressed in some other way, but they are not infrastructure, no matter how much Democrats try to twist the plain meaning of words to suit their political purposes. Democrats are not Humpty Dumpty — they cannot make words mean whatever they like whenever they like it.
That things have come to this point is a Republican failing. President Donald Trump wanted to pass a $1 trillion infrastructure bill for four years. Republicans largely ignored his pleas, not wanting to increase the gas tax or the federal deficit to pay for it. The GOP could have passed this sort of measure when it controlled Congress in 2017 and 2018 and received sole political credit for getting the ball rolling. The fact that Biden’s proposal has forced them to propose spending almost as much as what Trump asked for and pay for it with means they had previously rejected simply shows the political failure of Republican economic orthodoxy.
Those concerns, however, are for the future. For the present, Republicans have made a plausible offer, with plausible spending levels and plausible pay-fors. It’s now up to Biden and Democrats to show they are serious about bipartisanship. Let the games begin.