Equally encouraging is the content of the proposal, which leans heavily on “hard” infrastructure such as roads and bridges (which get $110 billion of the new money), broadband ($65 billion), airports ($25 billion), water ($55 billion) and the electric grid ($73 billion). There are small but innovative items such as $1 billion to undo damage to communities from past federal highway construction and a much-needed Energy Department study on the full “well to wheels” environmental impact of electric vehicles. Though this can hardly be described as a “Green New Deal,” the measure provides significant funding ($105 billion) for railroads and public transit, along with $15 billion for zero- and low-carbon transportation and the accompanying charging or fueling stations.
Undoubtedly this bill will be no freer of pork-barrel projects or other questionable ideas than many other sprawling compromises of the past. The bill includes $3.5 billion for carbon capture, a technology to remove carbon dioxode from the air and store it underground that has delivered disappointing results so far. Even more dubious are lawmakers’ claims that the bill will not add significantly to the deficit. It promises to reprogram $205 billion of unspent money from previous covid relief legislation — a relatively solid source of funding. The same cannot be said for the bill’s invocation of $56 billion in extra revenue due to its positive impact on economic growth. Other gimmicky “pay-fors” include reductions in unemployment insurance fraud and “pension smoothing,” which essentially allows companies to contribute less to federally insured pension funds so that they report more taxable income. The nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that, under realistic assumptions, the plan is actually only about half paid for.
In that sense, the new agreement is further confirmation that the one thing Republicans and Democrats can occasionally agree on is to offer voters much-needed public goods and adding their cost to the national credit card — rather than ask people to pay upfront with higher taxes. Some day, that will have to end. For their part, progressive House Democrats are furious because one of the infrastructure bill’s architects, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), signaled that a $3.5 trillion ″human infrastructure" bill, which progressives had insisted on in return for accepting the physical infrastructure counterpart, must shrink to get her vote, throwing its passage into doubt. More such politics lie ahead.
Amid all the wrangling, and despite the bill’s shortcomings, the point remains: The best should not be the enemy of the good. A partially paid-for measure that upgrades the U.S. infrastructure — and, probably, enhances the economy’s long-term capacity to grow — would be pretty good.