The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The GOP claim that only 5 to 7 percent of Biden’s plan is for ‘real infrastructure’

Russell Vought served as director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Donald Trump. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)

“You look at this bill, the $2 trillion in the bill that, only about 5 to 7 percent of it is actual roads and bridges and ports and things that you and I would say is real infrastructure and that we tried to get passed under the last administration with President Trump.”

— Russell Vought, former director of the Office of Management and Budget, on the “Brian Kilmeade Show” on Fox News Radio, April 1

Republicans are trying to brand President Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan with a new talking point, claiming there is barely any infrastructure in it.

Different variations of this GOP claim have begun to surface since Biden unveiled his proposal last week. Vought, who served as director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Donald Trump, pushes the criticism to misleading extremes by saying that only 5 to 7 percent “is actual roads and bridges and ports and things that you and I would say is real infrastructure.”

Granted, the Biden plan includes large expenses such as $400 billion to expand home-care services and more than $100 billion in electric-vehicle incentives and purchases, among many other items that do not fit the traditional definition of public infrastructure as concrete-and-steel structures for transportation, and wires and pipes for utilities.

But Vought is not even counting items that Trump and his administration considered infrastructure, such as rail and water systems. Last we checked, commuters and travelers were still using railways, and pipes were still a necessity for running water.

The Facts

Biden proposes to spend $2.3 trillion on an eclectic mix of programs over 10 years. From roads, bridges and airports to railways, ports, water systems, the electric grid and high-speed broadband, about one-quarter to half of the plan is dedicated to transportation and utilities, depending on how you count.

The American Jobs Plan also includes hundreds of billions of dollars for disaster resilience and pandemic preparedness, job training and small-business incubators, manufacturing investments and various types of research funding, public housing and upgrades to child-care centers, community colleges, VA hospitals and federal buildings, and other items.

The biggest single category is a $400 billion expansion of long-term, home- and community-based care services under Medicaid, which is a social benefit and not a tangible structure for the public’s common use. Another $174 billion would go toward consumer rebates for purchasing electric vehicles, as well as grants and incentives to build 500,000 new charging stations and funds for the federal government to buy electric vehicles or make its vehicles electric. The charging stations would be tangible structures for common use; the rest, not so much.

“Over the traditional 10-year budget window, we estimate the net increase in the deficit would be approximately $900 billion,” according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), which published a detailed breakdown of the costs. “The plan appears deficit-neutral over 15 years and it would reduce deficits over the long-term.”

The CRFB analysis contemplates Biden’s $2.3 trillion in spending and an additional $400 billion in tax credits that are under consideration. Trump and Republicans reduced the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent in 2017. Biden would hike it to 28 percent to round up revenue for his infrastructure plan. He also would raise the minimum tax rate on U.S. corporations’ foreign income, impose a new corporate minimum tax and make other changes.

The Biden plan includes many different types of expenses, and it’s reasonable to debate whether some of them are infrastructure in the commonly understood sense of the word. No one debates that fixing 20,000 highway miles and 10,000 bridges, as Biden’s plan calls for, clears the bar. But in English common usage, the definition of “infrastructure,” or at least “public infrastructure,” has grown over time to encompass new inventions such as electricity, railways and, more recently, broadband pipes and fibers. Although newer, these are still concrete-and-steel structures for transportation, and wires and pipes for utilities. (The Federal Communications Commission regulates some aspects of broadband Internet service but not like other utilities.)

Has the word “infrastructure” expanded to include funding for scientific research? How about upgraded VA facilities and community colleges? What about public transit systems (think buses, not roads)? This is where the debate becomes thornier, and we’re not going to adjudicate every single line item in Biden’s plan.

However, it’s clear that Vought’s math only works by ignoring hundreds of billions of dollars in rail, water, electric and broadband investments. Let’s say you don’t count one or two of those as infrastructure. His math still doesn’t add up.

“Replacing water pipes, laying fiber, building new housing, repairing our schools and our child-care facilities and our community colleges and our federal buildings, including VA hospitals — you would have to have an extremely narrow and indefensible definition of infrastructure not to include those elements,” a senior White House economic policy adviser told us.

Let’s group some expenses and compare.

  • Looking at concrete-and-steel structures for transportation, and wires and pipes for utilities, the combined spending would be $548 billion, or 24 percent of the $2.3 trillion pie. Here we are counting roads and bridges ($115 billion), passenger and freight rail ($80 billion), airports ($25 billion), waterways and ports ($17 billion), high-speed broadband ($100 billion), electric-grid and clean-energy investments ($100 billion), water systems ($66 billion) and eliminating lead pipes, which can be poisonous ($45 billion).
  • Adding those expenses to the other categories the White House adviser mentioned (housing, schools and community colleges, child-care facilities, federal buildings and VA hospitals) lifts the total to $926 billion, or 40 percent of the plan.
  • Taking a much more limited view, isolating concrete-and-steel structures for transportation (roads, bridges, rails, ports and airports) adds up to $237 billion, or more than 10 percent of the plan. Adding water systems and lead-pipe replacements to that comes to $348 billion, or 15 percent of the total price tag. (That’s more than twice the percentage Vought claimed.)
  • Biden’s plan includes a total $621 billion in transportation spending writ large, not just the structures mentioned above, but also electric-vehicle funds, road-safety initiatives and related items. That would be 27 percent of the plan’s $2.3 trillion price tag, not counting any utilities.

In 2018, the Trump White House was promoting federal grants specifically for rail and water system investments as part of its own, $200 billion infrastructure proposal. The plan was to spur an additional $1.3 trillion in state, local and private investment with those funds.

“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,” Trump tweeted in December 2017. “Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!” (Reminder: The $7 trillion supposedly spent on the Middle East was wrong, but that’s another story.)

The Trump administration touted a bus-and-rail project in Nashville as a model of what localities could do in partnership with the federal government. “The President’s plan will also widen local, state, and private entities’ access to capital to fund their infrastructure projects,” the Trump White House document adds. “The federal government lending programs currently include TIFIA (for transportation), WIFIA (for water), and RRIF (for rail).”

Why are those items not “real infrastructure” now that Biden is president?

Rachel Semmel, a former Trump OMB communications official who now works with Vought at a think tank he established, the Center for American Restoration, said in an email that “he is referring to transportation infrastructure which includes roads, bridges, ports, etc.”

Rail is a mode of transportation. Why did it fall off the list? What about water systems, which were specifically in Trump’s proposal? Quoting from a KPMG analysis of Trump’s plan, Semmel said that only a portion of $20 billion would have been “dedicated to funding ambitious, exploratory or groundbreaking projects proposed among key areas such as transportation, drinking water, energy, commercial space and broadband sectors.” Energy, you say? Biden has billions of dollars in there for the electric grid.

Appearing on Fox News on Sunday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was asked why Biden’s plan devoted only 5.6 percent of its spending to roads and bridges. (This statistic is roughly correct, but it leaves out all the other concrete-and-steel structures for common use and wires and pipes for utilities.)

“We’re talking about roads and bridges, we’re talking about rail and transit, we’re talking about airports and ports. As you mentioned, we’re talking about things like the grid,” Buttigieg said. “I don’t know why anybody would say it’s a mistake to invest in the grid after what we just witnessed in Texas. We saw U.S. citizens, living in Texas, melting snow in their bathtubs to be able to flush their toilets, in the United States of America. That is unacceptable. So yes, infrastructure includes energy infrastructure. You know what else is part of infrastructure now? Broadband. … I’m proud of the fact that we’re going to finally get broadband out to every American, because we know, especially in rural areas, how much that’s cutting people off from opportunity.”

Semmel said: “Water, energy, commercial space and broadband sectors are not transportation infrastructure. Each of these areas has a budget and committee process by which they can be debated, discussed, and amended, and then funds appropriated, as opposed to throwing up large round number amounts with no specific plan other than just to spend money and reward the left’s politically approved industries.”

For comparison’s sake, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was more careful in a recent statement criticizing Biden’s plan. “Unfortunately, less than 6% of this massive White House proposal would go to roads and bridges,” he tweeted. “It would spend more on electric cars than on roads, bridges, ports, airports, and waterways combined.” Both statements are technically accurate, though they gloss over other investments that reasonably could be described as infrastructure, just as Fox News did in its Buttigieg interview.

The Pinocchio Test

In one sense, Vought is slicing the baloney awfully thin. In another sense, boy, is this a lot of baloney.

From one administration to the next, railways, water systems, electric-grid upgrades, broadband and other investments that were once considered “real infrastructure” have been reduced to something less and crossed off the list.

Reasonable people can debate whether some elements of Biden’s plan fit the traditional concept of public infrastructure. As we’ve shown, there are various ways to do the math, depending on where you land.

But to say that Biden’s plan would devote only 5 to 7 percent of its $2.3 trillion cost toward “real infrastructure” is highly misleading, the kind of talking point that tries to erase recent history and parts of the English language as a battle begins to heat up in Congress.

Rail is transportation. Water pipes are infrastructure. Two plus two equals four. Vought earns Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios

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