Well, and that it kept trying anyway. I can’t say with certainty how many times Trump officials tried to make infrastructure a focus, but it seems like a lot.
But that, too, is revealing. The Trump administration kept talking about doing something on the subject because people like the idea of the federal government digging in on infrastructure. It’s one of the tropes of modern American politics: annoyance at Congress, exasperation at taxes and broad approval of keeping highways and airports operational. A Pew Research Center poll in 2018 found that 88 percent of Americans said they wanted increased spending on “roads, bridges and other infrastructure,” with more than a third of the country identifying it as a top priority. Advocating infrastructure spending is good politics — and a good presidential legacy.
That is unquestionably why President Biden’s second major legislative push is a bill that has loosely been described as being centered on infrastructure. Its actual title is “The American Jobs Plan,” leveraging another popular political locus: employment. The Washington Post broke out how its proposed $2 trillion in spending is distributed.
That the bill includes things like home care for the elderly has spawned a Beltway debate about what should and shouldn’t count as “infrastructure.” We tend to assume that the term is referring to things like bridges, but it’s obviously the case that the country’s actual infrastructure is broader than roads. Where one draws the line is subjective and has, over the past few days, stoked a multifaceted debate that encourages participants to dismiss various parts of the Biden proposal as unnecessary or unrelated to the central issue.
This, I am confident, is a debate that the Biden team is happy to have.
We will first note that major pieces of legislation often include components that seem to deviate from the bill’s central intent. In 2017, Trump signed into law the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” a bill slashing corporate taxes and, for a while anyway, reducing income taxes for some Americans. But it did a lot of other things, too, like removing the individual mandate from the Affordable Care Act. That bill authorized fossil-fuel drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. After the law was signed, Trump boasted about getting ANWR drilling approved, something that even Ronald Reagan couldn’t get done.
Sure, you can argue that the individual mandate excision was part of the “tax cuts” part of the bill. And drilling in the Arctic could be presented as being about “jobs,” even though the broad rhetorical debate over the bill was about the tax cuts that were its flagship issue. As soon as you do that, you see the overlap with Biden’s infrastructure bill — again, “The American Jobs Plan” — and its inclusion of things that can similarly be covered under the provided rhetorical umbrella.
Why wasn’t there widespread outcry about the ACA change and the drilling when Trump’s bill was passed? In part because the umbrella under which it was offered was itself unpopular. Only about a third of the country supported the bill anyway; there was no need for opponents to isolate these less-popular parts of the bill to gin up skepticism. Voters were already skeptical.
Biden’s team has done this sort of thing before. It knows that using infrastructure as the vehicle for these other elements improves the odds that those other elements can be implemented. What’s more, that the debate is centered on what counts as “infrastructure” simply reinforces that infrastructure is popular. Opponents of the legislation are essentially ceding the idea that the big-ticket spending on traditional infrastructure is fine by picking on these other components of the bill. Meanwhile, people reading the paper or watching the news are hearing mostly about how Biden is trying to pass an infrastructure bill.
A similar fight emerged over the first major legislation offered by Biden. That legislation was presented as a relief bill responding to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and it, too, included ancillary components. Republicans and conservative media picked out various parts to assail, but the bill was broadly popular and generally described in the way that the administration wanted: as economic relief centered on the pandemic. That it included stimulus checks for tens of millions of Americans certainly didn’t hurt its popularity, but, regardless, efforts to cast the legislation as overbroad didn’t seem to dent its popularity.
None of this is to say the infrastructure bill should simply be rubber-stamped by Congress, of course. It’s just pointing out that the Biden White House, unlike Trump, appears to understand the value in framing and consistency.
When it comes to talking about an “infrastructure bill,” there’s probably no such thing as bad publicity.