Is Consensus Emerging on the Need for Infrastructure?

By Lauren Ban
Jun 10 2021 |
A screenshot from Axios’ “1 Big Thing: The Path Towards Infrastructure” program.

Though there are disagreements over its size and shape of legislation, White House, Congress and the private sector all seem to be pulling in the same direction.

There’s a lot of movement on infrastructure bills and initiatives this week on Capitol Hill, and Axios managed to get three distinct perspectives on the proceedings into its virtual event covering domestic spending on Wednesday.

White House National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee member Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) and Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) as well as United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, all sat for a series of interviews during the “1 Big Thing: The Path Towards Infrastructure” program (United sponsored the event).

Deese went first, and offered the White House’s perspective on the topic of infrastructure. “This is about investing in our country in a way that we haven’t done in decades, but we know works,” he said.

“If anything, you look at the global situation and the competitive situation we find ourselves in, and these investments are even more vitally needed,” said Deese of President Biden’s American Jobs Plan. He described goals, such as driving a vehicle across the country without needing to stop for gas, as being within our reach — with help from Congress. And, like the president, he urged lawmakers to find a consensus solution.

 “The ideas in the American Jobs Plan are not Democratic ideas or Republican ideas. The best way forward is to operate in a bipartisan manner wherever we can.”

Though he was repeatedly asked whether the White House would move forward with only Democratic support for the plan, Deese, again, said no. “[Biden’s] only redline is inaction.”

That’s not to say there has not already been some significant movement on the topic of infrastructure. This week alone, the Senate passed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act. Meanwhile, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee began the markup of a new piece of infrastructure legislation called the INVEST in America Act on Wednesday.

“We’re making progress,” said Deese. “It’s not always pretty, but that’s the legislative process.”

There to speak to the challenges of Congressional negotiations were House members Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Rodney Davis (R-Ill.). Both sit on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, with DeFazio serving as chair.

“We have to get the policy done,” said DeFazio. So far, major stumbling blocks for Republican committee members, from DeFazio’s point of view, have been either the inclusion of climate change language or the size of the bill.

The best way forward is to operate in a bipartisan manner wherever we can.”

Brian Deese, White House National Economic Council Director

When looking at the ambitious goals of the American Jobs Plan, however, House Republicans have not been the only ones resistant to change.

“We need to look at options where you can move people more efficiently by transit or commuter rail, and a lot of state just haven’t been willing to do that,” explained DeFazio. “They just want to keep doing the same old thing – build the highway bigger, bigger.”

That said, DeFazio recognized that bringing along Congressional members, as well as state and local actors, is crucial to the plan’s success. “These are the kind of things we need to look for. These partnerships, knitting things together, serving the country better and dealing with climate change at the same time.”

Offering the House Republican point of view, then, Davis argued that climate change language was not what made him hesitant to vote in favor of some of the bills passing through committee. His primary issue was with the regulatory structures surrounding infrastructure projects.

“I’m all for making sure that we protect our environment. I’m all for making sure that we do the right reviews. But [regulatory reviews] can’t go on for an average of 15 years,” said Davis. “That’s crazy.”

During the interview Davis compared infrastructure bills to a vehicle. He argued that Congressional members need to look at the fuel-efficiency of the bills. “Everybody wants to talk about an overall number, but not as many people want to talk about those dollars being spent … in a more fuel-efficient manner,” said Davis. He argued that a cap of two years for regulatory review would greatly improve the overall climate for infrastructure.

Rounding out the three perspectives at the virtual event was Kirby, the United Airlines CEO. “We’re very supportive of improving infrastructure, here, in the country,” he said.

Kirby explained how the airline industry had been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. He said that, although airline travel has rebounded for leisure travel, the industry could have suffered much larger losses during the pandemic were it not for the CARES Act and similar Congressional relief efforts.

Looking forward to the airline industry’s goals of next generation aviation and sustainable aviation fuel credits, both which are addressed in the Sustainable Skies Act that was recently introduced in the House, Kirby explained that “the biggest things that we’re focused on in the near-term are really in the infrastructure bill and what can be done around climate change initiatives.”

So, while there appear to be minor disagreements about the way to get there, in general, the four speakers present at Axios’ virtual event on Wednesday all seemed to agree that something needs to be done about our country’s infrastructure. We couldn’t agree more. As Axios’ Mike Allen said, the American Jobs Plan offers us “a bridge from crisis to stability.”

Watch the event here (it’s not too long).