President Biden’s “Build Back Better” Plans Start to Take Shape

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Mar 25 2021 |
Construction of the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge in New York. Photo courtesy New York State Thruway Authority

Biden is expected to unveil a major infrastructure package next week in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg makes the case for investment on Capitol Hill.

The Biden administration on Thursday made a big push for infrastructure investment, with President Biden touting his soon-to-be-introduced proposal during his first press conference as commander-in-chief and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg talking about it on Capitol Hill.

Biden told reporters that he’ll share the specific details of his long-awaited plan during an upcoming trip to Pittsburgh, noting that it will aim to rebuild the “physical and technological infrastructure in this country so we can compete and create significant numbers of really good-paying jobs.”

News reports indicate that the $4 trillion package will be split into two parts, the first of which will tackle “traditional transportation projects.” The second will address other priorities, like universal pre-K, childcare, and college tuition.

But the scope of the first part is expected to quite large, going beyond funding for roads and bridges (although that will be in there, too). The measure will seek to accelerate a shift to clean energy, which will include everything from building electric vehicle charging stations to building new energy-efficient housing units to investing in advanced battery manufacturing.

While Biden faced the press on Thursday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg began to make the case for the massive investment to Members of Congress.

Testifying virtually before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Buttigieg said that the country has “the best chance in any of our lifetimes to make a generational investment in infrastructure that will help us meet our country’s most pressing challenges today and create a stronger future for decades to come.”

He continued:

“Across the country, we face a trillion-dollar backlog of needed repairs and improvements, with hundreds of billions of dollars in good projects already in the pipeline. We see other countries pulling ahead of us, with consequences for strategic and economic competition. By some measures, China spends more on infrastructure every year than the U.S. and Europe combined. The infrastructure status quo is a threat to our collective future.”

Infrastructure investment offers the opportunity to “create millions of good jobs,” Buttigieg said, adding that it will aim to “finally address major inequities” and “provide accessible public transit and mobility options.”

“Wise transportation investments are key to making the American Dream accessible for all, leading our global competitors in innovation, getting people and goods to where they need to be, creating good jobs – jobs that are union or pay prevailing wages – and tackling our climate crisis,” Buttigieg added. “Just like those who summoned the will to build the transcontinental railroad in the 1800s and the interstate highway system in the 1950s, we too have the opportunity now to imagine—and create—a different future for America’s transportation.”

House T&I Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said “there’s very broad agreement” that Americans want action to repair our crumbling, failing infrastructure (something our own polling here at the Alliance for American Manufacturing backs up).

“They’re tired of potholes, they’re tired of detours, failed bridges, congestion, and all the problems. They’re tired of water mains that blow up, and sewer systems that back up into their homes,” DeFazio said. “We can do this.”

DeFazio noted that the goal will be to rebuild infrastructure so it is resilient, able to withstand the impacts of climate change and other natural disasters like earthquakes. But he also cautioned that it wouldn’t be “Eisenhower 8.0,” as it will move beyond roads and bridges and “have an eye on the 21st century, and the challenges of the 21st century.”

Making sure that 21st century infrastructure is also Made in America will be essential. During the hearing, Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) asked Buttigieg about a 1983 Federal Highway Administration waiver to Buy America, urging him to “essentially junk it” in order to maximize the potential for American-made infrastructure.

Biden’s recent executive order on Buy America directed agencies to review waivers and maximize the potential of Made in America procurement. With that in mind, Buttigieg said that the agency will review the 1983 waiver and others like it, “making sure we are doing everything we can in keeping in the spirit of the president’s order.”

Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) also highlighted the need for effective Buy America enforcement. Buy America is of particular the importance to the U.S. steel industry, which will play a critical role when it comes time to building infrastructure – and faces immense pressure from global steel overcapacity, driven by bad actors like China.  

“There always are loopholes and cracks [to Buy America], and there’s been a lot of stories about foreign investors, particularly Chinese investors, taking advantage of those,” Lamb said.  

The predatory practices of China’s government came up several times during the hearing. DeFazio noted that the eventual infrastructure legislation will move to exclude companies that are owned, controlled or subsidized by China’s government from building infrastructure, citing the “predatory Chinese rail company and the bus company,” presumably referring to CRRC and BYD.

While infrastructure investment is the next major priority for the Biden administration and his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill, it is unclear whether the effort will be bipartisan. Republicans told Buttigieg on Thursday that they want any infrastructure bill to focus on traditional infrastructure needs and not address things like climate change or social justice.

“A transportation bill needs to be a transportation bill, not a Green New Deal,” committee ranking member Sam Graves (R-Mo.) said. “It needs to be about roads and bridges.”

One thing is clear, however: It’s past time to get on work on infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers just gave U.S. infrastructure a C- grade, with several specific parts of infrastructure (like school buildings, roads, and public transit) falling into the D category.

Join us in telling the Biden administration and Members of Congress to get to work rebuilding infrastructure with strong and enforceable Buy America provisions, creating millions of new jobs and literally laying the foundation for a better future.