It’s a tale of the rhetorical tape.
It’s almost time to vote, everybody. As Nov. 3 approaches, the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) will be taking occasional looks at what President Trump and his challenger, Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden, plan to do on issues near and dear to our heart. AAM doesn’t endorse candidates, but we do examine their proposals to get a sense of how they might govern should they win office. This week, we’re looking at the presidential candidates’ plans to rebuild America’s public infrastructure, which for years has been falling into disrepair.
Infrastructure is a huge part of our country’s shared experience. When you hear a politician talking about infrastructure investment, it means spending to repair the roads we all drive on, the trains we take to work, and the airports from which we travel. It also means laying cable so there can be reliable internet access in rural areas, upgrading drinking water systems so cities like Flint aren’t made to drink poison indefinitely, and building resiliency into our aging (and stressed) electric grid. It’s quite literally all around us, and it’s been decaying for a long time.
This is not a new issue. People have been agitating for a large infrastructure spending program to no avail for so long that it’s become something of a joke. But that doesn’t make getting it done any less of a worthwhile struggle. A gargantuan federal spending bill for infrastructure projects would improve our national economic efficiency, make the rails, roads and bridges we all use safer, spread a ton of money around and put literally millions of people to work – no small thing when the coronavirus-induced recession has pushed unemployment toward 10 percent.
But enough preamble; we all know this stuff is important. Where do the two candidates stand?
Because Trump is the incumbent, we’ll start with a look at Joe Biden.
O.K., so what has Biden done?
Before he was vice president for eight years, Joe Biden had an almost 40 year career in the Senate. He commuted via Amtrak from his home in Delaware to the U.S. Capitol that entire time; as such, he’s been a reliable advocate for rail infrastructure funding. He’s been talking about this stuff forever – because he’s been in Washington forever.
But it’s probably more helpful to look at what he’s done recently. When he became vice president during the Obama administration, Biden was essentially handed responsibility for the implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) – the 2009 federal relief package passed in the wake of the financial crisis – which included large pots of money for infrastructure projects. The ARRA got almost no support from congressional Republicans, who shockingly didn’t see the efficacy in passing a stimulus bill written by Democrats, but some conservative opponents from that time concede the program didn’t lack for oversight – which was Biden’s job. He spent a lot of time calling local and regional officials to make sure the money was spent correctly and the program worked as planned.
What’s Biden proposing now?
In November of last year, the Biden campaign released an initial $1.3 trillion infrastructure proposal. This summer, he upped the proposal’s numbers to $2 trillion. It would, as the Wall Street Journal described it, “use climate policy as an economic-development tool over a framework of four years.”
This climate policy-infused infrastructure package Biden is proposing, he says, would eliminate carbon emissions from the national power grid by 2035 and greatly expand the availability and use of electric vehicles and electric mass transit – all of which would create markets for new infrastructure spending. It would also include hundreds of billions of dollars to be repair existing roads, bridges and other infrastructure. The clean energy infrastructure push is a major part of his larger proposed economic agenda, which (as we noted when these proposals were announced in July) also includes a $400 billion Buy America procurement budget. That would mean materials purchased for federally funded projects would come exclusively from domestic sources, guaranteeing the economic activity generated by that spending would remain stateside, and also ensure that the spending would be far more likely to directly benefit American workers.
It’s very ambitious and aspirational! Rhetorically, he’s aiming high.
What about Trump?
What has the president proposed on infrastructure, and what has he gotten done?
Late in the 2016 campaign, and shortly after Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton proposed a $275 billion infrastructure spending package, Trump announced he’d spend $500 billion, and then $1 trillion, on infrastructure. That was almost four times as much as Clinton proposed! It’s almost like he picked a nice, big round number for the purposes of one-upping his opponent.
Since then he’s talked, a lot, about his desire to pass an infrastructure bill. During the 2018 State of the Union (SOTU) address, Trump called on Congress to pass a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package. But the plan his administration sent to Capitol Hill had only $200 billion in dedicated funding, and administration officials said the other $1.3 trillion would rise from the private sector. It didn’t really matter, because the proposal didn’t go anywhere. (According to reports, the president didn’t like this plan much anyway.)
In 2019, Trump held a series of meetings with Congressional Democrats about passing a $2 trillion infrastructure package, but then said an infrastructure deal would wait until after Congress ratified his administration’s renegotiated North American trade deal with Mexico and Canada (which it has since done). But then Trump outright canceled further infrastructure talks because of his frustration with ongoing congressional investigations into his administration.
Two years after pitching the $1.5 trillion infrastructure proposal during the 2018 SOTU, Trump had abandoned the plan. He called on Congress during the 2020 SOTU to pass a $287 billion reauthorization of the Senate’s surface transportation bill, which is “largely a continuation of highway policy as it’s been done for decades,” wrote Politico. Then, when the economy shuttered and Congress considered an emergency relief bill to help the millions of suddenly unemployed across the country, the president tweeted that it was again time for a $2 trillion infrastructure bill. “VERY BIG & BOLD,” he said, using caps to show he meant business. Then, this summer, the White House suggested it was about to put forward a $1 trillion infrastructure bill … but that never materialized.
So Trump has talked a lot about infrastructure. Trump has talked. A lot! But not much has been done on this front, besides issuing a rule to “modernize and speed environmental reviews” of infrastructure projects “with an eye on greater efficiency and affordability.”
It’s safe to assume Trump would again advocate for trillions of dollars for an infrastructure spending, but details outlining such a policy are scant on his campaign website. You can buy a MAGA facemask, though.
What’s the bottom line?
The language used in presidential campaign rhetoric is often aspirational. If you’re a glass-is-half-empty person, it often sounds like they’re talking loudly without saying anything. Just look at Trump’s record on infrastructure over the past four years: All talk. It sounds good, it polls well, voters like it, but the issue simply hasn’t been advanced. And should Biden win the election, it very well could be that his administration will find an excuse to not do anything either.
But if you’re a glass-is-half-full guy – if you’re an optimist – you’ll notice that these two old cranks are both talking about infrastructure spending in terms of trillions. And it will take trillions (plural) to repair the deficiencies in American public infrastructure that have been allowed to grow over the decades. Dams fail, entire cities have seen their drinking water systems compromised, and bridges wash out. The whole country needs an upgrade. At least the terms on both sides of the debate – specifically, the numbers around it – realistically match the problems.
Still, talk is cheap. Whoever is elected President of the United States needs to make an infrastructure bill a priority.
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