As Congress returns to Washington this week, the debate over what, exactly, constitutes “infrastructure” is cranking up as President Joe Biden starts work to get a version of his American Jobs Plan passed.
Earlier this month, Fox News’ Chris Wallace asked a White House official about how hundreds of billions of dollars for housing and elderly and disabled care belonged in an infrastructure proposal.
”Well, look, I think we really need to update what we mean by infrastructure for the 21st century,” said White House National Economic Council Director Brian Deese.
Traditionally, “infrastructure funding” was widely understood as primarily funding for roads, highways, and bridges, with (sometimes controversially), some transit, bike paths and other items thrown into the mix.
In the past, we saw big infrastructure measures with names like the 2015 FAST Act (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) or 1991’s ISTEA (Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act.) We often called them “highway bills” because so much of them focused on roads and bridges.
But Biden’s plan goes well beyond those traditional ideas of infrastructure, and that’s going to make it difficult to get Republican support. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, has called the American Jobs Plan a “Trojan horse” for liberal policies. And the No. 2 Senate Republican, John Thune of South Dakota, has called it a “big, bold, utopian, European-style socialism proposal” that Democrats “can try to do another time.”
Last week in a speech, Biden said, “The idea of infrastructure has always evolved to meet the aspirations of the American people and their needs. And it's evolving again today,” he said, contending that the country needs to view infrastructure "through its effect on the lives of working people in America.”
“To automatically say that the only thing that's infrastructure is a highway, a bridge or whatever, that's just not rational. It really isn't.”
“Why would anyone turn against broadband because it’s not a bridge, or come out against water pipes because they’re not highways?” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Facebook and Twitter.
So let’s look at the definition of infrastructure:
- Merriam-Webster defines infrastructure as “the system of public works of a country, state, or region; also the resources (such as personnel, buildings, or equipment) required for an activity.” A secondary definition is “the underlying foundation or basic framework (as of a system or organization).”
- Cambridge calls it, “The basic systems and services, such as transportation and power supplies, that a country or organization uses in order to work effectively.”
- Oxford: "The basic systems and services that are necessary for a country or an organization to run smoothly, for example buildings, transport and water and power supplies.”
- Dictionary.com: “The basic, underlying framework or features of a system or organization,” or, “the fundamental facilities and systems serving a country, city, or area, as transportation and communication systems, power plants, and schools.”
Did you notice that all of these definitions go beyond roads and bridges?
About $620 billion of the Biden plan is allocated to surface transportation, including roads, public transit, trains and airports. Republicans have taken issue with going beyond that traditional focus, saying only about 6% of the total cost of the bill is allocated to roads, bridges and highways. And the fact that the biggest line item from this portion of the package is a $174 billion investment in the electric-vehicle industry is another target for criticism.
I would make the argument that all of these could reasonably be considered “infrastructure” based on the definitions above, even if they don’t fit into the traditional “highway bill” version of the meaning of the word on Capitol Hill. I think you even can make a valid argument about electric-vehicle charging infrastructure being a valid use of “infrastructure” funding. As Buttigieg has pointed out, “electric vehicle charging infrastructure is absolutely a core part of how Americans are going to need to get around in the future.”
The president’s plan would even go beyond that, however, with investments in caregiving services, utilities, climate-related technology and domestic manufacturing. $400 billion to expand the quality and affordability of home-based care for the elderly and disabled is the second-largest individual allocation segment of the bill. That really does seem to be stretching the definition of infrastructure.
Perhaps that’s why Biden’s plan doesn’t actually have "infrastructure" in the name, even though it’s widely being called an infrastructure bill. It’s the American Jobs Act. Transportation does make up the largest single piece of the bill, but it’s still only about a quarter of it.
In addition to the definition of what actually should be included in an infrastructure bill is the pressing question: How are we going to pay for it all?
If you accept that infrastructure goes beyond roads and bridges, and includes things such as water, electric-charging, and internet broadband, then it also makes sense that the president’s plan does not look at raising the fuel tax or even a vehicle-miles-traveled fee. Biden has proposed raising the corporate income tax and closing loopholes that have let big corporations get away with not paying any income tax at all, not an uncontroversial idea.
Biden has a big challenge ahead of him; even some moderates in his own party are pushing back against some of the provisions. The one-year extension of the previous infrastructure funding plan passed last fall expires this Oct. 1. That’s less than six months away, which in the world of Washington, isn’t really a lot of time.