President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, joined by Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, meet with bipartisan members of the House to discuss infrastructure Thursday, March 4, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
Unveiling what he called the boldest domestic spending package since the construction of America’s interstate highway system and the dawning of the space race, President Joe Biden released broad details of a $2 trillion infrastructure package that would rebuild highways and bridges, along with providing funding programs for housing, broadband and schools and increasing U.S. manufacturing jobs over the next eight years.
“This is a once-in-a-generation investment in America,” Biden said during his appearance at union training center in Pittsburgh. “We’ll grow the economy, and it will make us more competitive around the world. It’s big, yes, It’s bold, yes. And we can get it done.”
The package, part of Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda, would fund typical infrastructure projects such as rebuilding roads, advancing the country’s transition to electric vehicle charging stations, and combating climate change.
The sweeping program would be paid for through a tax hike on corporations, raising the rate from 21 percent to 28 percent. The Tax Policy Center, a non-partisan think tank that’s part of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution, estimates that reform alone is worth $730 billion over 10 years.
Biden told the crowd Wednesday that he wasn’t targeting wealthy Americans, and he pledged that no American who earns under $400,000 would see their taxes increase. Rather, he said, it was about leveling the playing field and making sure that wealthy corporations pay their fair share.
“This is not to target those who made it … this is about opening opportunities for everyone else,” he said. “We will all do better when we all do well. It’s time to rebuild the economy from the middle out, not the top down. Wall Street didn’t build this country, you, the great middle class, built this country. And unions built the middle class. And this time, when we rebuild the middle class, we’re going to bring everyone along.”
The plan also aims to bring clean energy manufacturing jobs to communities that rely on the coal industry in an effort to encourage manufacturers to locate in those areas.
“Imagine knowing you’re handing your children and grandchildren a country that leads the world in clean energy production,” he said.
Here’s some more of what the infrastructure plan would do:
• Modernize 20,000 miles of highways, roads and streets.
• Repair 10 of the most significant bridges in need of fixing, and repair 10,000 of the worst, smaller bridges.
• Double federal funding for public transportation and bring rail and bus services to communities that have been systematically excluded from those resources.
• Build a network of 500,000 electrical vehicle chargers, replace 50,000 diesel transit vehicles and electrify 20 percent of the yellow bus fleet (school buses).
• Provide $50 billion to make infrastructure more climate resilient and target 40 percent of that investment to disadvantaged communities.
• Pay for extending broadband to rural Americans, improving water quality, strengthening the electric grid and building affordable housing.
• Replace 100 percent of lead pipes and service lines in the U.S., and reduce lead exposure in 400,000 schools and child care facilities.
Spend $400 billion in expanding access to affordable home or community-based care for thousands of seniors and people with disabilities to support long-term care.
U.S. Rep. Don McEachin, D-Richmond, said the plan “holds the forward-thinking solutions the country needs to revitalize our economy post-pandemic, placing equity and climate action at the forefront of American infrastructure and innovation for a generation.”
Biden’s plan faces a tough road on Capitol Hill, and may have to be passed through the reconciliation process, bypassing Republicans.
But as Politico reported Tuesday, the plan also may have to overcome skepticism among Democrats who think it doesn’t go far enough. Among them is U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who said the package “is not nearly enough” and “needs to be way bigger.”
In a statement, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said that while he believes “we can and should do more to rebuild our nation’s physical infrastructure,” Biden’s plan would “[undo] large portions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. That 2017 tax reform helped create the best American economy of my lifetime.”
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Biden ally, told the Capital-Star Thursday that he believes Biden has a path to Republican votes, if Congress gets a “clean” bill that isn’t weighted down with extraneous spending items.
“The public wants to see us work together,” Rendell said. There’s something very salutary for the American people to see a bill pass with Republican and Democratic support.”
And when push comes to shove, progressives will be there to vote for the bill, Rendell added.
“If there is an infrastructure bill of the nature of $2 trillion, every progressive would have to vote for it,” he said.
For its part, the White House is looking for bipartisan support for the bill.
“So there’s no reason why it can’t be bipartisan,” Biden said. “The divisions of the moment shouldn’t stop us from doing the right things for the future.”
In response to the presidential announcement, a group of more than 360 local elected officials from across the United States, including 111 from Pennsylvania, called on Biden and Congress to approve “robust infrastructure funding to make our communities healthier and protect the environment.”
In Pittsburgh, Biden pledged to deliver an ambitious program: “People will look back in 50 years and say this is the moment where America won the future,” he said.
A ‘down payment’ on the climate crisis
The sprawling infrastructure and jobs proposal includes significant spending to address climate change, providing what conservationists say is an important “down payment” to address the crisis.
A 25-page outline calls for $10 billion for a Civilian Climate Corps, $16 billion for capping abandoned wells and cleaning up abandoned mines, and a general commitment to “protect and, where necessary, restore nature-based infrastructure.”
Parts of the proposal seemed intended to draw comparison to the New Deal, the broad public works and jobs program President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pushed in the 1930s as the way to lift the economy out of the Great Depression while improving infrastructure across the country.
The Civilian Climate Corps, for example, evokes the Civilian Conservation Corps, a broad New Deal public works program that built parks, roads and other infrastructure still in use. Biden in January signed an executive order establishing the corps, which now would be funded.
The expansive view of infrastructure was encouraging for those concerned about climate change.
“It is a terrific down payment on the work that we need to do,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, senior adviser for conservation policy with the National Wildlife Foundation. “This document recognizes the scale of the problem… and reaches to meet that scale.”
The package could be bipartisan because it helps “every corner of America,” Stone-Manning said.
But at least one influential Republican in Congress panned the proposal for its wide reach, as well as the pay-fors that include raising the corporate tax rate and closing tax breaks for oil and gas development.
“The president’s blueprint is a multi-trillion-dollar partisan shopping list of progressive priorities, all broadly categorized as ‘infrastructure’ and paid for with massive, job-killing tax increases,” House Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Sam Graves, (R-Mo.), said in a statement. “Such tax hikes couldn’t come at a worse time, with the economy fighting its way out of this pandemic.
Jenny Rowland, a senior policy analyst at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, said more federal spending and a broader scope would still be needed. The organization would work with Congress to “go even a little bigger,” Rowland said.
Among Biden’s core campaign promises last year was to address both the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.
The original Civilian Conservation Corps would be an apt model to both address the climate crisis and create jobs at a time when both are crucial, Stone-Manning said.
“When millions of tourists each summer come to Glacier National Park, they see the hand of the CCC,” she said. “That’s the scale of the work we can do today for the future.”
The administration’s proposal did not include many details about its Civilian Climate Corps, but members of Congress have introduced similar bills in recent years.
U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) introduced a bill last month that would authorize $9 billion for the “natural resources workforce,” largely focused on forest management and wildfire resilience.
The administration’s “plan will jumpstart our economy, by putting millions of Americans back to work addressing our nation’s infrastructure needs, and making needed changes to our energy grid, transportations systems and more to help tackle the climate crisis,” Neguse said in a Wednesday statement.
The plan also includes $16 billion to cap abandoned oil and gas wells and clean up abandoned mines. The National Wildlife Federation estimated earlier this year it would take about $27 billion to complete that task.
A 2018 EPA memo said there are between 2.3 million and 3 million abandoned onshore wells in the country.
Capping abandoned wells is important for the climate, Rowland said. It also provides jobs for the exact workers who would be displaced by a transition away from fossil fuels, she said.
“Those kinds of things are nearly tailor-made for oil and gas workers and are in the same places where they’re already workers,” she said. “So that is a huge job creator, as well as something that will be great for the climate.”
The economic effects of an energy transition have been among the primary talking points opponents use.
Congressional Republicans have criticized the administration’s oil and gas policies, including canceling the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline and pausing oil and gas leasing on federal lands, which they say has hurt job prospects.
In a statement Wednesday, Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee ranking member John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, didn’t address the provisions meant to spur job growth, but said the proposal’s tax hikes and price tag would hurt the economy and energy production.
“Democrats are offering to hamstring the economy with higher energy bills and higher taxes,” he said.
The administration and its allies have countered that a transition would create jobs in renewable energy.
Supporters of the proposal said it was appropriate to pair climate action with a jobs package.
“We’re in the largest economic setback since the Great Depression, so there is singular focus from our elected officials — as there should be—to jumpstart the economy and these jobs will do that,” Stone-Manning said. “And when the work is done, we will have left this place literally better than we found it.”
States Newsroom Washington Reporter Ariana Figueroa contributed to this story.
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John L. Micek is the Capital-Star's editor-in-chief. He's been covering Pennsylvania politics for more than 20 years and most recently served as opinion editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Micek's commentary is syndicated to more than 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. And he's a regular contributor to a host of broadcast outlets in Pennsylvania and abroad. Like the Mercury, the Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom.
Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter in the States Newsroom Washington bureau. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues as well as climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.