In The News Quiz September 20, 2021

Rebuilding America: The Politics of Infrastructure

How did the 13 British colonies making up the original United States become one nation—rather than, say, the 13 separate countries then comprising Latin America? To a significant extent, through infrastructure projects. Improving roads and canals in the early republic was, George Washington intoned across his presidency, the “cement of interest” that would ensure national unity among far-flung, culturally very different collections of people.

Efforts to enhance U.S. infrastructure—to facilitate trade, communication, national defense, pleasure and professional travel, and much more—have been leading subjects of state and federal policymaking since. From so-called “internal improvements,” which dominated national politics over the first half of the 19th century, to the interstate highway system championed by President Eisenhower in the 1950s, to Biden Administration efforts to extend broadband and connect all Americans with high-speed internet service, infrastructure is a constant in our politics.

Nearly a quarter-century has elapsed since the last major infrastructure bill passed Congress and was signed into law. In August 2021, the Senate approved—with strong bipartisan support—a $1 trillion infrastructure bill. About $550 billion is for new spending, with about a fifth of that ($110 billion) designated for roads and bridges. Railways, power/energy, and broadband each would receive around $65 billion. Other leading areas of emphasis: water (think crumbling, often ancient pipes; poorly maintained reservoirs and other water storage), public transit, and enhancing airports around the U.S.

Given a Senate majority vote of 69-30, will infrastructure pass easily and swiftly in the House? No, given complex political maneuvering in recent weeks. The original $2.6 trillion Democratic infrastructure proposal in both House and Senate included investments in clean energy, climate-change mitigation, and public housing and education. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi indicated that the scaled-back Senate $1 trillion version would only come to the House floor for a vote if the Senate first passed a budget proposal featuring all those items and more; the estimate for that budget bill is more than $3.5 trillion.

What do you think? Should House Democrats continue to block infrastructure until the Senate passes their preferred budget bill, with large spending increases for social policy? Or should a long-awaited and bipartisan infrastructure measure, already passed by a comfortable margin in the Senate, receive a separate House vote as soon as possible? Your answer could help inform one of the oldest political debates in the United States: How best to enhance the transportation and communication networks essential to human and commercial flourishing?

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