Infrastructure? Not unless the House rethinks its offer
Chalk it up as a case when conventional wisdom desperately needs to be challenged.
The Washington political class is convinced that a Biden-led Washington can forge a large-scale infrastructure bill with Congress, regardless of who controls the Senate.
“Yes, unsexy infrastructure,” says the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib. “Roads, bridges, airports, subways, broadband networks, windmills, solar farms. Infrastructure just might be the vehicle that could smash through the political roadblocks in Washington, and perhaps demonstrate that, yes, things can get done. It isn’t dramatic, but maybe we’ve all had enough drama for a while.”
The high-level rhetoric, however, continues to miss a fundamental point: the bill passed out of the U.S. House in 2020 — The INVEST in America Act, or HR 2 — is so far apart from the Senate’s surface transportation bill passed in 2019 that without major changes, talk of infrastructure legislation is as doomed during the Biden era as a new tax cut or a sweeping climate bill.
Only if House Democrats rewrite their hyper partisan legislation to something closer to the overwhelmingly bipartisan Senate bill — about seven times smaller — could D.C. policymakers notch a win.
In short, Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) must not reintroduce HR 2 as a carbon copy. Instead and for the sake of U.S. consumers, he should work with Republicans and present legislation committed to the core needs at hand — surface transportation networks and funding — while avoiding divisive policy riders in any number of areas.
Recent analysis by Consumer Action for a Strong Economy (CASE) provides some straightforward recommendations.
First, Congress must recommit to funding highway maintenance reforms that might return us to a sustainable user-pay model, such an increased gas tax, a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) fee or a Road User Charge (RUC), or equivalent system. Such a fee would rely on additional infrastructure for monitoring and levying the tax that is not yet in place, but it has several critical benefits. The most noteworthy is that it would not be affected by increasing fuel efficiency or the prevalence of hybrid and electric cars. Another, spelled out in a recent CBO report, is that a VMT fee could be adjusted based on factors such as vehicle configuration, weight, location, purpose, and other factors, allowing vehicles causing the greatest infrastructure damage to support their share of infrastructure costs without imposing an unsustainable burden on commuters or other drivers
While still years away, a transition is feasible, says Robert Atkinson, chair of the 2009 Surface Transportation Financing Commission.
Next, House Democrats should avoid controversial subjects that diverge from core challenges at hand. For instance, HR 2 create several new grant programs, rather than working to improve others. It also devotes endless energy and resources to areas best handled by other committees and bills, such as housing, broadband and energy.
Additionally, HR 2 goes out of its way to appease favored stakeholders — such as labor — in imposing new regulations, rather than letting the market and common sense drive many decisions. The rail title of the bill — which includes many operational mandates — stands out as especially problematic.
Last, Congress must commit itself to transparency in this process. With an expectation that earmarks will return in the next Congress, infrastructure legislation should not become a vehicle to disproportionately shovel pork to congressional districts. Improving our highways, bridges and the like should be equitable — not isolated to those holding leadership roles.
Talking heads are right that infrastructure is important and ripe for compromise. But that process must start now in the House.
Gerard Scimeca is an attorney and co-founder of CASE, Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, a free-market oriented consumer advocacy organization.