‘Just say no’ just won’t work for Senate Republicans
What are the chances the Biden Infrastructure Plan passes as-is? Since it is impossible to have a probability of below zero, I’ll opt for zero.
Biden’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan is not policy — it isn’t even a coherent plan. It’s a grab bag of promises intended to mollify every part of the rickety, squabbling Democratic Party coalition — with a play for union voters who went for Trump in 2016 and 2020. In other words, just politics.
But it is effective politics, with its constituent parts enjoying substantial public support. According to a recent YouGov poll, large majorities approve of most parts of the program. Even majorities of Republican voters approve of additional road, bridge and electrical grid construction, and job training.
Public support gets a little skittish when the full cost is emphasized but bounces back when they find out big corporations and individuals making over $400,000 per year will pay for it. There is nothing the public likes more than getting benefits paid for by other people.
Republican opposition has been underwhelming to say the least — and more accurately a political mess. GOP complaints about the price tag and potential inflation definitely have validity, but Republicans lost their credibility on fiscal restraint by pushing through nearly $4 trillion in deficit spending under President Trump (and that’s before the bill for COVID-19 is factored in). Higher taxes on corporations means someone else pays, which sounds pretty good to most people.
Republicans cannot truly take advantage of the inconsistencies and problems with the Biden plan unless they offer one of their own. Simply being a Scrooge to Biden’s Santa Claus is a sure political loser.
And there’s plenty of room for a GOP plan that takes to task Biden’s proposal. Not only is the plan a sprawling monster that covers so much ground Democrats have been reduced to risibly redefining the very word infrastructure.
Bridges, trains, buses, community colleges, manufacturing, child-care facilities, small business loans, even $25 billion for “complex projects” (whatever that is) are just a sample. The top 10 (unspecified) “most economically significant bridges” will be fixed — a final list presumably determined after some kind of infrastructure Hunger Games. What the public traditionally thinks “infrastructure” is comprises — at most — 14 percent of spending, and that’s including all mass transit and Amtrak spending, some of which is equipment.
This fact leads to the problem (and opportunity for Republicans) that even the infrastructure spending is completely out of proportion to consumer demand. Over 85 percent of the public commutes via car, truck or vanpool, while less than 5 percent commutes via mass transit — for a ratio of 17:1 for roadways. Yet, Biden proposes to spend $115 billion for highways and bridges and $85 billion for mass transit, a ratio of 1.35:1. And the above statistics are just for commuting. The vast majority of non-commuting travel is via car or truck or air for vacations — does anybody takes the train to the supermarket or the subway to Disney World?
To be fair, mass transit serves 7.57 million people per day, which is a far better investment that the $80 billion for Amtrak and its 89,100 passengers per day. That’s just over $11,000 per commuter against nearly $900,000 per Amtrak passenger — and a paltry $875 per user for highway projects, just divided by commuters and not including non-commuting or commercial traffic.
This imbalance is not due to economic analysis but is ideological. The progressive left hates cars. They think people have been duped into car ownership by a vast conspiracy between General Motors and the Standard Oil Trust. How is it possible that people would prefer to travel at their own convenience in climate-controlled privacy instead of trudging to a public transit stop, waiting in the rain/snow/broiling sun on someone else’s schedule, just to be packed like sardines for the duration of their trip? It’s a mystery.
Biden’s plan has another weakness that is alluded to in the text of the plan itself — if passed, when will he be able to deliver? For the most part, any spending on capital projects will be a long-time coming. “Shovel-ready” is a catchphrase, not reality. The Biden plan tacitly acknowledges this problem, stating it will engage in “… smart, coordinated infrastructure permitting to expedite federal decisions while prioritizing stakeholder engagement, community consultation, and maximizing equity, health, and environmental benefits.”
Too bad that the very delays Biden wants to short-circuit are caused by stakeholder engagement, community consultation, endless debates over “equity” and environmental costs — not to mention legal challenges by the cottage industry of obstruction that pervades the country.
In short, Biden wants to move things along, but he doesn’t want to get crosswise with any single unhappy obstructionist or litigious lawyer.
For Republicans this is a political opportunity, but only if they have their own proposal that directly addresses what the public wants, is economically efficient, and cuts down on the red tape and obstructionism that results in maddening delays and rising costs.
The Republican Party has a new base of working-class voters. Its leadership cannot just be a “No” on a jobs program.
With an alternative plan, the GOP could look good as Biden struggles to deliver the promised union jobs. With the Biden plan promising to fix just 20,000 of the 173,000 of roads in poor condition, most voters won’t be happy (and won’t experience) the largesse showered on niche transportation like Amtrak.
One of the myriad reasons Trump lost re-election was his unwillingness (or inability) to offer a vision of the future other than more of Trump. If congressional Republicans want to regain majorities and set the stage for a comeback into the White House in 2024, they cannot repeat Trump’s mistake.
Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.