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The GOP claims the infrastructure act has a social agenda – it’s a partisan detour

A sign is seen as Senate Republican unveil their infrastructure plan during a press conference
Greg Nasn

On Jan. 19, 16 Republican governors sent a letter to President Biden urging him and Infrastructure Implementation Coordinator Mitch Landrieu to “not attempt to push a social agenda through hard infrastructure investments” and to instead “consider economically sound principles that align with state priorities.”  

The governors purport a social agenda embedded in the recently enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act coming from “excessive consideration of equity, union memberships, or climate as lenses to view suitable projects.” But even a cursory review of the act contradicts each of the letter’s claims.  

First, the act is already weak regarding racial and income equity. As my colleagues and I have detailed, the act primarily funds business as usual initiatives, with continued funding for traditional infrastructure that has cemented negative social agendas for low-income households and working communities for decades. It does not fully address critical physical infrastructure such as housing, nor does it even modestly include needed social infrastructure and safety net programs. The act does not identify specific places that should be prioritized by states other than the Appalachian region, tribal lands and rural communities. It leaves almost all decision-making to states on how to use their formula grants, which are the bulk of the act. By encouraging a wider range of infrastructure options including repairing existing roads and water lines and opening funds for transit options, it actually provides more flexibility to states to better serve their residents than what the governors suggest. 

The equitable distribution of infrastructure’s benefits and burdens is, second, an “economically sound” approach. The evidence is now overwhelming that considering how projects affect all neighborhoods and populations and whether they distribute outcomes fairly produces economic gains higher than building infrastructure that will only benefit a portion of the community or that is designed in ways that negatively impact others. Displacing families, blighting neighborhood businesses, exposing households to pollution and refusing access to transport, clean water and other services have been common in our nation’s infrastructure. State and local planners placed interstate highway I-40 in the middle of predominately Black North Nashville, destroying the commercial corridor and displacing business owners and residents in the backyard of Gov. Bill Lee, the lead signatory of the current letter.  

Fairness has not been cemented in our infrastructure policy and it has constrained our economies as a consequence. Employment and wage growth are key contributors to regional economies, if not the most important. Infrastructure has been a steady source of jobs, skills building and wealth building for working families throughout the country’s history. Governors from all states want jobs. But, good-paying and good quality jobs create lasting economic growth. Making sure that jobs created by the act pay fair wages helps workers in the very states that need it the most, states that the signatory governors represent. 

A final point that the governors suggest inhibits their spending is climate change. Neglecting opportunities for climate mitigation and preparations for climate adaptation is economic suicide. Governors from states like Alabama and South Carolina, who are seeing increased hurricanes and coastal inundation; Tennessee, which recently experienced deadly tornadoes; Missouri and North Dakota, which have witnessed repeated flooding; Texas, with its whiplashing Hurricane Harvey and winter storm Uri; and Alaska, which has steadily lost land due to thawing permafrost (and the fastest rising average temperatures in the country) would be wise to invest in appropriate physical systems now rather than let their populations suffer the consequences. The Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act merely asks states to pick projects that will not be destroyed right after they are built. 

Ultimately, the claim that the act embeds a social agenda into our infrastructure is both an inaccurate reading of its details and pretends that past and current infrastructure have no social effects. Other governors that did not sign the letter have levied related claims against the act. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott instructed his state’s agencies to not take Texas’ estimated $35 billion in federal monies if the grants required them “to implement a federal policy contrary to the law or policy of this state.” Florida’s Ron DeSantis referred to his state’s minimum allotment of $18 billion as “pork-barrel spending.”   

Though the act was drafted and passed with bipartisan support after years of repeated “infrastructure weeks” supported by their own party — and includes expediting of federal regulatory processes that have been a bane for states for decades — the Republican governors refer to the massive investments in their states’ infrastructure as “federal overreach.” But, the signatory governors have used past infusions of federal dollars, such as those from the pandemic’s American Rescue Plan, for dubious “infrastructure.” Would Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama state that her investment in prison building is not addressing a social issue? Governors who live in glass infrastructure should not throw social agenda stones.  

To quote technological historian Melvin Kranzberg, technology is neither good nor bad — nor is it neutral. Our nation’s infrastructure is no different. Our government at all levels needs to ensure that the rules for building and maintaining our infrastructure are clear and fair for everyone. Federal guidance is needed to set a transparent foundation for all states for future growth, not to keep up the pretense that it has been fair in the past.  

Dr. Carlos Martín is a Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the author’s name. 

Tags bipartisan infrastructure bill Construction Greg Abbott Infrastructure Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Joe Biden Kay Ivey Renewable energy in the United States Ron DeSantis

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