Fifteen minutes. That’s how long our debates about infrastructure spending have been going on in the Senate. It was in early March that the Senate voted to approve $15 billion in funding for roads, bridges, ports, airports and other infrastructure. But that was in response to a spending plan created by a group called Infrastructure Week, and there have been more discussions about it ever since. This week, 12 senators sent a letter to their colleagues saying they supported another $60 billion in spending over five years.
Meanwhile, a group of Republican presidential candidates have united against investing in infrastructure. And a handful of Republican senators have said they will oppose the latest infrastructure plan unless it includes some tax break for private investors. In the House, Republicans were still trying to figure out their position this week.
There are many reasons for Infrastructure Week’s failure. It had people like Chris Christie, Kelly Ayotte and John Hoeven supporting the House bill in March. They all remain in the running for president in this GOP primary, where support for investing in infrastructure has gone out the window. The issue got zero mentions at a recent debate, as the participants veered off the infrastructure issue to talk about Iran. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s infrastructure a “D” in its latest report card, and there are real fears that our aging roadways, bridges and dams are not only unsafe but also expensive to maintain.
But Senate Republican leaders couldn’t agree on anything, and it has been abandoned in favor of, for example, President Trump’s idea of spending billions of dollars on roads, bridges and airports. And yet, in the discussions that have been held over the past few months, we often hear about the same five reasons that infrastructure is dead:
1. People who like and care about infrastructure care about its economic potential. And we haven’t given them enough incentives to invest.
Why should you care about infrastructure even if you don’t work in the sector? The United States is a place where everyone “works,” we have great natural and human resources, and there is great potential for prosperity. If someone cared enough about infrastructure, and was willing to spend some money on it, there is a clear expectation that something good will result. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the United States has not invested $100 billion a year in infrastructure since 2004. And it has been this way for so long that some people are genuinely curious whether something is actually happening, and genuinely invested in the future of the country.
2. There is not enough political will.
People who have been supporting Infrastructure Week may simply be looking for a forum to share their beliefs. It is true that there has been no insistence by Washington leaders on ever building a new way to solve the country’s infrastructure challenges. The U.S. doesn’t have a federal infrastructure program or work by a federally appointed infrastructure chief. And we need someone in charge of having a national infrastructure plan, which some senators have supported. That person could actually shape up to be the chief of the new infrastructure post.
3. It is too difficult to do.
It is easy to understand why Democrats would want to do infrastructure spending, because they believe in it and have a deep interest in making it happen. Everyone from President Obama to Hillary Clinton to Martin O’Malley in the Democratic primary have at some point supported more funding for infrastructure. Republican candidates, however, aren’t so much interested. They don’t have to answer to anyone but themselves, and it may be a little easier for them to throw up roadblocks if they are not really being forced to choose between competing ideas.
4. The federal government does not exist to build infrastructure.
This is the centerpiece of the attitude that led to the Constitution and has taken place for the past 220 years. The US government is not required to build infrastructure. It could build a bridge, it could invest in water, and it could build schools. The House of Representatives can approve a highway bill but it does not have to actually build a single mile of highway.
5. The Transportation Trust Fund will run out of money.
Finance experts say that this happens every year. In the latest warning from the Government Accountability Office about the fund, they do not mention that it might run out earlier than normal, thanks to the drop in gas tax revenue. This shows that many critics are ignoring the fact that Congress can do everything to fix this problem and still have deficits. Congress could and has been adding money to the fund for years, and could do so again if it wants to do so.