Infrastructure and Pork

I thought long and hard before finally deciding to place the word “infrastructure” in the title of this week’s blog post. There’s nothing remotely sexy about that term, the way it conjures up visions of heavy machinery loaded with concrete and steel while laborers in hard hats breathe the dust kicked up by their leather work boots. Its root is obviously Latin, from “infra,” meaning below or within, plus “structure,” meaning to build. But I obviously left it in the title. I couldn’t think of another way to say it.

Infrastructure legislation has enjoyed a long history of bipartisan support. What better way for a member of Congress to ensure reelection than to point to an impressive dam, bridge, federal office building, or airport terminal while reminding voters, “I helped sponsor the legislation that built that structure.” The proof is visual. Tangible. Solid evidence of taxpayer dollars well spent.

Given the obvious popularity, why are so many Washington pundits opining that the Biden proposal will be a tough sell? Spirited Reasoners point to the following:

  • The bill, bearing a huge price tag of approximately $2 trillion, follows a Coronavirus stimulus bill of about that same amount. Unlike the earlier bill, however, infrastructure improvements would be paid for via a series of tax hikes on corporations. One can therefore expect to see intensive lobbying against the revenue side of the bill. (Perhaps the lobbying won’t actually be “seen,” but you get the point.)
  • Viewed from a partisan Republican perspective, nothing could be worse than to hand the Democratic Party a victory that could redound to that party’s benefit for possibly the next ten years, as nationwide construction continues. One could argue, for example, that if Donald Trump had taken on the unifying theme of infrastructure legislation rather than the divisive mission of border wall construction he might still be President today. Whichever party happens to be the party in power during a period of full employment, which is almost bound to result from trillions of dollars of nationwide construction projects, is likely to retain its electoral popularity, all else remaining equal. (It’s interesting to observe that when it comes to infrastructure, the most effective electoral strategy for Republicans would be to move even faster than President Biden while arguing that they have a much better plan. The fact that Donald Trump made no move on infrastructure during his four years in office, despite having promised to do so, prevents Republicans from coming across as sincere with such an argument in 2021.) Thus, all 50 Republicans in the Senate are likely to obstruct progress on the legislation and would need only one Democrat to go along with them in order to kill the bill.
  • Legislation involving construction is often referred to as “pork,” because every member of Congress is likely to want to add a special local project to the overall pie. Thus, a bill which began with an estimate of $2 trillion could balloon to twice that size very quickly in the absence of legislative discipline. (“Want me to vote for that bill? I’m on the fence right now and I’m planning to vote against it unless you add that new $200 million Senator Foghorn Leghorn Federal Office Building project in downtown Central City. If you agree to add that project then you can count me in.”)

As always, though, I’m the eternal optimist. I can already sense members of Congress salivating at the opportunity to take credit for the popular projects they could bring back to their constituents. Even the most conservative Republican in the most Trump-leaning district of a rural state is likely to look twice at legislation aimed at fixing roads and bridges while maybe even bringing high-speed internet to farm country.  

Spirited Reasoners expect the component pieces to move and change. But they feel confident in the inherent popularity of good old fashioned pork barrel politics. In fact, they expect the ultimate price tag to be larger, not smaller.