Much Ado About Not Much

It looks like the Senate will pass an inadequate infrastructure bill after months of discussion. It’s been heralded as a bipartisan breakthrough. But it doesn’t meet the moment, as Katrina vanden Heuvel explains for The Washington Post: 

While the infrastructure deal’s architects are hailing it as proof that bipartisan cooperation is possible, in fact, the deal is both inadequate and disingenuous. Its inadequacy is illustrated by the hundreds of millions of dollars cut from the original administration proposal: no more funding for research and development, for U.S. manufacturing, for public housing, schools and child-care centers, for home and community-based care, or for clean-energy tax credits. The bill also cuts proposed funding for public transit by half, for electric vehicles by 90 percent and for broadband by a third.

The bill is disingenuous both on the spending side and on the revenue side. To lower the bill’s price tag without totally gutting the programs, the bill uses a five-year timeline as opposed to the eight years in the original Biden plan. Because Republicans refuse to consider raising taxes on the rich and the corporations — which most Americans sensibly favor — or even empowering the IRS to collect taxes that the wealthy already owe, the bill offers gimmicks such as collecting unpaid taxes on cryptocurrencies and reclaiming past coronavirus aid funds. Almost half of the supposed $1 trillion price tag is from money already authorized.

The result is that any serious effort to alleviate the real crises facing Americans will depend on progressives corralling Democratic unity around the $3.5 trillion budget resolution that has been put together under the leadership of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). That bill will authorize crucial funding left out of the bipartisan deal — clean energy, research and development, manufacturing aid, housing and schools, child care — as well as sustaining the child tax credit and expanding Medicare coverage.

But to pass the reconciliation bill, Democrats need the votes of all 50 caucus members, and [Sen. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)] have indicated that they may balk at the $3.5 trillion price tag. (Sinema has even said that she won’t allow any votes to interfere with her vacation plans. If she were to carry out that threat, she could torpedo both bills on her way out the door.) Once again, these so-called centrists are standing in the way of Congress addressing catastrophic climate change, investing in civilian research and development, boosting domestic manufacturing vital to our economy, and alleviating inequality and the pressures on working families. Also at stake are the chances Democrats have to retain their majorities in both the House and Senate in the 2022 elections, for their vote will surely be depressed by a failure to deliver.

It’s not that Sinema or Manchin have a specific, principled stance. They just want less. If there is a final agreement, it will probably be reached just like the infrastructure deal, by lowering the total price tag while sustaining most of the annual level of spending by reducing the number of years the programs are authorized. That will give the programs less time to take effect and make them more vulnerable to repeal.

With record wildfires, a terrible pandemic starting to revive, extreme inequality and an economy that doesn’t work for working families, most Americans increasingly realize that it is time for bold action. Yet, we have a Republican Party consumed by delusions and dedicated to making the administration fail. For all the bipartisan blather, Democrats must get it done on their own — despite having only a one-vote margin in the Senate (counting the vice president breaking a tie) and a three-vote margin in the House. And that requires Sinema, Manchin and others to get with the program.

If Only Silly Talk Fixed America’s Infrastructure

What’s known as Biden’s “infrastructure bill” is actually called “The American Jobs Plan”. There’s an 11,000 word summary at the White House site. These are the opening paragraphs from what would print out as twenty, single-spaced pages:

While the American Rescue Plan [the Covid relief bill] is changing the course of the pandemic and delivering relief for working families, this is no time to build back to the way things were. This is the moment to reimagine and rebuild a new economy. The American Jobs Plan is an investment in America that will create millions of good jobs, rebuild our country’s infrastructure, and position the United States to out-compete China. Public domestic investment as a share of the economy has fallen by more than 40 percent since the 1960s. The American Jobs Plan will invest in America in a way we have not invested since we built the interstate highways and won the Space Race.

The United States of America is the wealthiest country in the world, yet we rank 13th when it comes to the overall quality of our infrastructure. After decades of disinvestment, our roads, bridges, and water systems are crumbling. Our electric grid is vulnerable to catastrophic outages. Too many lack access to affordable, high-speed Internet and to quality housing. The past year has led to job losses and threatened economic security, eroding more than 30 years of progress in women’s labor force participation. It has unmasked the fragility of our caregiving infrastructure. And, our nation is falling behind its biggest competitors on research and development (R&D), manufacturing, and training. It has never been more important for us to invest in strengthening our infrastructure and competitiveness, and in creating the good-paying, union jobs of the future.

Instead of a debate about the details, we’re getting a stupid argument about the word “infrastructure”. Paul Waldman of The Washington Post discusses:

Republicans are still road-testing their attacks on the giant infrastructure bill Democrats are assembling, and while some are predictable (It would be disastrous to raise taxes on corporations!), their most frequent one is not only weak; it also shows how disconnected the debate in Washington can sometimes get from the things that actually affect people’s lives.

Unfortunately, the news media are giving them a big hand.

If this past weekend you tuned into the Sunday shows, where the conventional wisdom is lovingly shaped and admired, you would have seen the same theme replayed over and over about the infrastructure bill:

  • “This $2 trillion ask, only about 5 percent of the funding goes to infrastructure,” Margaret Brennan of CBS News’s “Face the Nation” asked Cecilia Rouse, chair of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers. “Can you honestly call this a focus on building roads and bridges?” [Mr. Waldman lists three more examples from NBC, ABC and Fox, but one is painful enough.]

First, let’s be clear that the “only 5 percent” counts as “real infrastructure” talking point is utterly bogus. It defines infrastructure as only roads and bridges, leaving out railroads, water and sewer systems, the electrical grid, broadband, housing and any number of other things that you probably think of when you hear the word.

The idea that only roads and bridges are infrastructure is like saying, “You said your house needed work, but the floors and walls seem fine. Why bother fixing the leaking pipes and the broken roof and the electrical system that shorts out? That’s not really the core of the house, which as we all know is floors and walls and nothing else.”

But the more important question is: Why in the world would it possibly matter what definition of “infrastructure” we use?

Imagine it’s a few years from now. This bill has passed and as a result, the crumbling bridge in your town has been replaced and the roads have been resurfaced — no more banging your car over all those potholes. In addition, there’s a new senior center in town with all kinds of facilities and services, operated by a skilled staff making a living wage.

Do you think your neighbors will say, “I like the bridge and the roads, but the senior center? Sure, my mother-in-law loves her fitness class there, and they helped her solve that Medicare problem she had, but it just doesn’t seem like ‘infrastructure’ to me.”

Of course not, because that’s not what people care about. They want to know that government did worthwhile things with their tax dollars, whatever category you might put each line-item into.

Now it’s true that Democrats have indeed thought broadly about what to put in this bill, including things that are not installed by burly men in hardhats but that they believe are important. Republicans may find some of those things — like building housing, or improving care for the elderly and disabled, or promoting electric vehicles — not to be worthwhile. Which is fine.

But if that’s what Republicans think, they should explain why we shouldn’t actually build more housing, and we shouldn’t fund care for the elderly, and we shouldn’t promote electric vehicles. Just saying “That doesn’t sound like ‘infrastructure’ to me” is not an argument. This isn’t the Merriam-Webster editorial board; it’s the U.S. government.

So what if instead of asking Is this really infrastructure? about the various provisions in this bill, we ask Is this a good thing?

You can apply that standard to both road repairs and increased spending on elder care. Is this something important and worthwhile? Will funding it in the way that is proposed accomplish the goals we set out? Will it improve life for Americans?

If the answer to those questions is yes, then we should probably do it.

There may well be provisions in the initial proposal that don’t meet that test. But I want to hear Republicans explain why they think we shouldn’t invest in elder care or electric vehicle charging stations. Maybe their arguments are so well-informed and persuasive that we’ll say, “You know what, they’re right — Democrats should take that out of the bill.” I doubt it, but it’s always possible.

That’s how policy debate is supposed to work: We argue about which problems need addressing, then we argue about which solutions to deploy. If it all works out, the legislation that gets passed reflects the outcome of that deliberation, with the unworthy ideas jettisoned and the worthy ideas becoming law. But arguing about the definition of words such as “infrastructure” gets us precisely nowhere.

Yet because one of the parties is repeating this talking point, journalists feel that to be “tough” they have to use it to frame their questioning of the other party. The result is that we miss what’s really important.

Unquote.

Calling talk show hosts “journalists” is an insult to journalism. “Talking heads” would be more accurate. “Overpaid talking heads” to be more precise. We can hope, however, that talking about semantics will serve to educate the public, the politicians and even some talking heads.

Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia “Democrat”, says he can’t support putting the corporate tax rate back at 28%. Playing the sensible statesman for the folks back home, he thinks 25% would be all right. In a way, it’s good that he’s got so much power at the moment, providing the last vote for Democratic initiatives. It shows that Biden is trying to make progressive changes. If the president was being more conservative, Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders would be the 50th vote. So we’ll continue to hear Manchin’s pronouncements. He must love all the attention.

Why Infrastructure Is More Than Roads and Bridges

Merriam-Webster defines “infrastructure” as “the system of public works of a country, state, or region — also : the resources (such as personnel, buildings, or equipment) required for an activity”.

Jonathan Cohn of Huff Post explains why improving the services that help people prosper counts as infrastructure:

Building roads and bridges is good for the economy, pretty much everybody agrees. But helping senior citizens stay out of nursing homes? Raising pay for child care workers? 

President Joe Biden says those sorts of initiatives can help, too. And he’s got a strong case.

Ever since the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden has talked about having the government spend a lot more on caregiving ― for children, older adults and disabled people. . . [He] pointedly included them as part of his economic agenda, arguing they would create better, higher-paying jobs and unleash untapped potential for growth.

Now Biden is president, and his approach hasn’t changed. On Wednesday, he introduced the first half of what he has called his “Build Back Better” agenda. And although he proposed big new spending on traditional infrastructure projects like bridges and waterways, he also proposed a dramatic increase in federal support for “home- and community- based services.” 

Those are supports and services for elderly and disabled people who need help with daily living to stay out of nursing homes or other types of congregant care settings. In practical terms, that means everything from personal attendants who help seniors with bathing to counselors who help people with intellectual impairments find jobs so they can live on their own.

More proposals are on the way. The second half of the Build Back Better agenda, which Biden plans to introduce later this month, is likely to include major new initiatives to make child care and preschool more widely available, as well as some kind of paid leave program.

And these do not appear to be token gestures. Wednesday’s home care proposals envision $400 billion in new federal spending, accounting for nearly one-quarter of the $2 trillion package Biden unveiled. A meaningful initiative on child care and preschool would likely require hundreds of billions of dollars more.

The primary case for these initiatives is that they make life easier on a day-to-day basis. That’s certainly true for the home- and community-based services Biden proposed on Wednesday to support.

Medicaid, the government health insurance program that states operate using federal funds and under federal guidelines, already pays for nursing homes and other forms of institutional care. And there’s no pre-set limit on that spending. The more people who need the help, the more funding Medicaid provides.

Medicaid also pays for services at home and in the community, but with limited allotments that don’t rise with demand. This disparate treatment is a legacy of the program’s history. When Democrats created Medicaid in 1965, during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, there was a much bigger push to keep older and disabled people in institutions ― and much less awareness of how many of them wanted to, and could, stay at home.

The lack of open-ended funding forces states to cut off enrollment and put everybody else on waiting lists. Nationwide, about 800,000 people are now on those lists, and some have been for years. It’s a well-known fact that deters many others from even trying. Most experts think the actual unmet demand for home- and community-based services is closer to 1.5 million.

For decades, advocates have proposed putting home-based care on an equal footing with institutional care. That way, the choice between whether to stay at home or to go into a congregant living setting would be about the preferences and needs of individual people and their families ― not because of a financial disparity rooted in a decision lawmakers made half a century ago. . . . 

Biden’s proposal “can help millions of Americans who live with disabilities or chronic illnesses receive needed care at home or on a human scale within their own communities rather than within institutional settings,” Harold Pollack, professor at the University of Chicago and an expert on long-term care, told HuffPost.

Other types of caregiving are just as sorely in need of extra federal support.

Quality child care in the U.S. is notoriously hard to find and financially out of reach for large numbers of working families. The U.S. is the only country in the developed world that does not offer paid leave, which puts a huge strain on workers whenever they have children or older family members battling medical problems ― and sometimes when they have medical problems of their own.

Caregiving has gotten more attention generally in recent years, especially from Democrats. The new twist, from Biden, is to place these proposals alongside traditional infrastructure projects as part of a broader economic agenda.

That’s bound to seem like an awkward fit, at least to some people, because infrastructure spending more commonly consists of front-loaded or one-time expenditures ― money for airport runway expansion or the construction of a pipeline that stops flowing once the projects are done.

But the economic benefits of caregiving initiatives are real. For one thing, caregiving is literally an investment in making individual human beings more productive. This is most obviously the case when it comes to early childhood programs. Research has shown repeatedly that, when infants and toddlers get good care, they are more likely to stay in school, remain employed and stay physically healthier as adults.

That logic applies just as surely to home- and community-based services, especially for disabled people, many of whom can go to school and join the workforce with proper support.

“It has a huge economic development component,” said Nicole Jorwic, senior director of public policy at The Arc, a civil rights organization for people with intellectual disabilities. “You’ve got all these people with disabilities who right now are on waiting lists, and can’t work because of services they need in order to … become part of the economy.” 

Another way government caregiving initiatives can help the economy is by providing the families of children, disabled and older people with more choices about how they spend their time. Many caregivers will choose to work more outside of the home, putting specialized skills to use, because they will be able to know their loved ones are getting the care they need. . . . 

One final way a caregiving agenda can help boost the economy is by improving the pay and working conditions for the professional caregiving workforce, which is another part of Biden’s agenda.

The median hourly wage for home health aides is barely more than $12, for example, which is about what retail workers and parking lot attendants make. For child care providers, the median hourly wage is even lower. Meanwhile, those caring for children and older people do some of the most intimate, difficult jobs imaginable.

“We place a high value on the work that [caregivers] do, and we don’t pay them in a way that’s consistent with that value,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) told HuffPost. . . . 

Doing this all at once ― helping more people to pay for caregivers while simultaneously requiring that caregivers get higher pay ― makes the project a lot more expensive. . . .That’s bound to be a hard sell politically . . . , perhaps even among some conservative Democrats . . . . That is undoubtedly one reason why Biden and his allies are talking about these proposals in the context of their potential to create a more dynamic economy. . . .

As Ai-jen Poo, executive director of National Domestic Workers Alliance, put it on Wednesday, “like our physical infrastructure — roads, bridges, green energy — our care infrastructure needs permanent investment to ensure our communities can thrive.”

Roads, Taxes and Rationality

There’s no shortage of news being made and problems to be addressed, but the world seems a bit quite these days. Maybe the president has something to do with it:

Biden’s words . . . have been counted along with his on-camera appearances and total one-third of those notched up by the previous president at the equivalent stage (The Guardian).

It clearly helps that there are rational people in charge of the federal government for a change, “rational” in the sense that they’re trying to fix problems instead of ignoring them or making them worse. 

An excellent example is the problem of America’s “crumbling infrastructure”. The two words, “crumbling” and “infrastructure”, have been tied together for decades, like “manicured lawns”, “well-heeled lobbyists”, “potent symbols” and “hot topics”. Everybody agrees the country’s roads, bridges, dams, school buildings, electrical grid, etc. need work and it will cost a lot of money to modernize them. I just typed in “infrastructure” and got:

The cost to fix America’s crumbling infrastructure? Nearly $2.6 trillion, engineers say (CNN).

So it isn’t a surprise that Biden is announcing a big infrastructure plan tomorrow (unlike his predecessor, the orange guy, who kept promising a tremendous infrastructure plan to go along with his miraculous health insurance plan, neither of which ever materialized.)

Nor is it a surprise that Republicans won’t want to pay for it. From the Washington Post’s “Plum Line” blog:

New details are emerging about the massive infrastructure plan that Democrats will present this week, and it poses a problem for Republicans. This is exactly kind of government spending voters from both parties support — every member of Congress would happily have a new bridge in their district.

But if it passes, it will be another victory for President Biden. So Republicans have to find a way to convince voters it’s a terrible idea, which they’ll attempt through a series of misleading arguments.

Here’s the latest on the package, from The Post:

Biden’s plan will include approximately $650 billion to rebuild the United States’ infrastructure, such as its roads, bridges, highways and ports, the people said. The plan will also include in the range of $400 billion toward care for the elderly and the disabled, $300 billion for housing infrastructure and $300 billion to revive U.S. manufacturing. It will also include hundreds of billions of dollars to bolster the nation’s electric grid, enact nationwide high-speed broadband and revamp the nation’s water systems to ensure clean drinking water, among other major investments, the people said.

Those all seem like worthy goals. So how will Republicans argue against them?

One way will revolve around fearmongering about deficits and tax hikes. Another will seek to cherry-pick from the package to portray it as stuffed with wasteful boondoggles.

On the first, Biden is expected to ask congressional Democrats to roll back parts of his predecessor’s tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, and to increase taxes on profits that corporations shelter offshore.

And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is already balking. “If you want to do an infrastructure bill, let’s do an infrastructure bill,” is McConnell’s latest line. “Let’s don’t turn it into a massive effort to raise taxes on businesses and individuals” [i.e. corporations and rich people].

The Republican game runs as follows. They say they support infrastructure repair in principle (which is true of some). But, they add, they don’t support paying for it either by driving up the deficit or with tax hikes that will kill jobs (as McConnell suggested).

Never mind that Republicans exploded the deficit with the very tax cuts for the rich and corporations that Democrats want to partly reverse, or that Republicans are pretending doing this would raise taxes on workers, or that the claim that tax hikes kill jobs has been perpetually proven wrong. . . .

Meanwhile, you will surely hear the name “Solyndra” bandied about, in reference to what happened the last time a Democratic administration boosted green energy infrastructure (an even bigger component of Biden’s plan).

Republicans are already making the case that last time millions in taxpayer dollars were squandered on green energy jobs that never materialized. They are road-testing a new slogan about what’s coming: “Solyndra Syndrome.”

But that actually points to how Democrats should respond to this attack. Because the truth is very different from what Republicans would have you believe.

Solyndra was indeed a failure: As part of a federal program to support promising companies, the Obama administration gave a $535 million loan to the firm. But their solar panel technology struggled to compete against low-cost panels from China, and the company eventually went bankrupt.

But the whole point of the loan program was to take risks, in the knowledge that some of them wouldn’t work out. And other loans paid off spectacularly well.

You may have heard of another up-and-coming green tech company that got a $465 million loan at around the same time, enabling it to start making passenger cars. It’s called Tesla. It paid back its loan with interest, and today has more than 70,000 employees.

Republicans spent years trying to turn the Solyndra failure into a scandal. What they didn’t mention is that despite the loss the government took on it, the program that funded that loan quickly turned a profit, eventually earning billions.

So that part of the Obama Recovery Act was a success, even though Republicans convinced many people it was a failure. The reality tells the opposite story, and Democrats should say so.

Beyond all that, . . . Democrats have a good way to call the Republicans’ bluff: Renew the push for a boost in funding for the Internal Revenue Service, so it can start hauling in the huge piles of revenue that will likely to go uncollected in coming years — much from the wealthy and corporations.

Tax experts say that due to IRS budget cuts and resulting lax enforcement, as much as $7.5 trillion in revenue could go uncollected over the next decade, a good deal of it from wealthy actors who are well resourced to evade payments. They also say netting even a fraction of that could bring in gobs of new revenue.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the chairman of the Finance Committee, says Democrats should renew this push, tied to the debate over infrastructure, by arguing for more funding for IRS enforcement, and for reforms improving its efficacy:

The absolute bare minimum Republicans should get behind is ensuring the IRS has resources and trained staff to collect taxes that are currently owed. They won’t have any credibility if their position is that not only can there be no new revenue, but we also can’t do significantly more to collect revenue that’s owed.

Unquote.

Republicans won’t have any credibility? That’s never bothered them before.