This post is the ninth in a series, “The ABCs of the AJP.”
Virtually every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has pursued a national “infrastructure” project of some kind. From the New Deal and the Federal-Aid Highway Acts, which created today’s interstate highway, to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the federal government has made significant investments toward a “system of public works,” a standard definition for the word “infrastructure.” In this way, the AJP is just the latest major infrastructure initiative, even if the proposed amounts for modernizing surface transportation, airports, and waterways are unprecedented.
But the AJP goes further. It makes immense investments in repairing and retrofitting schools, hospitals, and homes. It pledges high-speed broadband to every household in the country. And it reaffirms a commitment to improving racial equity, social mobility, and environmental sustainability throughout its proposals. The AJP promises that its investments will produce good-quality jobs with strong labor standards, prevailing wages, and collective bargaining, and that small businesses will have opportunities to participate in the design, construction, and manufacturing of new infrastructure and component parts.
In this sense, the AJP adopts another standard definition of the word “infrastructure”: “the underlying foundation and basic framework” of something—in this case, of society as a whole. At the center of the AJP are investments that the Biden Administration deems necessary to promote economic opportunity and fair treatment for every person, and to protect and preserve the planet and its resources. The President’s animating slogan, “Build Back Better” alludes to building back better in terms of infrastructure being more modern and resilient, but also better in terms of infrastructure being more inclusive and just.
If even some of the AJP’s provisions and its proposed investments are enacted into legislation by Congress, they will likely create hundreds if not thousands of grant opportunities and contracts for companies and organizations, especially those that can support affordable housing, energy conservation, sustainability, racial justice, and other priorities emphasized in the plan. And even if the AJP or its parts don’t become law, companies and organizations should expect that the AJP’s principles will almost certainly find their way into government regulations, procurement decisions, and other agency actions under the Biden Administration.
Many factors will play into whether and how “infrastructure” legislation could pass.
For the AJP’s proponents—largely Democrats—affirming an underlying foundation and basic framework is essential to address the inequities laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic, recent events highlighting racial injustice around the country, climate change, and environmental disasters. To many of these proponents, any infrastructure plan can no longer think about building without regard to principles like racial equity and environmental sustainability. Indeed, for some, including supporters of a Green New Deal, the AJP is only the beginning and not enough to address these deep-seated concerns.
Meanwhile, the AJP’s opponents—largely Republicans—remain unimpressed. For some, the $2 trillion sticker price is already enough for them to balk. Many Republicans support an infrastructure package, and President Trump repeatedly considered one even after Democrats took control of the U.S. House of Representatives. But President Trump’s package proposed $200 billion in federal spending, and the Republicans’ recent counterproposal to the AJP at $568 billion, a quarter of that proposed by the AJP.
What accounts for the enormous difference? Their definitions of infrastructure. The Republicans’ proposals only include investments in the forms of “infrastructure” under the former definition. Everything else is “infrastructure plus” and to many critics, the “plus” is either too expensive, beyond the role of the federal government, or both.
It will be challenging to bridge this impasse as long as both groups fundamentally disagree on what falls under infrastructure in need of federal legislation. Yet there may be some areas where there will be room for compromise. Apart from surface transportation and other traditional infrastructure previously discussed, another example is innovation policy. The AJP proposes more than $150 billion to support research and development (R&D) in critical technologies, including by creating a new directorate in the National Science Foundation and updating research institutions. The plan also proposes $35 billion in developing technology breakthroughs that address the climate crisis; $31 billion in programs that give small businesses access to credit, venture, capital, and R&D dollars; and $20 billion in regional innovation hubs to fuel technology development, link urban and rural economies, and create new businesses in regions beyond high-growth centers.
These components share many similarities to the Endless Frontier Act, a bipartisan bill recently reintroduced by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senator Todd Young (R-IN) in the Senate, and Representatives Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Mike Gallagher (R-WI) in the House, authorizing significant federal investments in R&D and commercialization of critical technologies. As currently drafted, that bill would invest $100 billion in the National Science Foundation, including in a new Directorate of Technology and Innovation, and the development of regional technology hubs, along with additional provisions on domestic manufacturing and supply chain resiliency. The White House has endorsed the Endless Frontier Act, which may be the vehicle for these components of the AJP to be enacted in a bipartisan manner without the opposition that may sink other components, though the bill’s own fate also remains uncertain.
There is potential for other less contentious components of the AJP to find their way into separate pieces of legislation in a similar fashion as well.
Ultimately, for proponents and opponents of the AJP alike, the strategic considerations here are many—linking provisions together that may not be able to be passed alone, detaching provisions that would otherwise lose support for other provisions, and/or going it alone without bipartisan support if necessary. Those strategic considerations will hinge on a variety of factors, including the urgency of the ongoing pandemic, the uncertain state of the economy, and the 50–50 Senate, among others. In times like these, opportunities to enact legislation may sometimes be the least certain, but the most possible.