Bipartisanship May Yield New Infrastructure Initiatives

Democrats and Republicans are poised to address infrastructure delivery in the next Congress.

• Congress this year passed a number of bipartisan infrastructure initiatives including the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 and the reauthorization of the FAA’s budget
• Representatives in the House are now considering options such as a potential gas tax increase, indexing the gas tax, or imposing a vehicle miles travel tax in order to fund infrastructure development
• Despite attention in Congress, state and local governments bear more responsibility for delivering infrastructure

The Democrats’ return to power in the US House of Representatives suggests a more bipartisan approach to infrastructure development is underway. With both the Trump administration and the Democratic party firmly behind plans to rebuild and refurbish the nation’s roads, rail and water projects, the question is not whether they will be able to reach consensus on how best to provide financing for an estimated $1 trillion in critical projects.

The GOP and the Democrats, have been able to work together before. To be sure, both parties came together to pass the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018, which reauthorizes provisions of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014, and authorizes the EPA to provide financial assistance to state infrastructure financing authorities for state loan funds to carry out water and wastewater infrastructure projects.

That same cooperation across the aisle could lead to an even bigger infrastructure package winning Congressional approval down the road. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that parties in Congress have cooperated to repair the nation’s crumbling infrastructure in several ways beyond the water legislation.

Notably, Congress earlier this year boosted fiscal year 2018 infrastructure funding by $21 billion. On an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis, Congress also passed the longest FAA budget reauthorization in more than three decades.

Congressman John Delaney (D-MD)

Congressman John Delaney (D-MD)

“We need to stop arguing so much about where we disagree and start focusing on where we agree, and infrastructure is an issue where we agree,” Congressman John Delaney (D-MD) told Icons of Infrastructure. “In Congress, I built a big bipartisan coalition around my infrastructure plan and I saw firsthand that it was an issue where people can find common ground.”

Delaney, who has announced that he will be running for president in 2020, noted that he will make infrastructure a significant part of his pitch to voters since it makes the US economy more competitive, creates good-paying jobs and improves the quality of life for millions of Americans.

“We need infrastructure to bridge the economic gap between the zip codes that are booming and the places left behind,” he added.

“We need to stop arguing so much about where we disagree and start focusing on where we agree, and infrastructure is an issue where we agree,” Congressman John Delaney (D-MD)

Continued Headwinds

The discord between Congressional Democrats and the GOP has grown since Donald Trump assumed the presidency in 2016. Heated conversations around immigration and tax reform effectively sidelined the administration’s planned $1 trillion infrastructure development plan released in February 2018. Moreover, Democratic resistance to an increased private sector role in infrastructure financing made the Trump plan a nonstarter for many in Congress.

The passage of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act in December 2017, drove a further wedge between the parties as it reduced the corporate tax rate to 21% from 35% previously. The Trump administration and the GOP, following the bill’s passage, maintained that it would provide tax relief for middle-income families and spur economic growth.

Research from the Brookings Institution notes that the law will reduce federal revenue significantly and increase the federal debt even if the impact on economic growth is factored in. The potential for more political infighting is becoming even more acute as Congress must in December pass a new budget agreement to avoid automatic spending reductions for government programs or sequestration.

Susan H. Lent, a partner at Akin Gump and head of the firm’s infrastructure and transportation practice, said that infrastructure projects continue to have broad bipartisan support in Congress, and that the body may consider increased infrastructure funding as part of its fiscal year 2020 and 2021 budget deals.

Lent noted that representatives from both parties are currently discussing options such as a potential gas tax increase, indexing the gas tax, or imposing a vehicle miles travel tax, among other options. But another means of building bipartisan support for infrastructure legislation could be the reinstatement of earmarks which would allow members to secure government funding for projects in their districts as part of an agreement to increase infrastructure spending.

Others such as Madison, Wisconsin Mayor Paul R. Soglin are not as optimistic about the chances for a bipartisan infrastructure spending bill in the next Congress.

“The ideological divide is too great to do anything meaningful, and I doubt the division will improve after the midterms,” Soglin told Icons of Infrastructure. “As long as members of Congress are signing pledges from special interest like those controlled by Grover Norquist, we will not have the financial commitment to fix our nation.”

Soglin in August lost the Democratic primary for governor of Wisconsin. He is running for mayor of Madison again in 2019.

Going Local

It is as yet unclear how the incoming Congress will address infrastructure during its term but, for some the question of bipartisanship at the federal level is secondary to what happens on the ground.

“Congress does not have  a determinant role in regard to infrastructure delivery because state and local governments bear the responsibility for it,” former Special Assistant to the President for Infrastructure D.J. Gribbin said.

To be sure, the federal government can provide guidelines and funding for infrastructure projects. However, according to the Brookings Institution, states and municipalities together own 3.2 million miles of roads in the U.S. Additionally, most of the nation’s sea ports and airports are locally owned.

Dr. Christopher Metzler, a government strategist, legal scholar, and academic, noted that bipartisan cooperation at the local level is becoming more prevalent in spite of discord at the federal level.

“The signs point to more cooperation on rebuilding infrastructure, especially at the local level,” he said. ” Local officials are by design, charged with making local government work. Post midterms, I expect a return to local governance where elected officials will reach across the aisle, to ensure that America’s infrastructure is solid.”

Brian Namey, director of public affairs at the National Association of Counties (NACo), noted that county leaders are skilled at achieving results in any political climate. He added that cooperation at all levels of government is vital in terms of infrastructure delivery.

“We work with our state and federal counterparts on many of the issues we address, especially transformative infrastructure projects,” he said. “As former New York City Mayor LaGuardia famously said, there’s no Democratic or Republican way to fix a pothole.”

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Washington D.C. cityscape at dusk with rush hour traffic trails on I-395 highway. Washington Monument, illuminated, dominates the skyline.