Since the 2016 election campaign, the status of the infrastructure in the U.S. has been used as a wedge issue. Both major parties talk about it, the President talks about it—remember the almost annual “Infrastructure Week?”—and the press talks about it, but nothing has been done about it. Yet.
The House of Representatives, under the Democratic majority, has been debating H.R. 2, “Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation in America Act” better known as the “INVEST in America Act.” The Senate has been moving to committee a similar bill by the Republican majority.
Like most bills in the current, highly partisan Congress, one party can propose, but both parties need to agree and so far, that has not happened—and we all lose as a result. A bill must be passed by both chambers in the same form before it can be presented to President Trump. The Constitution requires that any bill with revenue provisions, such as the infrastructure bills, must begin as a House bill. Should both versions pass their respective chambers, they will be referred to a conference committee staffed by both houses where negotiations will ensue.
H.R. 2, the overall Moving Forward Act, as currently written is a more than $1.5 trillion plan to rebuild American infrastructure. According to the Democratic sponsors, it is focused not only on roads, bridges, and transit systems, but also on schools, housing, broadband access, and much more. It’s the more in that bill that has many Republications all in an uproar to date.
On the basic “hard” infrastructure, the bill relates to making better roads and bridges faster with more than $300 billion of investment that prioritizes fixing what already exists, including tens of thousands of structurally deficient bridges. It invests more than $100 billion in transit to put more zero-emission buses on the road, add new routes, and provide more reliable service, resulting in better transit options and hopefully fewer single-occupant cars clogging highways.
- R. 2 invests in programs, projects, and materials that emphasize resiliency while reducing carbon pollution from the transportation sector, including $1.4 billion in alternative fuel charging infrastructure. And it triples funding for Amtrak to $29 billion, allowing for upgrades and expansion of the passenger rail network, improves rail crossing safety, and addresses increasingly long trains that block crossings for 10 and more minutes, impacting local traffic and emergency response times. And finally, the bill keeps cargo moving by funding the essential dredging and upkeep of American harbors, ports, and channels.
But H. R. 2 is also carrying the weight of many non-“infrastructure” proposals such as schools, childcare, affordable housing, broadband access, healthcare, environment and public lands, and even the Post Office. It is seen as a Democratic bill and partisanship dictates that Republicans cannot support it. Not while a Republican bill addresses the same situation, at least.
Enter three of the strongest voices being heard in Washington, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, ABC (Associated Builders and Contractors), and Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) . The Chamber sent the House of Representatives a letter stating it cannot support H.R.2. Instead, they urged a bipartisan solution to address the nation’s infrastructure needs. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the world’s largest business organization representing companies of all sizes across every sector of the economy and therefore has a significant clout with Congress on business matters. The Chamber’s concerns with the bill are unstated in the letter, the focus of which is on partisanship. It supports the Senate infrastructure approach, a bill that has yet to come out of committee.
Specifically, the Chamber’s letter urges the House to bring up for consideration the bipartisan bill reported in the Senate and consider any infrastructure related amendments that have the support of at least 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats – a rules change first put forward by the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. Such an approach, says the Chamber, would be the most likely to result in passage of a bill that would have a chance of becoming law.
Furthermore, the Chamber feels that Congress should not continue to “punt decisions about how to pay for investments in infrastructure.” Dedicated revenues, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic’s closing of businesses and reducing other tax sources, can no longer support current levels of spending, let alone the levels of investment America’s infrastructure needs. In addition to specific proposals, such as an increase in the fuel user fee, the Chamber is willing to work with both chambers of Congress on reasonable approaches that can become law.
The second voice being heard in DC on the topic is that of the ABC. Like the Chamber of Commerce, ABC sent a letter to Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Ranking Member Sam Graves (R-MO) and Members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Instead of withholding support, as the Chamber’s letter does, ABC was much more conciliatory.
ABC believes that surface transportation is essential, and an infrastructure bill will provide a path forward on the essential work that is needed to assist in the recovery of the American economy. While ABC supports increased financing for surface transportation infrastructure programs, as the committee considers the INVEST in America Act, ABC is concerned that the proposal as written does not include several essential priorities of the construction industry.
These priorities include reducing costly and ineffective regulations, increasing competition, and addressing the construction industry’s skilled worker shortage, all of which can help bring critical construction projects to market in a more economical and efficient manner.
ABC urges the committee to consider supporting the STARTER Act (Surface Transportation Advanced through Reform, Technology, & Efficient Review Act) to be offered as an amendment to the underlying bill. ABC believes this alternative bill, developed by the Republican minority in the House, would reduce costly and overly burdensome regulations through improvements to the federal permitting and environmental review process, making it more efficient for major infrastructure projects by enacting reforms and modernizing the federal environmental review and permitting process under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Additionally, ABC is concerned with proposals that would require the application of the federal Davis-Bacon Act requirements to state and locally led projects, which they feel could have a chilling impact on competition, particularly for small businesses throughout the country. The Davis-Bacon Act applies to contractors and subcontractors performing on federally funded or assisted contracts, in excess of $2,000, for the construction, alteration, or repair (including painting and decorating) of public buildings or public works. Under Davis-Bacon, contractors and subcontractors must pay their laborers and mechanics employed under the contract no less than the locally prevailing wages and fringe benefits for corresponding work on similar projects in the area.
At a time when small construction businesses are struggling to maintain operations during the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis, ABC says additional burdensome cost requirements would limit their ability to benefit from critical funds for state and local projects.
Once again, the “clean bill” approach is falling to both sides piling unrelated issues on top of the basic needs the bill is supposed to address. Each side has supporters, each side has viable proposals. Neither side wants to give in during an election year, giving the opposition a win. In the end, probably nothing will get done, in Congress or the infrastructure.
On the other hand, the Associated General Contractors of America, responded positively to H.R.2 by complimenting the House leadership, saying they understand one of the best ways to promote new economic growth is by investing in the nation’s aging, over-burdened, infrastructure. The investments, AGC acknowledges, will create needed new construction careers, promote demand for new construction equipment and materials, and ensure that the economy will be more efficient and effective.
AGC believes the House infrastructure proposal will provide the kind of tangible benefits the economy needs to recover from the results of the pandemic. Unlike the Republican members of the House and the Chamber of Commerce, AGC is in favor of funding for modernizing schools, health care facilities, new housing, and environmental mitigation found in the bill. “These broad investments will support demand across many different construction sectors, helping offset expected declines in private sector activity,” says AGC.
The “clean bill” approach is failing once again as both sides pile on unrelated issues on top of the basic needs the bill is supposed to address. Each side has supporters, each side has viable proposals. Neither side wants to give in during an election year, giving the opposition a win. In the end, probably nothing will get done, in Congress or the infrastructure.
There is a lot to H.R.2, and there are details in the proposal that must be improved as the measure works its way through the legislative process. Among those is the need to identify additional, sustainable, long-term funding for future infrastructure improvements. However, we should support the goal of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, restoring demand for construction, and reinvigorating our economy.
Once again, infrastructure will continue to crumble and it will make you ask the sad question how many deaths will it take before both sides of the aisle take this issues serious enough to work together?
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