President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan has 60% public support, with several of its provisions getting more than 70% support, according to a recent Morning Consult poll. Those 70% or greater proposals include $18 billion to modernize veterans’ hospitals; $115 billion to modernize highways and roads; $400 billion for care for aging people and people with disabilities; $45 billion to replace lead water pipes; and $100 billion for building or repairing public schools. Raising the tax rate on corporations also has widespread public support.
But Biden doesn’t have to sell this proposal to the public—both because the public is already on board and because the public doesn’t get to vote on it. He has to sell it to Congress. Specifically, the Senate. And for that, he has tapped five Cabinet secretaries who head relevant agencies but also bring another valuable kind of experience: They’ve had their own infrastructure fights as governors or mayors.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, famously the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, seems about as passionate about the challenges of asphalt as he is about anything, telling The New York Times, ”Every square foot of asphalt, from a mayor’s perspective, is a square foot you have to pay forever to maintain, to resurface, to fill potholes on it.” That means thinking carefully about needs and capacity, he said: “There were roads that maybe saw one car every few minutes that were paved wide enough for four cars side by side. There’s a cost to maintaining that.” And there’s a lesson to take from that and apply to a much larger-scale national infrastructure plan: “The point is we design for the future and ask what we want to build, instead of redoing everything we’ve done in the past.”
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm faced another relevant set of challenges when, as Michigan governor, she tried to get an infrastructure plan through a Republican-controlled state legislature. She failed, despite support from business and labor.
As governor of Rhode Island, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo had what you might now call a Manchin-Sinema problem: how to win support from conservative Democrats, who could supply the votes needed to pass infrastructure investments, but wanted to show everyone how thoughtful and cautious they were about frivolous expenditures like making sure bridges don’t collapse.
”It was very similar, because the legislature at the time said, ‘Yes, we have to fix our roads and bridges; yes, we know bridges are going to fall apart,’” she told the Times, but that didn’t mean everyone was on board with taxes or tolls. “So we just stayed at the table and said, ‘Give up how would you pay for it?’”
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge was mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh was mayor of Boston, where he learned important lessons about working with communities of color rather than imposing your will on them and about equitable contracting, responding to a federal civil rights complaint by issuing an executive order sending 25% of city contracts to businesses owned by women or people of color.
These officials are now making the case not just to Republican senators (and Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema) but to Republican mayors and governors. While the American Rescue Plan showed how little Republican senators care when Republican mayors and governors support legislation coming from Biden and congressional Democrats, it’s still important work to do.