The House passed the first part of President Joe Biden’s big economic and infrastructure plans Friday in a 228 to 206 vote. That’s the $1.2 trillion bipartisan hard infrastructure bill negotiated in the Senate with Republicans—and Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, though mostly with Republicans. Now that it has passed, they are of course giving all the credit to the former guy. Which is what any Democrat gets for trying to be “bipartisan” with the crew of Republicans and which was totally predictable because it’s exactly what they did when the bill passed in the Senate back in August.
The bill provides about $550 billion in new spending—the other half of the $1.2 trillion total is already authorized money lumped in. It’s heavy on current fossil fuel-dependent infrastructure like roads and bridges, but does add in broadband, water, and energy system investments. It will, according to the Congressional Budget Office, add $256 billion to the deficit over the next decade. This is a key number to keep in mind as the Senate deficit peacocks who wrote this bill screech about the deficit when it comes to passing the other part of Biden’s agenda, the Build Back Better (BBB) plan. The Joint Committee on Taxation determined this plan will raise about $1.5 trillion in revenue and not add to the deficit long term.
The hard infrastructure bill, or BIF as it has become to be known, has $110 billion for surface transportation—roads and bridges—with $40 billion of that for bridges; $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations; $39 billion for transit; $55 billion for water systems; $1 billion for Biden’s original $20 billion plan to “reconnect” communities of color; $66 billion for freight and passenger rail; $65 billion for broadband; $25 billion for airports; $73 billion to modernize the energy grid; and $21 billion toward environmental remediation.
What is in this bill is good and necessary and does much of the great stuff the White House is claiming on transit, electric vehicles, rebuilding ports and airports, clean drinking water, and climate change resilience programs. All of these areas are seeing the largest investments ever.
Which is absolutely necessary because of decades of neglect, but which is also insufficient without the follow up of the BBB budget reconciliation bill, and which is why those two bills had been linked throughout the negotiating process. Biden’s promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to half of 2005 levels simply cannot happen with this bill alone.
The bill as described by Beth Osborne, director of advocacy group Transportation for America, follows “the old fashioned approach to change, which is to create a little bitty program to change a problem that we’ll continue to create with a much larger pot of money.” She points to another example: the slashing of President Biden’s critical $20 billion plan for “reconnecting” communities of color that were bulldozed through in previous roadbuilding sprees. It’s now $1 billion. “I would suggest you look back at other $1 billion programs created throughout the history of the reauthorization process and see which ones grew into anything mighty,” Osborne said.
The historic investment in clean drinking water in BIF is also inadequate by itself. A report from E2 Environmental Entrepreneurs on lead pipes details the limitations. The bipartisan bill puts $15 billion into a revolving fund for water utilities to replace lead pipes, but only if they want to—they won’t be required to do so. That $15 billion would replace just 25% of the lead pipes in the U.S. E2 estimates that the full $45 billion Biden called for originally would “create and support 56,080 jobs annually for 10 years, or a total of 560,800 job-years.”
The $550 billion in climate remediation in BBB is essential to reaching Biden’s goals and starting to future-proof the nation against climate change. It includes tax credits for clean energy production and the manufacture of clean energy technology components. It increases tax credits for the purchase of electric cars and clean technology like solar panels, as well as their manufacture. The original mix of carrots (tax credits and grants) and sticks (fines and penalties for delaying the transition to clean energy production) is pretty much all carrots now. However—and this is fairly big—the legislative text the House drew up based on Biden’s framework includes a fee for oil and gas operators per metric ton of released methane.
This is a historic achievement by President Biden and the Democrats and should be celebrated as a step along the way to achieving his goals—but only a step, because it’s only part of the job done. Without the profound investments included in the BBB—even as constrained as it has become in the hands of Manchin and Sinema—it’s not going to be enough.