The infrastructure decade; a debate in the mayor’s race

Donald Trump’s botched attempts to develop and push through legislation to fund infrastructure projects, with good reason, became a four-year running joke.  How many times did we hear about “infrastructure week?”  They never really had a plan, just a bunch of Tweets.

It is generally agreed in this country, across political boundaries and party lines, that there is a tremendous need for the repair and replacement of roads, bridges, airports, ports, and water and sewer lines.  Every community in the country has its own multi-billion lists of such things.  The projects are big and will take many years to complete.  Think of the Skyway, Scajaquada and Kensington Expressway proposals in Buffalo, which are each in the hundreds of millions of dollars range even in the preliminary stages of consideration.

The Congress for New Urbanism, an organization that studies and reports nationally on “Highways to Boulevards” projects, identifies 33 projects nationally that will compete for $20 billion included in the Biden infrastructure plan this is intended for neighborhoods divided by highways – if an infrastructure program is approved by Congress.  The three Buffalo projects are among those 33, which are spread across 28 cities from Florida to Washington State.

Some of those projects are (pun intended) pipe dreams.  Communities that have shovel-ready projects will go to the front of the line if and when infrastructure money becomes a reality.  State or local shares of cash for such projects will also be an important consideration.

What the issue comes down to are three basic questions:  (1) who decides what gets built; (2) who pays for it; and (3) in the unfortunate, highly charged political atmosphere we are living in, who gets the credit (or blame)?  Those are the trillion dollar questions.

President Joe Biden has made infrastructure the second pillar of his plan to “Build Back Better.”  His proposals go beyond concrete and steel projects to include a host of programs he describes as human infrastructure, including child care, expansion of Obamacare provisions and employment assistance.  While there is hardly a consensus about the whats and how-to-pay-fors of the concrete and steel work, there have been some across-the-aisle discussions about such things.  The human infrastructure proposals, however, are basically Democrats-only plans, and even there, there are differences of opinion.

Republican members of the United States Senate have been alternating between talking about wanting to work out a bi-partisan deal of some sort and making it clear that they have no interest in any bi-partisan plans (see Biden:  credit for).  Some of the Republican senators who pass for what is now considered “centrist” have been drifting back and forth, offering alternative plans that are mostly taking money already scheduled for other uses and re-assigning it for what they are describing as additional infrastructure funding.  Complicating matters are disagreements about how to pay for the projects (taxes = kryptonite for Republicans; user fees a no-go for some Democrats; running up the debt is a popular choice). 

And then, in a class all by himself is West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.  Manchin holds the key to all of these issues.  He says he is totally committed to a bi-partisan approach to Senate operations.  He has not, however, publicly offered or promoted any specific plans for how to make such an approach work in the 21st century Senate.

When you envision bi-partisanship in the Senate, of course, the first thoughts that may come to mind are, “oh wait, isn’t Mitch McConnell still running the Republican caucus?”  And oh wait, didn’t McConnell declare that “100% of my focus is on standing up to this administration”?

When you think about it, aren’t Mitch McConnell and his merry band of men and women just taking turns playing Lucy to Joe Biden and Senate Democrats as Charlie Brown?  How many times do we need to see the football yanked away at the last minute when the Democrats are approaching the football?  It’s all seems like a big game.

Biden and the Senate Democrats believe they have another option, budget reconciliation.  For those less federal budget technically inclined, budget reconciliation is the process whereby, in certain specific budget-connected situations, the Senate can actually approve legislation with a simple majority vote, rather than a 60 vote supermajority.  The Senate approving legislation with a simple majority is what the founding fathers intended.  You can look it up in the Federalist Papers (Numbers 10, 22 and 58).

But even if budget reconciliation is the chosen path, there still remains one particular problem:  Joe Manchin. Manchin is not a big fan of reconciliation and simple majority approvals.  He prefers, as previously noted, the bi-partisan approach.  So at least for the moment, there we are.  Maybe he will, after seeing Republicans’ so-called bi-partisan efforts on such matters as the January 6th Commission, come around to supporting budget reconciliation.

The problem is that budget reconciliation must relate to the federal budget.  Not all legislation falls into that category.  Then there is the pesky matter of what the Senate Parliamentarian says about all this stuff.

So perhaps it is time to get serious about another option:  “congressional-directed spending,” or in the vernacular, earmarks.  There have been some examples of earmarks for some very questionable projects.  There were also many useful and valuable earmark projects in years gone by.  I know, it’s a bad word, not spoken it polite company, but earmarks need some attention.

It used to be that earmarks were not a dirty word.  They were the grease that made the machinery of legislation work.  They were the vehicle for getting more House and Senate members some “skin in the game.”

If a bi-partisan infrastructure package (plan A) cannot be put together; and if budget reconciliation (plan B) for infrastructure fails; then plan C, earmarks, should be dusted off and implemented.  Members of Congress who are opposed can go sit in the corner while their colleagues who sign onto infrastructure projects for their districts help push a package through.

Bridges, roads, water and sewer lines are not going to get better by ignoring them.  It’s like the line in the old auto repair shop ads:  “you can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”  Later is going to cost more.

Someone needs to pull the trigger on infrastructure, be it through a Senate bi-partisan package, or budget reconciliation, or earmarks.  It is just a question of when.  Of course, there’s always the little matter of getting rid of the filibuster.

Follow me on Twitter @kenkruly

A mayoral debate

League of Women Voters and Community Partners

Present Free Candidate Forum for Democratic

Primary for Mayor of Buffalo

In collaboration with several community partners, the League of Women Voters of Buffalo/Niagara will conduct a free candidate forum in advance of the Democratic primary election for mayor of the City of Buffalo. The forum will take place from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, June 10, via Zoom.

All three candidates have been invited: Le’Candice Durham, India Walton and Byron Brown. To comply with the League’s “empty chair” policy, at least two candidates must participate for the forum to proceed. So far, the Durham and Walton campaigns have indicated they will take part.

Partners in the event are: Buffalo Jewish Community Relations Council, Buffalo Urban League, National Action Network, NAACP Buffalo Branch, VOICE Buffalo and WNY Peace Center.

The League is a nonpartisan organization. It never endorses or supports any political party or candidate.

The forum is free and open to the public. Reservations are required and can be made via email to Attendees will receive an email with instructions to join the Zoom session, and will be able to submit questions to be addressed by all candidates.