KOLB: Biden’s Last ‘Infrastructure’ Bill Didn’t Work Out Well. Can He Make It Work This Time?

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Charles Kolb Charles Kolb was deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House
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The last time Joe Biden was associated with a national infrastructure bill, things didn’t work out all that well.

As Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden helped steer through the Congress Obama’s stimulus legislation to blunt the 2008-2009 Great Recession. The 2009 “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act” pumped some $831 billion into the U.S. economy, but timely infrastructure investments proved elusive — a grand total of 3.6% ended up being spent on transportation infrastructure. The problem, as Obama admitted, was red tape: there weren’t many “shovel ready” opportunities.

Now Biden plans to follow his $1.9 trillion COVID-relief legislation with an infrastructure proposal he calls “The American Jobs Plan” that is estimated to cost $2.25 trillion over 8 years to address transportation needs (roads, bridges, tunnels, airports), broadband, electric vehicles, basic research, climate change and more.

A second spending package is planned that will focus on child care, health care and education that may cost another $1 trillion. The goal of both packages is described, somewhat awkwardly, as “[s]olidify[ing] the infrastructure of our care economy.” Give me the Bush presidents’ “kinder, gentler,” “compassionate conservatism” over this new government-dominated “care economy.”

With the national debt approaching $30 trillion, a key issue will be funding these investments. Biden will propose hiking taxes on corporations (phased in over 15 years) and wealthy individuals, but, supposedly, not on middle-class taxpayers earning below $400,000 annually. We’ll see.

Another key issue will be how the money is spent: ensuring that this legislation does not produce billions of dollars in wasteful spending, political pork (Congress has just restored earmarks) or union giveaways seen as political paybacks.

As Biden promotes the legislation, his administration and the Democratic Congress should explain their game plan, the investment strategy behind this spending, how yet another massive spending bill will affect the national debt, interest rates and inflation, and whether there will be any offsets to reduce the deficit spending.

As they proceed, Biden and his team would do well to consider the work of Common Good and its Chair, Philip K. Howard, who first came to national attention with his 1995 bestseller “The Death of Common Sense.” It was immediately heralded by leaders of both parties, and his insights, reflected in subsequent books (including my favorite title, “Life Without Lawyers”) are directly applicable to the costly waste and delay in infrastructure projects.

Howard’s 2015 report, “Two Years, Not Ten Years,” exposed unconscionable red tape in infrastructure, including a 20,000-page environmental assessment for raising the roadway of the Bayonne Bridge — a project with almost no environmental impact. It took almost a decade to rebuild the nearby Goethals Bridge.

Howard concluded that delays on large projects more than double the cost. He also found that lengthy environmental reviews are usually harmful to the environment because the delays prolong polluting bottlenecks.  Such delays reward only lawyers, consultants, and various interest groups that manage to make good money off a regulatory system run amok.

If Biden is serious about fixing America’s decrepit infrastructure, including for clean energy, he must first fix the legal infrastructure. Philip Howard has proposed a dramatically simpler process that gives officials authority to enforce bureaucratic deadlines. To avoid Washington pork and other waste, Howard also proposes creating a bipartisan National Infrastructure Board that would prioritize projects and avoid freebies to organized labor or other special interests.

I’ve known Philip Howard since 1997 and serve on Common Good’s advisory board. To this day, I have no clue as to his partisan political leanings, if any. What I do know is that his work offers sensible, pragmatic approaches that could shape Biden’s massive legislation in ways that produce timely and excellent results for all Americans.

Combining higher spending with common-sense regulatory reforms that follow Common Good’s principles would be an excellent start. I’d go a step further and urge Biden to name Howard his “Infrastructure Implementation Czar.”

President Biden has announced that he wants to get big things done, to solve major American problems. To pass this legislation, Biden should seek significant GOP support. He will also need to work through in advance how the legislation will be implemented to avoid delays and another round of phantom “shovel-ready” projects.

Democrats want higher infrastructure spending; Republicans should demand cost-effective, accountable implementation. Therein lies the real deal.

If Biden truly wants to use this massive legislation to promote our common good and invest in a productive American future, then Philip Howard’s Common Good offers a solid, practical way forward.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House