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EDITORIAL: Another infrastructure spending fight on the horizon

Updated November 27, 2020 - 12:00 am

A proposed infrastructure spending package was potential common ground between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats. But a bill never materialized. Now Joe Biden is reviving the idea of bipartisan legislation.

The problem is that most “infrastructure” legislation becomes larded with special-interest pork and turned into vehicles for incumbent preservation rather than addressing serious needs when it comes to roads, bridges, airports and the like. Given the toll the pandemic has taken in both human and financial terms, it’s even more important today that any infrastructure spending bill be an exercise in restraint.

Unfortunately, President-elect Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have other ideas.

Mr. Biden this month invoked the spirit of unity in Washington, saying that “the refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another is not due to some mysterious force beyond our control … It’s a decision. It’s a choice we make. And if we can decide not to cooperate, then we can decide to cooperate. And I believe that this is part of the mandate from the American people. They want us to cooperate.”

But there are legitimate differences between Democratic and Republican infrastructure plans. The former prefers to use such spending to promote every manner of the progressive agenda, including the Green New Deal, a higher minimum wage and tax hikes. By agreeing to advance those goals, the GOP would be capitulating rather than cooperating.

We’ll see how eager Mr. Biden is to cooperate, however, when funding for the federal government’s major surface transportation programs — including everything from passenger railways to roads — expires in September. Sen. John Barrasso, the Wyoming Republican who chairs the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, told the Wall Street Journal that the new legislation “would seem to be something that we can work together on in a productive way.” Barrasso might be too optimistic.

As Christine Britschgi of Reason magazine noted, the two sides are far apart on the numbers. Sen. Barrasso has proposed a $287 billion surface transportation bill, focused on roads and bridges. House Democrats earlier this year passed a $1.5 trillion package. Tellingly, only one-third of that proposal was dedicated to surface transportation and the measure would double the federal gasoline tax. Mr. Biden has proposed an even number — $2 trillion in new spending.

If, as Ms. Britschgi argues, government officials and agencies avoid letting politics “prioritize transportation projects,” improvements are possible. But despite his pledge of cooperation, Mr. Biden has telegraphed he favors a huge, expensive and politically motivated plan, much of which has little to do with actually improving infrastructure.

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