House progressives, now joined by Senate progressives and most of the progressive movement, have hit on the idea that blocking the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework provides them with useful leverage in advancing an ambitious second bill on party lines through the budget reconciliation process.
I have some doubts about the series of tactical decisions that led them to this point, but it’s the choice they made, and it sort of seems to be working so they’re almost certainly going to stick with it.
One challenge with that kind of bargaining is that it inherently seems a little non-credible that progressives would block a substantial union-backed domestic spending bill if it were really true that the other bill wasn’t going to pass one way or the other. To get the leverage, you need to make it sound credible. This means you need to convey externally that you’re really not excited about the BIF and in fact are only just grudgingly willing to go along with it if it gets you other stuff you want. And that’s fine. But in life people aren’t very good at bullshitting without coming to believe their bullshit.
To an extent, that reflects the fact that a lot of people just sincerely aren’t interested in transportation policy and don’t think it’s important. But I really love transportation policy, so I want to insist that legislative bargaining dynamics aside, this is actually a very interesting piece of legislation that attempts to address some big problems in American transportation policy, even though it very much might fail.
Let me return to what I wrote in “17 Theses on Pete Buttigieg and the Department of Transportation”:
I am particularly pleased by Buttigieg’s transparent ambition. The worst-case scenario for this job is something like Obama’s second Transportation Secretary, Anthony Foxx, who was supposed to be a rising star but just parlayed his time in the cabinet into being a lobbyist for Lyft. Pete wants to be president, not to lobby for Lyft.
This bill reflects that ambition, as it is deploying not only an unusual amount of money to things other than the usual flow of funds to state highway departments but concentrating an unusual amount of discretionary power in the Secretary’s office. Buttigieg built a good team at DOT, they got more money and power for themselves, and while there’s no guarantee that they will use this power successfully or effectively, they are at least going to try to do a good job and somehow parlay that into higher office.
The BIF is quite different from a normal highway bill
Every few years, Congress passes a surface transportation act — known informally on the Hill as “the highway bill” — which is usually given a cutesy name. My personal favorites were the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 that you were supposed to call “ice-tea” and 2005’s Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, pronounced “Safety-Lu” by its friends.
Our most recent one, more prosaically, is the FAST Act that passed in Obama’s second term.
These things get called “the highway bill” on the Hill because they mostly fund highways. Specifically, there is a formula through which each state gets money proportionate to the share of federal gas tax revenue that comes from the state. That gets kicked out to state departments of transportation, and they almost invariably spend it disproportionately building new highways that tend to have low value because most of the best highways have already been built. Then you get some transit money tacked on the side.
BIF is much more money than FAST, but with much less highway funding.
Within the transportation space, in other words, BIF is a significant rebalancing away from highways and toward mass transit and Amtrak.
But it also just includes a ton of stuff that is beyond the scope of a normal surface transportation bill. There are $65 billion dollars to upgrade electrical grid infrastructure. There’s $65 billion for expanding broadband internet access to underserved communities. There’s $55 billion for water infrastructure, including critical lead cleanup programs. There’s $47 billion for community resiliency in the face of climate change. And there’s $21 billion for cleaning up abandoned mines and wells. These are really large investments. They’re very substantively important. You could think about this not as a single $550 billion bill, but as three separate bills:
A surface transportation bill that is unprecedented in its generosity to rail and transit vs. highways.
A substantial investment in non-transportation infrastructure like water and broadband internet.
A major environmental investment addressing clean water issues, cleanup issues, EV charging, grid upgrades, and other things that, while not at the core of the climate change challenge, are clearly all relevant to it.
And I don’t think it’s wise or correct to understate the significance of getting bipartisan buy-in for doing this stuff.
Can we fix Amtrak?
Probably the biggest winner in this legislation is Amtrak, which is getting over 10% of the money. As you know, I think Amtrak is a very poorly run organization and their preliminary plans for what to do with a large cash infusion are unacceptably bad. So the idea of driving a dump truck of money up to this dysfunctional bureaucracy does not strike me as very appealing, no matter how sentimental Joe Biden is about his daily Amtrak commute.
But there are grounds for hope here.
The way the legislation is structured, as I understand, the money flows to Amtrak through the Department of Transportation, which gets to decide within certain broad parameters what grants they give. We know from CNN’s reporting that Amtrak would like to say it just needs all this money to maintain a state of good repair, which is roughly equivalent to having it go into a slush fund. Trains and tracks should be repaired, of course. But while there’s no need for Amtrak to turn a profit, there’s also no good reason to be running train routes where the revenue is so low that it’s genuinely impossible to keep the route in a state of good repair. Asking for SOGR money is just a way of avoiding accountability.
What you want is for Amtrak to propose some stuff it would like to build. Then we can ask:
On the front end: Does that sound like it’s worth the amount of money they want?
On the back end: Did they in fact do the thing they said they were going to do?
Now maybe Secretary Mayor Pete will just greenlight a bunch of SOGR requests, and we’ll have spent $66 billion on Amtrak with nothing at all to show for it.
But I believe that the team at DOT is aware of the issues with Amtrak and is genuinely trying to do something about it, albeit something less drastic than Alon Levy’s proposed “full replacement of Amtrak’s planning staff and possibly the line workers too.” In many ways, my sympathies are with Levy on this. But we are realists here and recognize that the slow boring of hard boards probably will not countenance a step quite that drastic. What’s good to see, though, is that the people in charge are trying to take responsibility for this, consult widely with subject matter people, and actually make things better.
A big job for Buttigieg
In general, I think an underappreciated aspect of the transportation sections of the bill is that as part of the rebalancing away from the traditional highway formula grant, they involve a lot more administrative discretion.
A brief squib in The Week was one of the few places in the mainstream press I saw this noted:
Pete Buttigieg, President Biden's transportation secretary and a former Democratic presidential candidate, will be responsible for managing at least $105 billion of the bipartisan infrastructure bill's new spending. That's "way more than any other" transportation secretary has ever been given, said Jeff Davis of the Eno Center for Transportation. It also creates a major test for Buttigieg, whose most recent budget as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was just over $350 million.
As for the dig at Buttigieg’s management experience, the fact is he did what any responsible person with his background would do and brought in a Deputy Secretary who is very well qualified to manage a large transportation bureaucracy. Polly Trottenberg was New York City Transportation Commissioner for six years before returning to Washington and also has prior experience as the Undersecretary of Transportation for Policy. So they have not, in fact, just turned the whole thing over to a former small-city mayor.
What they’ve done is given unprecedented discretionary authority to an ambitious young politician who is backed up by an extremely experienced transportation administrator who, unusually, does not have a highway-oriented background.
Is that a guarantee that great things are going to happen? Obviously not. Indeed in some sense, a highly functioning system would probably feature very little discretion in the hands of political appointees. But we know for a fact that America’s existing funding formulas are not delivering high-quality, cost-effective projects. Under the circumstances, trying to do something else seems very sensible. I just hope Buttigieg is really daring with it. There’s not a great deal of precedent for working your way up from Transportation Secretary to the White House, so if he still holds that ambition, he shouldn’t play it safe in his current job. Some of this stuff is really messed up, and he should try to fix it even if it means picking some fights.
The legislative tactics stuff
Now that progressives have gone this far with the linkage stuff, they can’t back down or back out of it.
But I do want to say that I think this whole strategy was misguided. Not only is the BIF a good and important piece of legislation on its own, but its bipartisan nature could and should have been a medium-sized political win.
For starters, it’s inherently good for an incumbent president to have a nice bipartisan, bicameral signing ceremony to invite people to and to put on television. But for Biden especially, it would have been a nice win specifically because he talked so much during the campaign about his desire to “unite the country,” and so many people on the left derided that promise. A BIF passing the house and being signed into law would’ve generated a couple of nice news cycles for Biden about how he’d defied the haters and done the thing people said was impossible. And in my view, a Joe Biden riding a good news cycle would have more leverage vis-a-vis the holdout moderates in Congress than a Biden mired in weird legislative arcana.
After all, the leverage that progressives think they have here is illusory. To the extent that moderates really want the BIF, one of the big things they wanted from it was the good vibes. Being involved in bipartisan bills is a good look for anyone in a difficult race. But progressives have already killed the good vibes via the linkage. So not just Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, but also Jacky Rosen and Maggie Hasan and everyone else who’d like an upbeat news cycle about bipartisan comity have already taken the L. All this is actually doing is making everyone feel more nervous about 2022 and Biden’s increasingly weak political standing.
The right thing to do would have been to pass the BIF quickly, and then work with Manchin and Sinema quietly on crafting a reconciliation package that could be swiftly unveiled and passed. At the end of the day, they are the deciders, and that was always going to be the case.
What’s done is done. But it’s unfortunate that as a consequence of this tactical move, it’s become de rigueur to talk down the bill itself. A lot of folks could really use lead out of their water or access to high-speed internet or a toxic waste clean-up in their communities. And there’s a real chance here to improve some major dysfunctional aspects of American transportation policy. I want to pass the other stuff, too, but this is a good bill.