Why the GOP Has to Resist the 'Infrastructure' and 'Bipartisan' Magical Thinking
Remembering what is none of the state's business.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Last week the White House announced that the framework for a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill had been agreed upon by the President and several Republican Senators. Paeans to “bipartisanship” were sung by the DC establishment, although resistance from the Democrats’ extreme left caucus indicates a final bill may not be coming.
But more worrisome is the willingness of some Republicans to persist in thinking that the Dems really believe in give-and-take negotiations, rather than using them as a tactic for getting what they want. For too long the “bipartisan,” “reaching across the aisle” magical thinking has led Republicans into advancing Democrats’ big-government priorities. And given the urgency of turning back the most left-wing administration in American history, Republicans don’t need to be giving Dems any wins they can leverage during the 2022 midterm elections.
In the case of the current “framework,” several pundits have pointed out that it solves the dilemma the Dems were facing. The administration’s ambition had been to package infrastructure with a whole catalogue of big-government, social welfare, cradle-to-grave programs. But Republican resistance and the filibuster––along with Senator Joe Manchin’s demand for legitimate infrastructure spending––make that hard to do. So, as NRO’s Charlie Cooke reports, “The deal that [Fox News’s] Chad Pergram is reporting fixes this issue for the Democrats, in that it allows them to recruit the 60 bipartisan votes for the Manchin-friendly infrastructure package and to turn around once that’s done and get everything else they want at a simple 50-vote threshold [through reconciliation].”
If this ploy works, as Cooke continues, by going along “Republicans have decided to give up all their negotiating power and, in effect, to permit the spending of trillions of dollars (the Democrats want six trillion!) that they oppose.” Indeed, Joe Biden has already said he won’t sign the bill without the second one filled with tax increases and new entitlement programs costing at least $3 trillion (he walked that threat back a few days later). And Nancy Pelosi similarly warned, “‘We will not take up a bill in the House until the Senate passes the bipartisan bill and a reconciliation bill’ (that could pass without GOP support).” As the Journal writes of this “bipartisan” grift, “The question is why Senate Republicans would sign on to this deal when they are being told to their faces they’ll be double-crossed.”
There are other problems with this demonstration of “bipartisanship.” “Infrastructure” is the capacious noun that Senators can fill with all sorts of pork and crony deals for their well-heeled constituents back home, and promises of “job-growth” for ordinary voters. That’s why progressives are trying to market social-welfare spending on paid leave, child care, universal preschool, family care-giving, and “Medicare for All” as “infrastructure,” as Democrat Senator Kirsten Gillibrand tweeted. In short, “infrastructure” spending, as economist Veronique de Rugy writes, “is driven by political calculations, leads to ridiculous projects like the infamous ‘bridge to nowhere,’ mandates the creation of green or union jobs, romanticizes high-speed rail and prioritizes pet political projects.”
Such spending, moreover, comes with the moral hazard that always attends the spending of other people’s money without the accountability of the market. Cost overruns are ubiquitous, and delays endemic. Often the particular project is not developed enough to even start spending. As Barack Obama said of his similar near-trillion-dollar stimulus bill, “shovel-ready jobs” weren’t as “shovel-ready as we thought.”
The reason for that is the other problem with government “infrastructure” projects: intrusive government regulations that burn up time and money, and the sort of corruption that results from spending other people’s money. The most costly are environmental regulations that require public hearings, extensive reports, land acquisition, and permits, not to mention the expense and time spent dealing with legal challenges from the powerful environmentalist lobby.
The examples of projects that had huge cost overruns are legion. Boston’s Big Dig highway infrastructure project took 16 years, went temporarily bankrupt, and ended up costing $13.6 billion. Or take California’s high-speed rail project. It began in 2009 as a link between the Bay Area and Southern California, was pared down to an unneeded stretch between Merced and Bakersfield, cities in the San Joaquin Valley. As the CATO think-tank writes,
California has spent an average of more than $100 million per route‐mile building 220 mph track on flat land. The latest estimates project that the entire 520‐mile route will cost $100 billion, of which $20 billion is for 120 miles of flat land and $80 billion is for 400 miles of hilly or mountainous territory. That works out to $200 million a mile for hilly areas.
And U.S. News reports, “More than a decade later, California High Speed Rail has been an epic disappointment, plagued by repeated delays, ballooning costs and years of mismanagement and legal and political battles; to date, no segments of the project have been completed.” Yet despite the colossal waste of time and money, Biden’s proposed infrastructure bill will throw more money at this fiscal disaster. Meanwhile, the state’s main north-south artery, Highway 99, remains a packed, pot-holed blood-alley.
In fact, compared to our peer economies in Europe, the U.S. is “notoriously bad,” as Catherine Rampell writes in The Washington Post. “We pay much more per unit of subway track or road tunnel, for instance, than other developed countries. Five of the six most expensive subway lines are in New York City . . . . Likewise, a new tunnel in Seattle costs around $1.6 billion per mile, more than three times the per-mile cost of a recent tunnel in Paris and more than seven times that of one in Madrid.” Labor and materials prices can’t account for this disparity,
The extent of this bipartisan government “infrastructure” waste is obvious when also compared to big building projects from the past, accomplished without the more advanced engineering technology of today: “For instance,” Jonah Goldberg points out, “it took 410 days to build the Empire State Building and 16 months to build the Pentagon but nearly 20 years to complete Boston’s Big Dig highway tunnel project. The Hoover Dam was scheduled to take seven years but was completed in five. That would be a generous timetable for Environmental Protection Agency review of the proposal today.” As Goldberg concludes, “That sort of success is still possible––if you cut out the political middlemen.”
Finally, the politics of “infrastructure” bespeaks how comfortable we all have become with the progressive revision of our Constitutional political order. A government of concentrated, expansive powers that the progressives have championed from FDR to Mussolini, is drawn to massive projects that are the concrete exemplar of the superiority of technocracy over divided and balanced governments. The old Constitutional order that recognized conflicting factions and the vulnerability of people to be corrupted by power was designed not, as we think today, to “solve problems,” but to protect the political freedom and rights of all the diverse peoples of America. Federalism, the recognition of the sovereignty of the states, also protected local diversity from the encroaching power of the centralized bureaus and agencies of the federal government. “Bipartisanship,” except in times of war or natural disasters, was viewed with suspicion, as factions join forces to promote special interests at the expense of the people.
In some cases, of course, in which infrastructure crossed state lines, the federal government could facilitate such projects. Transportation infrastructure such as the transcontinental railroad, or the interstate highway network, and communication systems like the telegraph and internet, are examples. Many other infrastructure projects, most of which are privately owned, are more efficiently funded and managed by local and state governments using private businesses and local investment capital as well as state funds. But once the feds use taxpayer money or borrowing to bribe their way into taking control, projects become bogged down in ideological and partisan administrative rules and regulations that cost more time and money.
Republicans need to return to our Constitutional roots and resist the siren song of technocratic expertise, the claims that big government can solve all our problems if given enough power and money. Especially at this moment, when a leftist agenda of raising taxes, expanding entitlements, and increasing the Fed’s regulatory reach into private life and civil society––all financed by borrowed money that those not yet born will have to pay back.
Republicans need to remember that “solving problems” that state and local government and civil society should solve, is not their business. Protecting our freedoms and unalienable rights is. A century of relentless progressive dismantling of the Constitution and Bill of Rights has already eroded those freedoms. Helping the progressives succeed by playing the “infrastructure” and “bipartisan” cards will only worsen that threat.