Build Back Greener

Progressive Politics

Build Back Greener

Posted on: 13th April 2021
Harry Summers
Political Researcher

The Biden White House finds itself with a once-in-a-generation opportunity: to revitalise the US’s failing infrastructure. It’s an ongoing joke in Washington that every other week is “infrastructure week” – the one in which Congress and the current administration will finally pass a much-needed infrastructure spending bill. Despite bipartisan support from the public, however, passing such a bill has remained elusive for Biden’s predecessors.

The Plan

The proposed infrastructure bill checks many of the traditional boxes – roads, bridges, ports, highways, airports and so on. However, this bill is far more transformative than the one passed during Reagan’s presidency. In addition to hard infrastructure, President Biden is planning on investing more than $600 billion in clean energy projects, as well as multi-billion-dollar investments in “soft infrastructure”, including child and eldercare.

Hard Infrastructure

Biden’s plan calls for spending of $115 billion on bridges, highways and roads; $20 billion on road safety; $85 billion to upgrade public transportation systems; $80 billion for Amtrak (which Biden is famous for riding throughout his time in the Senate and as vice president); $25 billion for airports; and $17 billion for ports and other inland waterways.

In addition to these traditional forms of infrastructure, Biden is courting the left-wing of his party’s base with $174 billion in the form of sales rebates and tax incentives for electric car purchases, as well as providing grants to state and local governments and the private sector to install approximately 500,000 charging stations throughout the country.

Two of the leading reasons why adoption of electric vehicles has been so slow in the US are the upfront cost of vehicles compared to those that run on gasoline and the lack of charging stations, creating what has become commonly known as “charge anxiety” or the fear of running out of power. This plan addresses both major hurdles.

Soft Infrastructure

The White House’s plan has changed what we think of when we hear “infrastructure”. It now encompasses universal access to broadband internet, reinvestment in R&D, shoring up supply chains by bringing back manufacturing jobs to American communities, spending on child and eldercare, fixing the worsening conditions found in the VA healthcare system and investment in carbon capture technologies.

All these initiatives are receiving tens of billions of dollars under Biden’s proposed $2.25 trillion spending plan.

The Politics

Infrastructure has traditionally been hailed as one of the most bipartisan issues in Congress. The GOP under the leadership of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, has renewed its strategy from the Obama years to oppose nearly all Biden’s policy plans. Since the Democratic Party does not hold a 60-member, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, he would usually be able to successfully block many of Biden’s major policies. The Democrats, though, are using a senatorial procedural process to circumvent McConnell’s roadblock.

The Senate parliamentarian is a position held by a nonpartisan civil servant acting as a type of referee on Senate rules including budgetary. The parliamentarian acts as a referee by ruling on what can and can’t be passed through this process, a procedure usually reserved for passing budgetary bills that keep the government running.

The parliamentarian has now ruled that the Senate may use reconciliation to essentially add their proposed spending initiatives to their budget plan passed in February 2021, handing a major procedural victory to the Democrats. But it remains unclear how much of the proposed, roughly $2.25 trillion plan can be passed using this process, and how much will need to be put into a separate bill (or bills) to pass with a 60-member majority in the Senate.

The Public’s Response

The Biden-Harris administration is on a major public relations campaign to drum up support for their spending bill across the country. So far, their efforts have been paying off. According to a recent survey released by Data for Progress, 73 per cent of all Americans support the Biden infrastructure plan. When it is broken down by political affiliation, the numbers are even more encouraging, with 93 per cent of Democrats, 67 per cent of Independents and 57 per cent of Republicans supporting the plan. The last figure is especially noteworthy. More than half of Republicans support a once-in-a-generation spending plan by a Democratic House, Senate and White House.

While the public remains widely supportive of this initiative, Republicans in Congress have struck a very different tone. The plan calls for increasing the corporate tax rate from 21 per cent to 28 per cent, increasing the minimum tax rate from the effective 13 per cent on foreign investment – instituted by the 2017 tax reform bill – to 21 per cent, and calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies. In order to try and counter the inevitable moves US corporations would make to shift their taxable profits to more forgivably taxed countries, the administration has expressed support for the current negotiations around a global minimum tax.

McConnell has come out forcefully against these proposed changes to the tax code, claiming it would make US businesses less competitive abroad and give Chinese corporations an advantage. While using China as the political scapegoat may be a smart play, it doesn’t seem it will change public opinion much this time around. Instead, it seems more like political coverage for Republicans in Congress who know that an infrastructure bill is desperately needed, but don’t want to hand the Democrats a major legislative victory.

Implications for Progressive Politics

The proposed investments are geared towards helping the middle class by providing support for huge swathes of the American public who have, rightly so, felt left behind in recent years. This means investments in broadband, clean water, child care, new middle-class jobs in emerging sectors, restarting domestic manufacturing to shore up supply chains and expanding opportunities for organised labour.

Progressive politicians in other countries should take note, particularly of the level of bipartisan support. In a nation as divided as modern America, finding common ground is almost a pipe dream. By addressing the needs of the working and middle class, however, President Biden seems to have found a sweet spot that cuts through the partisan rhetoric. The public does still respond to large, bold policies. But none of this would be in the realm of possibility had Biden not won the White House and the Democrats not won two Senate seats in Georgia’s special election.

It is also worthy of note, particularly in the context of the rise of green parties in the West, that in the case of the US, the major progressive party has taken on the issue of climate politics and put it at the heart of its policy agenda. It offers a potential model for progressives internationally on how to embrace green issues as part of a credible economic and infrastructure plan.

Biden’s plans ultimately show that even when your plans are popular, both the messenger and the power to enact them are far more important than what you have written down on paper.


Orbon Alija/Getty Images

Find out more