The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill Shows Much of What’s Wrong with Congress

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Although it now looks unlikely, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D_NY) wants the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act, popularly known as the bipartisan infrastructure bill, passed by Thursday, August 5. The bill is the product of months of work by a bipartisan group of Senators and was introduced by the centrists Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Rob Portman (R-OH). As such, it has been hailed as a great example of Congress working to overcome partisan gridlock. However, the bill actually represents a great deal of what’s wrong with Congress.

Despite the months of negotiations, the bill is now being rushed through. It is a very large bill, 2,700 pages long, and contains 10 “divisions” and over 50 titles. Most of those divisions should really be separate bills, to be debated and scrutinized by Congress over time. Shorter bills, with lower costs attached, are far less likely to contain “poison pills”—like one identified by my colleague John Berlau that would cripple the cryptocurrency industry. Our elected representatives, not just those involved in the drafting, need to have the time to carefully scrutinize the bills they vote on.

There is no emergency here, like there was with the various COVID-19 relief bills, but those should serve as a warning, as vast amounts of money appropriated without scrutiny have been wasted, unspent, or possibly even stolen. Senators should be better stewards of our money. While surface transportation spending and programs require reauthorization, that can be done separately, allowing proper time for debate.

Which brings us to the cost of the bill. Its headline number is $1.2 trillion over five years, with $550 billion in new spending. Yet, the bill contains “pay-fors” that are supposed to reduce the new cost to nothing. As The Wall Street Journal has explained, many of these so-called pay-fors are illusory. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget reckons that only $200 billion of these savings are achievable. New spending is often renewed. All of this could cost taxpayers over $1 trillion over a decade, according to the Tax Foundation’s Scott Hodge. This level of spending deserves extra scrutiny.

The bill itself contains some eye-opening provisions. For instance, while the bill is promoted as investing in Amtrak (there is an entire Amtrak title with a schedule of “reforms”), the bill would attempt to turn Amtrak into a European-style national passenger railroad as existed in the 1970s. For example, it instructs Amtrak to conduct feasibility studies into reopening every line it operated at the time of its nationalization in 1971. The major reason Amtrak was nationalized  is because these lines were unsustainable then. No amount of nostalgia for a golden age of rail travel will change that. The bill also attempts to codify the notion that Amtrak is a public service obligation, by changing all references in the law to Amtrak “businesses” to Amtrak “services.”

The bill also contains various faddish ideas like elements of the Green New Deal and “Buy American” provisions, all of which will simply increase costs to American consumers for no discernible benefit. Many of my criticisms of the president’s infrastructure plan as being boated and wasteful continue to apply to this bill.

Finally, several Democrats have made it clear that they view this as the first of a two-part package, the second being a budget reconciliation bill with $3.5 trillion of new spending and a variety of progressive wish-list items that would seek to turn the U.S. into a European-style social democracy, with a vastly expanded welfare state. Again, it appears that the plan is to rush this through on the back of the infrastructure bill without proper scrutiny.

Not only is the substance of these bills objectionable, the process is too. Americans are supposed to be able to lobby their representatives on legislation that affects them. If even their representatives are rushed, how is the process of democracy supposed to work for the average American? As Michael Jordan might say, this is time for Congress to stop it and get some help.