Not many people wake up thrilled at the possibility of a federal bill on infrastructure. But the US Senate’s passage of a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, with $550 billion in new spending, is a big deal — one that could directly and indirectly affect Americans’ lives.
The bill, passed in a bipartisan 69-30 vote on Tuesday, includes a lot of measures that will help current and future generations: a major expansion of high-speed internet; spending for roads, bridges, and public transit; and funding for clean drinking water. It includes new measures to combat climate change, like money for electric vehicles and modernizing the power grid.
Second, the fact that the Senate reached a bipartisan deal could unlock an even bigger and more ambitious bill that would also make a big difference in people’s lives — by giving the moderate Democrats in the legislative body the cover they wanted to vote for a bill that Congress can pass with only Democratic support.
That second bill would focus in large part on President Joe Biden’s “human infrastructure” agenda: expanding the child tax credits; establishing paid family and medical leave; funding universal preschool and free community college; and further action on climate change. These are all things, again, that would have a sizable impact on people’s lives, adding up to the biggest expansion of social welfare programs since former President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which included Medicare and Medicaid, in the 1960s.
The road to Biden signing these measures isn’t certain. The first bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support, with 19 Republicans joining 50 Democrats. But the measure now moves to the House of Representatives, and progressive Democrats there have signaled that they won’t back the bipartisan measure until the Senate passes the second, more ambitious bill. With vote margins tight — Democrats can lose only a few votes in the House and effectively none in the Senate with the second bill — there’s still room for the bills to collapse before they land on Biden’s desk.
Yet Biden and other Democrats are pushing hard, treating this as a cornerstone of the president’s achievements. Biden’s party already passed a $1.9 trillion stimulus package earlier this year focused on short-term economic relief. But the set of infrastructure bills — part of his “Build Back Better” agenda — would have longer-term impact and help define Biden’s legacy early on. If nothing else, Democrats hope that the bills would show Americans, in the lead-up to the 2022 midterm elections, that the party is trying to help.
A consistent theme of Biden’s presidency is his argument that Democrats have to show that democracy — and the federal government — can work for everyday Americans. After a year of Covid-19 in which the federal response was anything but competent, and following decades more in which the role of government in everyday life has been shrunk and hidden (what experts call the “submerged state”), many have lost faith that the government can work for them. Biden hopes that by taking immediate action that can impact people’s lives, that can change.
As Biden said in his speech to Congress in April, “We have to prove democracy still works. That our government still works — and we can deliver for our people.”
That starts with the Senate’s bipartisan bill. And while the first bill may not be as big as the other bill it enables, that doesn’t mean the bipartisan legislation won’t do anything on its own — far from it.
The bipartisan bill does a good amount on its own
Priced at $550 billion in new federal spending, the bipartisan deal focuses almost entirely on physical infrastructure projects that will move to rebuild parts of American society and take action on longer-term issues, from climate change to improving internet access.
Here are the areas that would get major new spending:
- Transportation projects: The bill would spend $110 billion in new funds for roads, bridges, and related projects. It also would commit $39 billion for public transit — which the Biden administration described as “the largest federal investment in public transit in history” — along with $66 billion for rail. It’d spend $42 billion on ports, airports, and related projects. And it would invest $11 billion in making America’s roads safer.
- Reconnected communities: In the past few decades of road construction, many American cities have been physically divided by large highways, disproportionately affecting minority communities. The bill would spend $1 billion to reconnect many of these places.
- High-speed internet: The bill would spend $65 billion with a goal of providing broadband internet to all Americans, further aiming to boost competition among providers and reduce the cost of high-speed internet to make it more affordable.
- Electric vehicles: The bill would put $7.5 billion into a national network of electric vehicle chargers. It would also put $7.5 billion toward electrifying buses and ferries. These actions, the Biden administration said, are meant to create jobs but also help tackle global warming by decarbonizing major components of American transportation systems.
- Other action on climate change: The bill would also make several other investments meant to combat climate change, including $28 billion for power grid infrastructure, resiliency, and reliability (in part to help expand the reach of clean energy) and $46 billion to, in part, mitigate damage from floods, wildfires, and droughts.
- Clean drinking water: The deal would spend $55 billion on clean water infrastructure, particularly to eliminate lead pipes and other dangerous chemicals in today’s service lines.
- Cleaning up the environment: The bill would also commit $21 billion to environmental remediation, particularly to clean up Superfund and brownfield sites, abandoned mines, and orphaned gas wells.
The plan is paid for through repurposed unused funds from the economic relief package, anti-fraud enforcement for unemployment benefits, a delay on a Medicare Part D rebate rule, and several other generally smaller sources. But the Congressional Budget Office found that the deal would still add $256 billion over 10 years to the deficit.
None of this may be as exciting as the government mailing you cash, but it’s a big deal nonetheless: On top of the traditional rebuilding of crumbling infrastructure that you’d expect in this kind of plan, it also tackles a host of issues that have been very present in Americans’ lives over the past year or so. That includes global warming amid intensifying droughts, heat, and wildfires, but also issues like many Americans’ inability to work from home or attend school virtually, at least with any consistency, during Covid-19 lockdowns due to poor internet access.
The deal is a step down, in some ways, from what Biden proposed earlier this year — and even from the preliminary bipartisan agreement prior to detailed negotiations. For one example, public transit funds were cut by roughly $10 billion. As Biden acknowledged, “Neither side got everything they wanted. But that’s what it means to compromise and forge consensus.”
Former President Donald Trump has argued that the bill would hand Democrats a political win, making it easier for them to win future elections. Republican lawmakers have raised separate concerns that the bill would spend too much, fueling levels of inflation they claim — though many economists disagree — that are too high and dangerous.
Still, the bill managed to overcome the criticisms in the Senate and get bipartisan approval. The question now is what happens in the House — and the other, bigger bill that Democrats plan to pass with a party-line vote.
The deal opens the path to a much bigger reconciliation bill
With the bipartisan bill moving forward, Democrats can now move on to a bigger bill that they intend to pass through the budget reconciliation process, a limited maneuver that lets the Senate pass a bill with a simple majority. This was part of a political calculation: The more moderate Democrats in Congress, such as Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), wanted to show they were working across party lines — a popular move, particularly for Democrats in purple or red states — before passing another big bill on a partisan basis.
The details for this bill remain up in the air. That includes the cost: Though it was originally set to total $3.5 trillion, Sinema, a moderate thorn in progressives’ side, has indicated that price tag is too high for her.
What we do know about the bill suggests that it will focus less on physical infrastructure and more on “human infrastructure,” meaning projects that invest in people rather than physical things. Among the potential inclusions in the bill: an expanded child tax credit, paid family and medical leave, universal preschool, free community college, a summer food program for low-income families with kids, and subsidies for individual health insurance. The bill would also likely include a variety of measures to tackle climate change, including tax incentives for clean energy and electric vehicles as well as a civilian climate corps.
Democrats have suggested that they will pay for the larger bill by raising taxes on the wealthy and increasing enforcement against people who underpay or cheat on their taxes, among other potential revenue sources.
That would be a massive bill. Just one of these programs — whether an expanded child tax credit that’s effectively an Americanized child allowance, paid leave, or universal preschool — would on its own be considered a huge achievement. That Democrats may do several of these things at once is genuinely, in Biden’s famous words, a big fucking deal.
But it all comes with the caveat that we don’t know if all these things will end up in the final bill. In fact, we don’t know if this reconciliation bill will even pass. Since Democrats only hold the House by a few votes, and the Senate with a 50-50 divide and tiebreaker from Vice President Kamala Harris, they really can’t afford defectors. Yet as the details are worked out, there are still tensions between progressives and moderates about the overall price tag and what should be prioritized in the final language of the bill.
So it could still all blow up.
Then again, the same was true for the first bill, which went through its own ups and downs as Democrats and Republicans struggled to come to agreements on different issues time and again. Against much of Washington’s expectations, it worked out in the Senate, at least. Maybe the same will hold for the reconciliation bill.
At any rate, it’s worth watching closely. The bipartisan deal alone will make a big impact on many people’s lives. The reconciliation bill is even bigger. Decades after former President Bill Clinton declared the “era of big government is over,” Biden and congressional Democrats are on the verge of showing the government can still help people in a big way.
Update, August 10, 12:50 pm: This story has been updated to note that the infrastructure bill has passed the Senate.