The Hard Stuff

What is infrastructure? It’s whatever Joe Manchin says it is.

There is a truly ridiculous debate going on right now about the definition of a single word. Pres. Joe Biden has outlined an ambitious set of investments that he defines as infrastructure. Republicans say it includes things that aren’t infrastructure. The hard-left says that it should include even more social investments than even Biden has proposed.

I would say there are three levels of infrastructure in the Biden proposal.

First, there’s stuff that everyone can agree on: roads, bridges, water projects, that kind of thing. Basically, if it involves cement, it’s infrastructure. According to the Republicans that’s only about 7% of the Biden proposal.

Second, there are things that are physical, durable goods that go beyond the basic stuff. So, for example, the power grid, expanding broadband, electric vehicle charging stations, and the like. And then there’s investment in soft costs that are directly related to the hard costs: a big increase in research and development. According to an Associated Press analysis that would get you to between 30% to 40% of the Biden initiative.

Infrastructure is whatever Joe Manchin says it is. Photo by Enric Cruz Lu00f3pez on Pexels.com

Third, you have things that stretch the definition of infrastructure — “soft” stuff that has nothing to do with concrete at all. This makes up the majority of Biden’s proposal. Of course, for example, it’s true that funding for child care can be thought of as an investment in human infrastructure, but it strains that term as it is commonly used. If you want to include social investments that’s fine by me, but then don’t call it an infrastructure bill. Call it, maybe, the Invest in America Act. We’re investing in the future of our country in all kinds of ways.

But what makes this debate a waste of time is that all that matters is how Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) defines the term. Let’s just cut through all this rhetorical rubble. No matter what they say, there’s no way that there will be 10 Republican votes for anything this president wants. That means that the Democrats can only pass it using budget reconciliation. That, in turn, means the Senate Democrats need every one of their votes plus the Vice President. So, all roads lead back to Manchin.

I don’t see anything in the Biden outline (it’s not an actual bill yet) that I’m against. I can quibble about whether it fits the definition of infrastructure or not, but it doesn’t matter. I suppose that Biden has made pretty much the same calculation. He can only use reconciliation a few times over the next year and a half before his party is likely to lose their slim majorities in Congress. So, he might as well swing for the fences now.

I don’t blame Biden for using an expansive definition of infrastructure to get in as much as he can while he has the chance. The only question is how much he can get past Manchin.

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