Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks about modernizing infrastructure and his plans for tackling climate change during a campaign event in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., July 14, 2020.
Leah Millis | Reuters
With President Joe Biden’s Covid-19 stimulus package just a signature away from becoming law, the White House now turns its attention to assembling and passing a once-in-a-generation infrastructure bill.
It’s not clear what the legislation will include. Yet the new president has all but guaranteed a spectacular infrastructure overhaul as his next policy priority — and his legacy is riding on it. Democrats’ congressional majorities will also be at stake in next year’s midterm elections, which usually result in losses for a president’s party.
Even less clear is how Biden will persuade a Congress split between progressives, moderate Democrats and Republicans to back a potential recovery bill. The GOP uniformly opposed Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan.
There are even disagreements among Democrats who support a big infrastructure initiative, as labor unions and environmentalists, two key Democratic constituencies, jockey for top billing.
“The lack of specifics reflect how broad the potential issues at play are in the coming months,” Raymond James analyst Ed Mills wrote in an email on Tuesday.
During the campaign, Biden pitched a $2 trillion plan that aimed to achieve carbon-free power generation by 2035. His team said the plan would create “millions” of union jobs that pay at least $15 per hour and include billions in investments for climate-friendly infrastructure.
“Do not think of the infrastructure bill as just roads and bridges. Democrats view an infrastructure bill as the ‘infrastructure’ necessary to build the economy of the future,” Raymond James told clients Monday. “They believe that unless they deliver, they will suffer in the midterm election. Some may argue, even if they deliver, they will suffer in the midterm elections.”
The White House declined to comment on the details of its infrastructure plan and told CNBC it remains focused on finishing the coronavirus stimulus package, which Biden intends to sign this week.
It’s not easy going green
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, and US Senator Ed Markey (R), Democrat of Massachusetts, speak during a press conference to announce Green New Deal legislation to promote clean energy programs outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, February 7, 2019.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images
Infrastructure improvement remains a bipartisan issue, but that is largely because the various factions in Washington have a range of ideas about what infrastructure improvement entails.
Fractures have formed between progressive Democrats with a long and expensive to-do list, and moderates and Republicans who may be supportive of tailored projects at a far smaller ticket price. There are lawmakers who prefer a bigger seat at the table for the private sector, while others are pressing to depend more on government investment and control.
A growing number of high-profile Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, have led demands that Congress pass climate policy with substantial investments, fossil fuel caps and fuel efficiency standards.
“We need a transportation transformation in this country, and this is our opportunity to create millions of good-paying, union jobs while investing in green transit infrastructure,” Markey said in a statement dated Feb. 26.
Other proponents of an infrastructure overhaul want the resulting legislation to include guaranteed employment.
“One thing we’d specifically like to see in terms of infrastructure is a jobs guarantee,” said the Sunrise Movement, an environmental activist organization. “It protects people from the risk of unemployment and establishes a labor force to do the critical work of building green infrastructure and caring for one another.”
Time to pay
Even if the president shares the left’s ambitious goals, one topic the Biden team has been even less keen to detail is how it plans to pay for such a massive undertaking. The answer is some combination of higher taxes and a deluge of municipal bond sales subsidized by the federal government via direct payments or tax credits.
The trick, of course, is striking the right balance.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and others have offered oblique commentary on future, way-off-on-the-distant-horizon tax hikes. Last month, for example, she was quick to assure CNBC’s viewers that any tax increases to help pay for spending would only be introduced gradually.
It’s not so much that politicians on both sides of the aisle are arguing over the need for major infrastructure improvements to support the U.S. economy but rather disagreements over size and how to finance the reform, according to Citi bond strategist Vikram Rai.
“There is no dispute about how to finance infrastructure — as always, it will be financed via the U.S. municipal market, which has been the cornerstone of U.S. infrastructure financing since the Great Depression and will continue to stay so,” Rai told clients Friday.
The West Virginia test
There are few states as vested in the success and future of the country’s energy production as West Virginia. It is the nation’s second-largest coal producer, the sixth-largest in natural gas marketed production and the fifth-largest in energy production overall at about 5% of the total, according to data dated 2018 and 2019 and tracked by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
But the Mountain State, by virtue of its geography, is also uniquely positioned to profit from the accelerating shift toward green, renewable energies. According to the EIA, “rivers that cross the Appalachian Plateau have plentiful hydroelectric power potential, while the narrow, wind-swept mountain ridges” across the state are home to ample wind resources.
And as central as West Virginia is to national discussions over energy, so too is its Sen. Joe Manchin to Biden’s infrastructure agenda. Manchin, described as the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, has quickly become one of the most powerful politicians in Washington as a centrist swing voter in a Senate split 50-50.
His objections were the main reason the Senate’s version of the $1.9 trillion bill did not include a provision to raise the existing $300-per-week unemployment benefit, a measure he and other moderates considered too generous.
The West Virginia senator has also balked at efforts to alter Senate rules that would allow his party to enact its agenda over Republican opposition.
“I’m not going to do it through reconciliation,” Manchin told Axios over the weekend in reference to the infrastructure plan. “I am not going to get on a bill that cuts [the GOP] out completely before we start trying.”
Senate Democrats passed the Covid-19 stimulus package via budget reconciliation, which allows a bill to pass with a simple majority vote but restricts the kinds of provisions allowed in the text. The White House has not yet said whether it plans to pursue an infrastructure bill under reconciliation, instead opting to keep all tools available if needed.
Manchin’s fellow West Virginian, Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, said that while she sees a need for an infrastructure bill, it should be an efficient product of a bipartisan group of lawmakers. She and other lawmakers met with Biden in February to discuss a future infrastructure plan.
“Building and maintaining a power system, especially with innovative technologies, comes at a price,” Capito said in prepared remarks Wednesday. “We need to make sure we are not making it unaffordable to turn on those lights, especially during and after an external challenge to grid reliability.”
She added that “clean energy” should not only include solar and wind but extend to nuclear, low-carbon natural gas, hydropower, geothermal and others with appropriate carbon-capturing technologies.
A warning about China
While Covid-19 and the nationwide vaccine rollout have taken the bulk of the current administration’s focus since the inauguration, Biden has been able to unilaterally reverse some of the Trump administration’s moves against climate-friendly policies.
The most notable reversal came in the first week of the Biden White House, when the president said in an executive order that the U.S. would rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, a historic treaty that requires signatories to curb their carbon footprints and emissions in an effort to limit global warming. President Donald Trump had withdrawn the U.S. from the accord.
Deer gather at a depot used to store pipes for the planned Keystone XL oil pipeline in Gascoyne, North Dakota, January 25, 2017.
Terray Sylvester | Reuters
Perhaps in an effort to draw moderate support for his plan, Biden warned last month that without major investments, the U.S. could lose its competitive edge versus rival China.
“They’re investing a lot of money, they’re investing billions of dollars and dealing with a whole range of issues that relate to transportation, the environment and a whole range of other things,” the president said of China’s initiatives.
“They’re going to, you know, if we don’t get moving, they’re going to eat our lunch,” he said at the time.
Factions and actions
Biden may also find himself between competing interests of two key Democratic coalitions: labor unions and environmentalists. Since the infrastructure bill aims to both tackle climate change and create “millions” of union jobs in the U.S. manufacturing and energy sectors, it’s expected that the two groups may at times find themselves on opposing sides.
The president received both criticism and praise in the first few days of his term after canceling permits for the Keystone pipeline project.
“Killing good union jobs on day one with nothing to replace them is not building back better,” Terry O’Sullivan, who heads the Laborers International Union of North America, said on Jan. 20 about the Keystone decision.
“Hopefully, the Biden Administration will not continue to allow environmental extremists to control our country’s energy agenda at the expense of union construction workers being forced to the unemployment lines,” he added.
The praise, which came from a mix of climate activists and Indigenous tribes, was just as impassioned.
“The climate crisis reaches our most vulnerable communities first. As a mother and grandmother of our Lakota, Dakota, Nakota Nations, I’m grateful you have honored your promise of NO KXL which will support a greener economy and impact more than the United States,” said Paula Antoine, a Dakota Rural Action Board Member and a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe.
Even with the obvious difficulties ahead, the White House remained rosy on the bill’s odds as of Tuesday afternoon, when Biden economic advisor Jared Bernstein addressed questions over bipartisan support for a costly plan.
“I think when it comes to investments, for example, in infrastructure, there are a lot of Republicans — I know this for a fact — who are willing to work with us, and particularly willing to work with President Biden, who knows how to reach across the aisle on this issue,” Bernstein, who serves on Biden’s Council of Economic Advisors, said during a “Closing Bell” interview.
“I think we probably can achieve some bipartisan cooperation,” he said.