Infrastructure spending is the bipartisan cause that somehow never happens.
The timing is never quite right.
President Donald Trump had an opportunity to get legislation on it at the start of his presidency. Democratic congressional leaders said they were interested in working with him on it. But Republican congressional leaders, while saying they were also open to it, had other priorities, and anyway the new administration wasn’t sure what it wanted from a bill.
Obamacare repeal and a tax cut would come first.
The economic timing was off too. Creating jobs was the motive for many supporters of infrastructure spending. But with unemployment at 70-year lows, the bill would mostly have diverted workers from other jobs.
So the moment passed. Has another one arrived?
The president has said that the next time Congress responds legislatively to the coronavirus, it should include infrastructure money, "It should be very big & bold, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country!" Speaker of the U.S. House Nancy Pelosi has also said, more sedately, that she wants infrastructure projects to be funded in the next bill. And we are very far from full employment, and getting further every day.
But now there are different timing problems.
We don’t want to start construction projects in the middle of a pandemic. Many of them, as The Washington Post noted, "require workers to be in close contact with one another."
Cutting against this concern is that we probably wouldn’t be able to get such projects up and running quickly anyway. When President Barack Obama took office, he said that stimulus legislation would yield quick improvements because governors had "shovel-ready" projects all over the country.
Two years later, he said he had figured out "there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects."
One journalist concluded that "a lot of projects took six months to a year to get off the ground."
Legislators are again setting us up for disappointment.
In a joint statement last year, Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said, "Building America’s infrastructure is about creating jobs immediately."
But even a streamlined permitting process would impose delays, and streamlining it would itself take time. The work might start late enough that it could be done without the current fear of infection. But it might also start past the peak of economic need, which is the main reason people are talking about relief legislation in the first place.
There are reasons to favor infrastructure legislation, beyond the jobs it would create.
Pelosi and Schumer said an infrastructure bill should help businesses owned by minorities, women and veterans. They added that it should improve transportation safety, make the air and water cleaner, and address needs "in every congressional district."
The multiplicity of objectives helps explain the breadth of support for infrastructure legislation, and also the difficulty of passing one. The objectives push the legislation in different directions.
A bill that maximizes hiring is nearly guaranteed to look very different from one that maximizes infrastructure value for the dollar.
Both of those goals would have to be compromised, at least sometimes, for the sake of getting the desired mix of contractors.
The strongest and most enduring case for action on infrastructure is that judicious investments would increase the productive capacity of our national economy. The reality rarely lives up to the promise, though, based on an International Monetary Fund (IMF) review of the international evidence in 2014.
A recurring issue is that projects are chosen for political rather than economic reasons.
That’s what our leaders are all but promising. Talking about infrastructure in a State of the Union address, Trump painted a picture of "gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways across our land."
Maintenance and repair of existing infrastructure will often yield better returns, but will never be as attractive to politicians. Or consider the Democratic leaders’ eagerness to see projects in "every congressional district."
That’s a formula for boondoggles.
The political incentives behind such promises are always operative, not just when facing a pandemic. In theory an infrastructure bill could do a lot of good.
The time for a well-designed one may never come.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of "The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life." To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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