Once upon a time, government investment in the nation’s infrastructure was a bipartisan thing. Democrats saw such investment as encouraging jobs, the Republicans saw it as helping business, and everybody agreed that it strengthened the nation. This view has been shared by both parties throughout our history. Democrats were largely responsible for TVA (Franklin Roosevelt) and mass transit (Lyndon Johnson). Republicans had their hand in the Transcontinental RR (Lincoln), the Hoover Dam (Hoover), and the national highway system (Eisenhower). All political actors assumed that maintaining and upgrading the nation’s infrastructure was a basic government responsibility.
In today’s world all of this has changed. Even as railroad accidents occur with increasing frequency and bridges and highways beg for attention, we see Congress failing to deal with long-term infrastructure needs. While the media generally attributes such gridlock to “political dysfunction,” as if nobody in particular or everybody in general is to blame for it, the reluctance to address the problem is clearly rooted in the new anti-government worldview of today’s Republican Party. Under Tea Party influence, the GOP has lost its taste for many of the federal government’s basic tasks.
The recent legislative record on infrastructure is plain for all to see. While the Obama administration, backed by broad constituencies including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on the right and the AFL-CIO on the left, has been pushing hard to deal with infrastructure, recalcitrant conservatives have foot dragged on the issue ever since taking control of the House of Representatives in 2010. They have ruled out deficit financing in spite of its likely stimulative impact and the advantage of financing at today’s bargain rates. They have refused, in line with oft repeated anti-tax declarations, to consider raising the federal gas tax to re-energize the Highway Trust Fund, the main mechanism for transportation spending. And they have shown little interest in a proposal to close a tax loophole, one that currently allows multinationals to escape paying U.S. taxes, for raising money for infrastructure. Vague talk of establishing a reserve fund to deal with infrastructure, but with no idea on how to fund it, is the closest Republicans come to dealing with the problem.
With such impediments, the best Congress can do is to offer stop-gap measures. What funding there is tends to be ad hoc and month-to-month (one writer compares the process to an individual refilling his gas tank “one gallon at a time”). This unpredictable process is in contrast to the traditional custom of making commitments over periods of five or more years, considered essential for planning large-scale projects. The current approach has taken an obvious toll. A graph of domestic infrastructure expenditures over time shows a steep drop of around 20% since 2010. The World Economic Forum accordingly ranked U.S. infrastructure no higher than 16th in the world in 2014, down from 5th in 2002. The American Society of Civil Engineers currently gives it a grade of D+.
Democrats are not the only ones who are frustrated. A few Republicans still willing to grapple with the problem have run out of patience with their own party faithful. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman, Senator James Imhofe, calls his refusenik colleagues in the House “a bunch of demagogues down there, Republicans who were trying to say oh we can’t do this, we can’t spend all this money.'” It is not often that Imhofe contradicts his own party, but on this issue he states the obvious: “Clearly this is something we ought to be doing.”
Is there any prospect of a reasonable solution? In the short-term, that seems very unlikely. Though the Republicans are undoubtedly motivated by various political factors, their position is basically ideological. It is driven by that hoariest of right-wing tenets, that government can do no good and needs to be hog-tied. This belief leads naturally to what the party faithful call the “starve the beast” strategy, i.e. shrink government by starving it of revenue. Depriving government of the funds to do its job is a win-win for ideologues. It offers government on the cheap, with multiple tax-breaks for those who mostly don’t need them, while confirming the narrative that the government is incompetent and unable to do its job. The inability to maintain the sinews of America’s economy can be considered chapter one of that narrative.
If the difficulty is ideology, then no amount of reasonable talk and negotiation will end the political dysfunction we have experienced in the last half dozen years. The end will come when citizens decide they have had enough and vote accordingly.