An infrastructure Trojan horse

Inside a $1.2 trillion bill, state Republicans say, is a progressive spending dream list 

By JOHNNY KAMPIS | Fall 2021

As a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill moved toward a possible House vote, Republican leadership in Wisconsin seethed over the amount and the kind of pork stuffed into it.  

The Biden administration and its allies in Congress “have stretched the definition of infrastructure beyond recognition in their attempt to justify trillions of dollars in new spending,” state Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) told the Badger Institute in an email.  

As our magazine went to print, the infrastructure bill was knotted up in Congress. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he hoped to get the bill and another $3.5 trillion spending bill passed by the end of October. 

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), one of the 30 no votes when the Senate passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in August, says he initially voted for the CARES Act 18 months ago, calculating that about $700 billion was going to be spent on infrastructure. 

 Johnson criticized his 19 Republican colleagues who didn’t recognize that and voted for another round of so-called infrastructure spending. “That should have been the Republican position,” he said. “We shouldn’t be signing up to the Green New Deal, Part I.”  

State Republicans are particularly piqued that despite razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate, Democrats have yoked the infrastructure bill to a $3.5 trillion budget bill that includes still more infrastructure. 

National Review called it “preposterous” that the Biden administration could consider imposing seven-and-a-half times more in COVID-19 relief than the Obama administration spent with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act while the international economy flirted with collapse in 2009.  

More than that, as The Wall Street Journal editorial board pointed out in September, “the Democratic (budget) bill would fundamentally alter the relationship between government and individual Americans. Entitlements, once created, will be all but impossible to repeal. Even if they start small, they will inexorably expand.”  

Even as the vote approached, the left continued to redefine infrastructure. David Kieve, director of public engagement for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, explained at a virtual event sponsored by news aggregator that infrastructure included programs designed to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint such as public transit projects and green energy jobs.  

Progressive U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) drew fire in April for her notorious definition. “Paid leave is infrastructure. Childcare is infrastructure. Caregiving is infrastructure,” Gillibrand tweeted. 

A recent Boston Globe op-ed has Democrats dividing “hard infrastructure” such as roads and bridges and a newfangled “soft, or social, infrastructure” that includes all sorts of social spending. 

Infrastructure, yes; social uplift, no  

Scott Niederjohn, director of the Concordia Center for Free Enterprise, told the Badger Institute that the infrastructure bill seems to be potentially wasteful. Even some moderate Democrats believe the bill is too big, risking the enmity of their progressive colleagues, he says.  

“I think I and most economists can support the bill if it is spent on actual physical infrastructure that Wisconsin needs and that leads to productivity gains for Wisconsin’s businesses,” Niederjohn says. However, much of what’s in the legislation, he says, appears to be “ideologically driven spending and handouts meant to satisfy the Democrats’ interest groups.”  

Even the hard left-tilting New York Times described the bill “as if President Franklin D. Roosevelt had stuffed his entire New Deal into a piece of legislation.”  

“They haven’t spent all of the prior COVID-19 relief package,” Niederjohn says. “Maybe we should wait and see what is done with that.  

From preliminary estimates of the infrastructure state breakdowns, Wisconsin is expected to receive $5.2 billion to improve its roads and $225 million to replace bridges. Another $592 million is earmarked to improve public transportation and another $79 million for electric vehicle charging stations.  

Although at least other COVID bailout bills have included funding for rural broadband in Wisconsin, the state would get another $100 million from the infrastructure bill for broadband.  

Much of the reasoning for at least some of the infrastructure spending for the state is based on an American Society of Civil Engineers 2020 report card for all 50 states. Wisconsin got a C.  

“Much of Wisconsin’s infrastructure requires capacity or maintenance upgrades or is reaching the end of its expected lifespan,” the ASCE said in the report. “The energy grid, transportation systems, sewers and drinking water systems of decades ago need upgrading to better prepare for security threats, larger storm events, increased use of renewable fuels and a changing population.”  

The Biden administration considerably broadened the definition of its “historic investment in our nation’s infrastructure” for its Wisconsin fact sheet for the American Jobs Plan to include child care and clean energy job creation. 

Lessons of the Obama bailout  

Stroebel told the Badger Institute that taxpayers have only to look at the Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to understand what can go wrong with a bill that includes nearly $400 billion more federal spending. 

Even real infrastructure projects are going to be hamstrung by endless federal regulation, such as the prevailing wage requirements in the Davis-Bacon Act and federally mandated project labor agreements, Stroebel says. And then there are the “Buy American” procurement requirements and the protracted environmental review process, he says.  

“As a result, the United States has fallen behind many other developed countries when it comes to the time and cost associated with the completion of infrastructure projects,” he says.  

Stroebel is also deeply suspicious of the Biden administration’s estimated 250,000 new jobs created by all of this federal spending in Wisconsin. “The purported ‘multiplier effect’ of profligate government spending is outweighed by the crowding out of the private sector, which is why these rosy economic projections fail to materialize,” he says. 

State Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) agrees that the jobs created by the infrastructure bill will, inevitably, siphon employment away from the private sector. “Everybody is already scrambling to find employees, and this is just going to make it worse. The only infrastructure this is laying is infrastructure for their liberal policies. It’s such a joke,” he says.  

The Legislature has worked hard to get on top of major projects, and costs for smaller projects and regular road resurfacing needs are now baked into the state budget, Kapenga says.  

The federal spending plan offers not one specific infrastructure project or any priorities for Wisconsin or any other state. “I’d love to see a list of projects that are actually necessary. I’m not sure what they’re going to do other than rebuild the bridges we’ve already rebuilt,” he says.  

Should the $1.2 trillion bill pass in the House, Stroebel says, you can be sure that “Regardless of the share of the proposed spending that is financed by massive tax increases or tacked onto the national debt, current and future taxpayers across the country will be worse off as a result.” 

Johnny Kampis is a freelance writer who has been published on Fox News, in The New York Times and Time and serves on the Federal Communications Commission’s consumer advisory committee. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.