What Is Infrastructure? Congress, Administration Debate Definitions

Summer 2021

NSPE Today: Policy Perspectives
What Is Infrastructure? Congress, Administration Debate Definitions

BY STEPHANIE HAMILTON

As the Congressional budget process grinds slowly on, infrastructure is at the center of the discussions, negotiations, and legislation. And rightly so, as infrastructure touches everyone’s life—from roads and bridges to the energy grid and wastewater treatment. At the heart of the debate is the very definition of “infrastructure.” For some, the word has a very narrow definition: roads and bridges. For others, including policy staff in the Biden administration, infrastructure extends far beyond roads and bridges to include housing, internet, and even childcare.

The Biden administration’s argument for including so much in its infrastructure package is that everything in the package is connected. The administration is also using a broad definition of “infrastructure,” which includes not just physical systems like bridges and roads, but also organizational systems like childcare. Where the physical system is concerned, Democrats are generally including roads, bridges, and the things that are connected to them, including airports and transit systems, housing, commercial buildings, the energy grid, and the internet. It’s this broad definition that’s led to the creation of the American Jobs Plan, a massive, $2.3 trillion outline of repair, upgrade, and development projects that touch nearly every aspect of American life.

In contrast, conservatives have a much narrower definition of infrastructure. The initial Republican counteroffer had a smaller price tag ($568 billion) and primarily covered “traditional’ infrastructure like roads, bridges, and public works. This initial plan included funding for more traditional infrastructure but also broadband, water storage, and “safety measures.” Still, the overwhelming majority of the proposed funding went to surface transportation.

Since these initial proposals were released, each side has made concessions in terms of dollars spent. The Biden administration reduced its American Jobs Plan to $1.7 trillion, and Republicans increased their plan to $928 billion. However, what’s really at issue is how the plan—whatever the final plan turns out to be—is paid for. It likely comes as no surprise to you that Democrats and Republicans differ on how to pay for any infrastructure package. So, even if there is agreement on a final number, there are deeply entrenched differences over funding that may make a big infrastructure package all but impossible.

However, rather than wait to see what happens with the bill spending proposals, Congress has moved forward with dozens of smaller, more narrowly-focused spending bills. Over 100 infrastructure bills of varying scope and cost have been introduced during the 117th Congress, and while we’re not engaged on each one, we are actively watching 19 of them. Unfortunately, only one that we support has seen any significant movement. The Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act of 2021 (S.914) has passed out of the Senate and been sent to the House.

Despite the lack of legislative movement, committees have been busy, holding both hearings and markups to consider myriad infrastructure bills. We’ve covered several of those events in our Committee Corner episodes on YouTube, which can be viewed at our Advocacy Center.

As Congress continues to work toward finalizing infrastructure spending, the NSPE Government Relations staff continues to engage with Hill offices and committee staff, communicating NSPE’s priorities and concerns, and working to move important legislation across the finish line.

Update: On June 24, the Biden Admin-istration announced that it reached a deal on infrastructure with a bipartisan group of senators. According to a statement from the White House, the $1.2 trillion plan includes $579 billion in new spending, including $312 billion for transportation and $266 billion for “other” infrastructure, such as water, broadband, power, and environmental remediation. There’s still a long way to go before the new proposal becomes law, but it’s a significant step in the right direction.

Stephanie Hamilton is NSPE’s manager of government relations and advocacy.

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