US Senate nears passage of infrastructure spending bill

Infrastructure legislation backed by the Biden White House and a substantial section of Senate Republicans cleared several procedural votes on the weekend and was set for final passage through the Senate by midweek. A bill to limit debate passed the Senate by 67-27 on Saturday, a second such vote passed Sunday by 68-29, and a vote to waive budget rules passed by 64-33 on Sunday evening.

The legislation would provide about $1 trillion to repair crumbling roads and bridges and shore up other critical pieces of economic infrastructure, including the electrical grid, water system and internet connections. Barely half the funds provided in the bill represents new money—about $550 billion in all—while the remainder represents reallocation of funds already appropriated by Congress, either in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan enacted in March, or the series of bailouts and emergency measures passed last year under the Trump administration.

For example, $50 billion in spending under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act comes from federal supplemental unemployment compensation, provided under the American Rescue Plan, which two dozen Republican-run state governments refused to spend when they terminated the supplemental benefits earlier this summer, in advance of the official September 6 cutoff.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Another $50 billion is to come from recouping “fraudulent” unemployment compensation payments in 2020 and this year under the various federal supplemental programs. In plain English, impoverished and jobless workers will be hounded by debt collectors employed by the Biden administration to give back money they are retroactively deemed ineligible to receive.

The 11 Republican senators who negotiated the legislation with the Democrats flatly rejected even a penny’s increase in taxes on the wealthy and big business, and the Biden White House and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer capitulated in order to obtain Republican support for the legislation.

This is essence of the “bipartisanship” hailed by the corporate media and touted by President Biden as his preferred approach. The Republicans dictate, while Democrats cite the necessity for bipartisanship as their pretext for moving ever further to the right.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell joined the faction of Republicans who voted for the infrastructure bill, but a majority of his caucus followed the advice of ex-president Donald Trump, who demanded rejection. In a fascistic statement issued before the vote, Trump ranted, “No deal is better than a bad deal. Fight for America, not for special interests and Radical Democrats. RINOs [Republicans in Name Only] are ruining America, right alongside Communist Democrats.”

Despite White House boasts that the bill will generate jobs, the total will hardly make a dent in the overall US economy, since it is only one-tenth the size of the $6 trillion in new spending authorized last year under the Trump administration, in the CARES Act and subsequent legislation. Most of these trillions went to bailing out Wall Street and corporate America, while a pittance was provided to workers and the unemployed.

While the amount of the investment in roads, bridges, water pipes, ports and internet connectivity is invariably described in the media as “huge” and “massive,” the actual scale is far more modest. The spending is spread out over five to ten years, meaning that $550 billion in new money averages under $60 billion a year—less than one-tenth of what the Pentagon spends every year on the vast US military establishment.

Thus the $110 billion for roads and bridges averages to $11 billion a year, compared to a recent industry estimate that $231 billion each year is required to maintain existing roads and bridges and repair those in poor condition.

Similarly, $39 billion for public transit is spread over ten years, and would not even cover the deficits and capital needs of the largest US system, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which serves the New York City area, let alone the needs of dozens of other transit systems around the country.

The budget for water infrastructure, including a much-touted plan to replace all lead piping in the country to avoid new catastrophes like that in Flint, Michigan, was cut in half, from an initial proposal of $111 billion to $55 billion, or $5.5 billion a year—less than half what the Pentagon spends on a single new aircraft carrier.

It is same with airports ($25 billion) and seaport infrastructure ($17 billion). No doubt these are socially necessary, but the amounts spread over ten years are pathetically small. There will still be pockmarked runways and ports choked with debris when this legislation has run its course.

Such comparisons demonstrate the vast scale of the unmet social needs in America, for which this bill is barely a Band-Aid, let alone a down payment.

Many of the provisions of the bill are nothing more than boondoggles for construction companies and other giant enterprises, whose lobbyists outside Congress and representatives in the Senate itself have spent the last week drafting special provisions in the 2,700-page bill that will benefit their corporate patrons.

Significantly, the White House aide who headed the negotiations with the Republican is Steve Ricchetti, a former corporate lobbyist who joined Biden’s vice-presidential staff in 2012 after many years as a representative of hospital chains, the pharmaceutical industry, and telecommunications companies.

There is another and quite sinister aspect of the infrastructure bill: many of its provisions are aimed, not at improving the lives of ordinary Americans, or even at improving the transportation facilities required by American corporations. They are instead part of a process of “hardening” American society in preparation for a full-scale military confrontation with China.

This certainly is a major purpose of such measures as $73 billion for the electrical power grid, including a transition from above-ground to underground lines, the $50 billion to help communities ward off cyber attacks, and the $65 billion to improve internet speeds to the level that would be required for effective American military operations in every part of the US.

Biden has made little effort to disguise the anti-Chinese thrust of much of the spending he has proposed, particularly in the area of electrical vehicles and cyber industry. Senate Republicans agree. One of the amendments still outstanding, and expected to come to a vote, is their proposal to add $50 billion to the Pentagon budget, for construction of “infrastructure” on US military bases.