WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is giving himself lots of latitude when he defines infrastructure for the purpose of spending money on it. It’s not just steel, but home health care workers. Not just excavating dirt, but building “dignity.”
The Republican Party says if it’s not a pothole, port, plane or bridge, forget about it. Never mind that Donald Trump, like Biden, wanted schools to get a piece of an infrastructure pie.
At least in theory, everyone likes infrastructure and is willing to spend big on it. That’s why the definition of infrastructure matters as Biden tries to sell the country and Congress on the largest such package in generations.
In short, the bulk of Biden's plan does not fit the traditional understanding of infrastructure, meaning below the structure, or foundational. Biden and his team have performed rhetorical gymnastics to make almost everything in the package sound infrastructure-ish.
For example, strengthening the right of workers to join unions does not resemble concrete in an underpass. But a White House fact sheet argues that stronger union rights would “put in place an infrastructure to create good middle-class jobs,” an argument that could be used to justify domestic spending on lots of things. Democrats are adding another layer to the definition as they take part in a weekend event about the “care infrastructure.”
The Republican National Committee, on the other hand, has taken a strict and distorted view of what counts as infrastructure, for the purpose of scoring points against Biden.
Roads, bridges, waterways, ports and airports count, but public transit, utilities and other foundational elements of the economy and daily lives don’t, the GOP contends.
Here’s the RNC in an email Wednesday:
“Biden’s non-infrastructure bill hikes taxes by $2 trillion ... all while only spending 7% of the bill on roads, highways, bridges, waterways, ports, and airports combined.”
And one from April 1:
“Joe Biden’s ‘infrastructure’ plan is not really about infrastructure, it is another multi-trillion dollar far left wish list. Just take a look at the actual bill. Only 7% of the bill’s spending is for what Americans traditionally think of as infrastructure.”
The claim that only 7% of the proposed money goes to traditional infrastructure is false. It’s 30% to 40% by traditional yardsticks. And at least some of the rest is closely related to infrastructure, if not a classic example of it.
Based on what the GOP describes as traditional, infrastructure spending would be limited to $157 billion for bridges, highways, roads, main streets, airports, inland waterways, ports and ferries.
But that narrow focus omits other transportation-related spending, like $85 billion for public transit, $80 billion for Amtrak rail service and $20 billion to improve road safety.
In all, even the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a deficit-hawk organization that does not like footloose government accounting or wasteful spending, described $621 billion in Biden’s plan, or roughly 30%, as “transportation infrastructure.”
Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a Senate Republican leader, says if Biden just went for that 30%, “you’ve got an easy bipartisan win here.”
By any cogent definition, of course, a country’s infrastructure isn’t limited to transportation. There are also utilities and communication systems at the core of society.
When you add in money to boost the power grid, improve drinking water and wastewater and expand broadband service, about $932 billion, or 40% of Biden’s plan, is on-point infrastructure.
Faster internet is a relatively new component of infrastructure spending, but not brand new. Although Trump’s infrastructure plan never came together, he wanted it to include money for broadband expansion “for our great farmers and rural areas,” as his White House put it.
The Republican National Committee didn’t hang its frowny quotation marks around “infrastructure” when Trump proposed this.
Trump, like Biden though in much less detail, also ventured into grayer areas stretching the meaning of infrastructure. Here’s how he described his infrastructure hopes in his 2016 victory speech:
“We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”
Trump’s description turns out to be a reasonable overview of the plan reaching Congress, but by the hand of Biden.
Biden’s plan makes good on Trump’s advocacy of infrastructure money for schools and hospitals as well as for roads, bridges and the like, while going farther into new territory. He proposes $400 billion to expand access to long-term, home and community-based care services. And he’s got an estimated $400 billion for clean energy, never a Trump priority.
One component is aimed at redressing the inequities of past infrastructure. Many roads of the past were built in ways that destroyed Black communities, and Biden’s plan proposes $20 billion to try to restore that torn fabric.
There’s also $590 billion for somewhat vaguely defined job training initiatives and research and development.
What do the dictionaries say about all of this? Traditional definitions envisage facilities, not programs like job training or home health care aides.
“A substructure or underlying foundation; especially, the basic economic, social, or military facilities and installations of a community, state, etc.” says Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, from 1983.
From 1887, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary: “The installations that form the basis for any operation or system. Originally in a military sense.”
In Washington, though, such things aren’t defined by dictionaries but by who wins the argument.
Biden’s definition: the foundation that people need “to live, to go to work, to raise their families with dignity, to ensure that good jobs will be there for their kids, no matter who they are or what ZIP code they live in. That’s what infrastructure means in the 21st century.”
He asserted: “Two hundred years ago, trains weren’t traditional infrastructure, either, until America made a choice to lay down tracks across the country.”
Biden’s point was rhetorical. Noah Webster’s first comprehensive American Dictionary of the English Language, from 1828, doesn’t address infrastructure at all.