the national interest

Republicans Love Infrastructure, Unless It’s Paid For, or Not Paid For

Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Republican Senators say they would love to pass a big infrastructure bill. They are publicly begging Joe Biden to stop his partisan strategy and sit down with them to negotiate a bill both parties can support. The trouble is that their demands for how to produce this bipartisan agreement go around in circles.

The loop begins with an earnest plea for bipartisanship. “My advice to the White House has been: ‘Take that bipartisan win, do this in a more traditional infrastructure way,’” suggested Senator Roy Blunt during his Fox News Sunday interview. “I think Pete” — Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg — “and I could come up with an infrastructure bill,” proposed Senator Roger Wicker.

But there’s a catch: They don’t like paying for it by raising taxes on wealthy people — or, as Republicans delicately call them, “job creators.” Everybody knows that Republicans would rather let every last road in the land crumble to dust and revert to traveling by horseback and mule before they raised taxes on job creators by a penny. “The worst way to pay for it is to tax job creators,” says Wicker.

Rather than finance infrastructure with progressive taxes, Biden’s erstwhile partners suggest he pay for the bill with regressive taxes on people who use infrastructure. Asked how he would pay for it, Wicker said he was “open to suggestion” and then floated “private-public partnerships and things of that nature.” Blunt proposed “some kind of reasonable user structure. Everybody is familiar with the gasoline tax,” he said, adding, “You can look again at private-public partnerships.”

Private-public partnerships mean, basically, the government awarding the job of building public infrastructure to private firms, who get to charge people for using their road, bridge, or whatnot. It tends to limit infrastructure to projects that can be easily monetized. (Rural broadband or lead-pipe abatement are not the sorts of projects that could be fully paid for by users.)

A gasoline tax is definitely a workable financing scheme. But Republicans oppose gas taxes, too. Mitch McConnell ruled out increasing them in 2019, and he ruled it out again last month (“I don’t think there’s going to be any enthusiasm on our side for a tax increase.”) Note that McConnell’s position excludes any tax increase to finance infrastructure.

The most sensible way to “pay for” infrastructure would be deficit spending. With interest rates extremely low, borrowing money for one-time expenditures that will increase the economy’s long-term productive capacity makes perfect sense. Perhaps ongoing programs like “care economy” investments need some permanent revenue stream, but removing lead pipes, repairing bridges, or building electric car-charging stations doesn’t.

Alas, Republicans also oppose deficit-financed infrastructure. They seem to be completely united in the belief that infrastructure cannot add to the national debt. “We’ve got to pay for it,” says Wicker.

So: no paying for it with taxes, and no paying for it with debt. Republicans would no doubt be happy to pay for infrastructure by cutting anti-poverty programs or Obamacare subsidies, but Democrats understandably wouldn’t go for that, either.

So we’re stuck. It’s not just that Republicans are creating a clever logic game to rule out a popular Biden proposal. They are genuinely unable to put together a big infrastructure bill. President Trump was extremely eager to sign such a bill, but Republicans in Congress foundered on the question of how to pay for it, and they also wouldn’t pay for it with deficit spending. (They were happy to finance their tax cuts for business owners this way, obviously.)

If Republicans weren’t able to figure out a way around this problem under Trump, the prospect of Joe Biden signing a huge popular bill is not going to incentivize them.

If anything could bring them to the table, it’s Democrats threatening to finance the bill by taxing rich people, then allowing Republicans to negotiate that away (and being willing to accept debt financing rather than harming one hair on the heads of the precious, fragile job creators.)

In the meantime, they’re going to oppose any infrastructure bill that’s paid for, and any bill that isn’t.

Republicans on Infrastructure: No New Taxes, No New Debt