When U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, a Republican from southeast Ohio, talks about the infrastructure needs of his district, he talks about how crucial better internet connections are for students, patients and entrepreneurs. He says Appalachia’s roads and bridges are too often neglected by state and federal officials who decide where to spend money for repairs. And he talks about the need to replace aging drinking water and sewer systems that were built in the Great Depression.
But when House Democrats unveiled a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package to address many of those concerns, Johnson opposed it. On a largely party-line vote, the U.S. House passed the legislation Wednesday by a vote of 233-188. It now goes to the Republican-controlled Senate, where it faces stiff opposition. President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the Democratic infrastructure package if it reaches his desk.
The legislation, Johnson said in an interview, “is not a serious attempt” to build the nation’s infrastructure, but rather a “messaging bill in an election year.”
“I wish we could get serious, because the president has indicated his willingness to work on infrastructure. And we need infrastructure in eastern and southeastern Ohio. [Residents there] feel left out, by and large. And so I would relish a serious conversation about infrastructure, but this is not it,” he said.
His was a common refrain among the Republicans who dominate Ohio’s congressional delegation. The GOP lawmakers complained that Democrats cut them out of the process of crafting the infrastructure legislation, even though infrastructure is one of the few policy areas where Democrats and Republicans have traditionally worked together in Congress.
“The partisan games need to stop,” said U.S. Rep. Troy Balderson, a Republican member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, in a statement. “Bipartisan agreement is the only path forward for a meaningful highways funding reauthorization, and it’s time for my colleagues to get serious about fixing our nation’s crumbling roads and bridges.”
Congress has long struggled to pass big infrastructure packages, because its members have not come to an agreement over how to pay for them. Most of the money for improvements to roads and bridges comes from fuel taxes, but Congress hasn’t raised the per-gallon rates since 1993. With inflation, that means the fuel taxes can pay for fewer improvements every year. The situation has gotten so bad, Congress has had to siphon money from other parts of the federal government to pay the bills for roads, bridges and transit.
Trump promised during the 2016 presidential campaign that he would back a $1 trillion infrastructure package. As president, he has even raised the possibility of a $2 trillion initiative. But neither he nor his administration has suggested a viable way of paying for those improvements.
The legislation Democrats passed through the House on Wednesday relies on borrowing $145 billion to pay for the highway and transit improvements.
That bill, though, is far more extensive than most infrastructure bills that Congress considers. The centerpiece of the legislation is the renewal of a surface transportation funding law that directs most federal spending on roads, bridges and transit systems. The current law is set to expire at the end of September. But the Democrats also added provisions that would address broadband, clean energy and school facilities.
House Democrats wanted to pass an expansive infrastructure package before the November elections, and they said that the economy could use the jobs that a new building program would create. But the coronavirus also makes the basic act of legislating difficult, too. Lawmakers typically craft bills in long committee meetings, but social distancing has made those hearings more difficult to organize. Democratic leaders added many of the non-transportation aspects of the infrastructure package without going through the committee process. The break with protocol rankled many House Republicans.
Many House Democrats said the country needed such wide-ranging legislation to address long-neglected infrastructure and to help stimulate an economy that entered a recession during the COVID-19 pandemic.
U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty, a Democrat from central Ohio, called the legislation a “bold plan” for reviving the economy. “I am particularly proud of the work we did in the Financial Services Committee to support affordable housing infrastructure, which is so important for the future of Central Ohio and our nation,” she said in a statement. “I also am glad the bill addresses the need to close the access to broadband divide in our schools and communities and looks to the future to include clean energy and advances in technology needs.”
Meanwhile, the Senate is working on its own set of infrastructure-related bills. But the biggest piece of legislation, which would provide for money for highways and transit after the current law expires, has languished since last year.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, pinned the blame for inaction on infrastructure on Republicans.
“President Trump promised to rebuild our infrastructure but he has failed,” he said. “Senate Democrats introduced a $1 trillion plan back in 2018 in response to Donald Trump’s campaign promises, and we’ve been waiting for the president, [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans to work with us and act.”
“Serious infrastructure projects must be a part of stimulating the economy, but it will take an actual commitment from our Republican colleagues in Congress to do so,” he added.
The plan Brown and other Senate Democrats introduced last year would have also taken an expansive approach toward infrastructure improvements. It included more money for improving roads, transit, water infrastructure, schools and broadband.
In the House, one of the biggest points of contention over the Democratic bill is its emphasis on trying to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. The Democratic proposal urges states to spend federal highway money to maintain existing roads and bridges before building new ones. It also included money for transit agencies to buy electric buses, and for the installation of charging stations for electric vehicles.
“It’s just a Green New Deal by another name,” said Johnson, the Republican from southeastern Ohio. “This attempt to completely get away from fossil fuel energy when America is the energy producing the leader of the world is just wrongheaded thinking.”
U.S. Rep. Bob Latta, a Republican from northwest Ohio, said the Democrats emphasis on transit and other urban infrastructure did not sit well with his rural constituents. “I don’t have buses. I don’t have taxis [in my district],” he said. “If you don’t have a road and a bridge or a truck and a car, you’re going nowhere.”
Latta argued that his constituents were more likely to pay fuel taxes that pay for the bulk of federal highway and transit spending than people in cities who don’t own cars.
Latta, the top Republican on a subcommittee that oversees communications and technology, also questioned the Democrats’ approach to improving rural broadband access. Latta and other Republicans backed changes that would make it easier to build broadband and wireless infrastructure by reducing regulations. They would, for example, put time limits on how long state and local governments could review applications from telecommunications companies to install new cell towers and small cell antennas. They also proposed streamlining the process for installing network infrastructure on federal lands.
“We want to win the race for 5G,” he said, referring to the next generation of wireless technology that is now being rolled out. “We want to make sure that we have that ability out in our rural areas.”
But Latta is wary of the Democratic plan to subsidize companies to encourage them to install broadband in rural areas. “What you don’t want to have … is a small company trying to provide broadband, and, all of a sudden, the federal government subsidizes a competitor that puts the other guy out of business,” he said.
Latta said House Democrats should work with Republicans, using existing working groups with expertise on rural broadband, to craft a better solution.
Johnson, the lawmaker from southeast Ohio, also said improving access to broadband should be a top priority for legislators from both parties. The COVID-19 pandemic has driven that point home. Teachers are parking in retail parking lots to get hotspots to teach their students remotely, doctors can’t treat chemotherapy patients remotely and small companies can’t do business because of the lack of broadband access, he said.
“There’s not a lawmaker at any level,” Johnson said, “that does not understand that access to high speed internet is as important as electricity and plumbing.”