On June 26, 1956, Congress approved the Interstate Highway Act. Dwight Eisenhower signed the bill three days later. The legislation allocated $24.8 billion in federal funds for a down payment on the construction of an interstate highway system.
That’s not a lot of money by current standards, but prices are far higher now than they were then, and the economy is vastly bigger. Measured as a share of gross domestic product, the act was the equivalent of around $1.2 trillion today. And the interstate highway system wasn’t the only major federal investment program; the government was also spending substantial sums on things like dam-building and the creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
It was, in short, a time when politicians were willing to make bold investments in America’s future. And there was remarkable consensus on the need for those investments. The highway act — paid for with higher taxes on gasoline and user fees — passed the House on a voice vote and in the Senate received only one dissent.
But that was a different America — or, not to obscure the reality of what has changed, a different Republican Party.
I felt an urge to cheer when President Biden declared an end to discussions with Senate Republicans over infrastructure. Some news reports described it as a “blow” to Biden’s agenda. I took it as a welcome sign that Biden’s overtures to Republicans were pro forma, that he was just waiting for a suitable moment to move on.
For it was obvious to anyone who remembered the 2009-2010 fight over health care that the G.O.P. wasn’t negotiating in good faith, that it was simply dragging the process out and would eventually reject anything Biden might agree to. The sooner this farce ended, the better.
But how and why did Republicans become the party of “build we won’t”? I see it as a mix of partisanship, ideology and profiteering.
It used to be considered shrill to say that Republicans were deliberately sabotaging the economy under President Barack Obama. We were supposed to believe that their demands for spending cuts in the face of high unemployment, which greatly delayed the economy’s recovery, reflected genuine concern over the implications of the budget deficit. But the way the G.O.P. lost all interest in deficits the moment Donald Trump took office confirmed everything the cynics had been saying.
And a party that was willing to sabotage the Obama economy is surely even more inclined to sabotage a president whom many of its members refuse to accept as legitimate. Increased public investment is popular, especially if paid for with higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy. It would also create jobs. But with a Democrat in the White House, those are reasons for Republicans to block infrastructure spending, not support it.
That said, one must admit that Senate Republicans, especially Mitch McConnell, effectively blocked infrastructure spending even when Trump was in the White House. The main reason “infrastructure week” became a gag line was the Trump administration’s haplessness and lack of seriousness, its inability to formulate anything resembling a coherent plan. But McConnell’s passive-aggressive resistance also played a role.
So what was that about? Ever since Reagan Republicans have been committed to the view that government is always the problem, never the solution — and, of course, that taxes must always be cut, never increased. They’re not going to make an exception for infrastructure. Indeed, the very fact that infrastructure spending would be popular counts against it; they fear that it might help legitimize a broader role for government in general.
Finally, the modern Republican Party seems deeply allergic to any kind of public program that doesn’t give profit-making private players a big role, even if it’s hard to see what purpose those private players serve. For example, unlike the rest of Medicare, drug coverage, introduced under George W. Bush, can be accessed only through private insurance companies.
When Trump’s advisers unveiled their infrastructure “plan” (it was little more than a vague sketch), I immediately noticed that it carefully avoided suggesting that we might just, you know, build infrastructure the way Eisenhower did. Instead, it proposed a complex and surely unworkable system of tax credits to private investors who would, it was hoped, build the infrastructure we needed.
If Trump’s people had ever gotten around to an infrastructure plan, it would probably have looked like the one investment program the administration did put into effect, the creation of “opportunity zones” that were supposed to help Americans living in low-income areas. What that program actually ended up doing was provide a bonanza to wealthy investors, who used the tax break to build things like luxury housing.
Put it this way: The modern G.O.P. just won’t do public programs unless they offer vast opportunities for profiteering.
The reality is that if we get the infrastructure plan we need, it will be passed through reconciliation with little or no Republican support. And the sooner we get to that point, the better.