Saving Biden’s infrastructure agenda from itself

by Lindsay Lewis

When an Interstate 95 overpass collapsed in Philadelphia last June, Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Josh Shapiro, responded with a master class in executive leadership.

Slashing through thousands of pages of red tape with a stroke of his pen, Shapiro focused solely on rebuilding as fast as possible and refused to let interest group politics or bureaucratic inertia slow things down. Shapiro stunned the world by cutting the ribbon on a fully rebuilt span just 12 days later.

This “Philadelphia Miracle” should have been top of mind when President Joe Biden travelled to Baltimore recently with a promise to “move heaven and earth” to rebuild the destroyed Francis Scott Key Bridge. But then the coda: “And we’re going to do so with union labor and American steel.”

One might dismiss this sop to organized labor as a typical election-year throwaway line. But it actually holds a clue to the riddle of why Biden’s infrastructure agenda is drifting and why skeptical voters aren’t yet giving the president full credit for his legislative wins.

A large part of the blame lies in his administration’s inability to say “no” to the cottage industry of special interests and activists who treat every major accomplishment opportunistically to promote their narrow parochial agendas. It’s the phenomenon New York Times columnist Ezra Klein calls “Everything Bagel” liberalism: a knee-jerk compulsion to weigh down major programs with a laundry list of tangential policy goals.

Whereas Shapiro wisely said no to this Christmas tree approach to building, the White House has too often sought to placate Democratic constituency groups with all the attendant lost focus and extra red tape. Beltway history is littered with great ideas that never get off the ground for being beholden to every lobby group’s petition; as Klein keenly observed, “(Liberals) do so with good intentions and then lament their poor results.”

With this “Everything Bagel” mindset, fixing a collapsed bridge is not enough; the Key Bridge rebuild must also appease union leaders and trade protectionists. Rebuilding America’s strategically critical chip manufacturing capacity is insufficient; CHIPS Act grants also need to advance the administration’s child care agenda. Wiring rural communities with high-speed broadband isn’t sufficiently visionary; the $42 billion BEAD program also needs to deliver on activists’ pipe dream of price controls for internet service, notwithstanding that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law explicitly prohibited such mandates.

But any great plan goes for naught if it collapses under its own weight and front-line agencies cannot execute. The early results of Biden’s signature initiatives underscore this risk.

Headlines tout massive subsidy awards for semiconductor plants, but construction is already falling behind schedule. The administration’s visionary clean energy investments are running into a brick wall of permitting headaches and grid connection delays. And the Commerce Department is slow-rolling its own rural broadband program in states unwilling to defy Congress’ prohibition against government price-setting.

Meanwhile, ruby-red Texas is now lapping crunchy California in constructing and connecting grid-scale solar and battery projects — a remarkable example of how deregulation often beats ideology when it comes to getting things done.

To get his infrastructure agenda back on track, Biden’s team should bear in mind leadership-focused book author Stephen Covey’s maxim: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

On clean energy, the “main thing” is building the clean energy generation and transmission infrastructure we urgently need to decarbonize our economy. If accomplishing that goal requires a fight with Beltway environmentalists over reforming the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), so be it.

On broadband, the “main thing” is to build out high-speed networks as quickly as possible to communities that don’t have them, as the Progressive Policy Institute report on the bipartisan infrastructure bill urged and around which the bill authors formed consensus. Simple reforms, such as tightening up federal rules to ensure builders don’t lose months or years fighting with utility pole owners for the right to attach their wires, would help reduce suffocating red tape. Threatening providers with a cascade of utility rules and price controls, on the other hand, will only scare off the complementary private investment urgently needed to complete the build.

And in Baltimore, the “main thing” is to prioritize speed over slavish devotion to outdated bureaucratic process demands — even if, as writers such as journalist Matthew Yglesias have argued, that requires the administration to question progressive shibboleths such as NEPA, the Jones Act or Buy America protectionism.

Ultimately, a skeptical public will measure Biden’s progressive legacy by the progress he actually delivers, rather than the special interests he keeps happy along the way. Shapiro figured that out quickly in his moment of crisis last summer; let’s hope Biden’s team can learn the same lesson before it’s too late.

Lindsay Lewis is executive director of the Progressive Policy Institute, a public policy think tank.