Flunking the Infrastructure No-Brainer

WaPo Wonkblog’s Neil Irwin is correct, if perhaps too logical, in identifying infrastructure investments as the kind of issue on which Republicans and Democrats in Congress ought to be able to come to relatively quick agreement:

[W]e may be approaching the end of a five year period in which investing in the nation’s physical infrastructure has been something close to a free lunch. With interest rates near all-time lows and millions of construction workers unemployed, the last few years have been a time that it would have been a historical bargain for the United States to do upgrades to roads, bridges, and airports that will eventually need to take place anyway. It has been a political breakdown—in particular conservatives’ view of almost any non-defense federal spending as wasteful—standing in the way.

Irwin brings this up in anticipation of the President’s State of the Union Address, which will undoubtably include a call for major infrastructure investments that will have all sort of conservative knees jerking. But there’s also the pending issue of the March 1 appropriations sequestrations, from which most infrastructure spending (including Highway Trust Fund disbursements and the flexible Community Development Block Grant program) is not exempt.

It seems unlikely congressional Republicans will be able to restrain themselves from their usual treatment of federal infrastructure investments as an unholy combination of wasteful pork, “fascist” industrial policy, and pagan environmentalism. The idea of making the inevitable investments now to take advantage of low borrowing costs runs directly into the conservative conviction that runaway inflation and high interest rates are going to break out the very day after tomorrow. And when it comes to the sequester, Republicans are mostly divided into those willing to accept it and those determined to push for even more domestic spending reductions in order to avoid or limit the hit defense spending is about to take.

So smart as it might be, I suspect Republicans won’t accept Irwin’s reasoning tomorrow night, or any time soon.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.