Making the case for infrastructure

MAKING THE CASE FOR INFRASTRUCTURE…. President Obama has already emphasized his commitment to infrastructure investment in some high-profile ways, but we’re likely to hear him reemphasize this policy tonight.

When President Obama uses his State of the Union address on Tuesday to rally America to “outbuild” other nations, he will face an unusual challenge: getting Republicans to embrace public works projects again as the kind of worthy bacon they have traditionally fought to bring home, and not as wasteful pork that should be spurned. […]

Mr. Obama is recalibrating his message and trying to make the case that public works are not just about short-term construction jobs, but about long-term economic competitiveness. He is increasingly arguing that spending money to rebuild the nation’s roads, rails, ports, power grids and even broadband networks will be necessary if America is to be able to compete in the global economy. And he is expected to repeat his call for creating a National Infrastructure Bank, which would choose public works projects by their merits.

Republicans have historically appreciated the value of infrastructure investments, and even this year, a few far-right opponents of earmarks tried to make the case that set-asides for transportation projects shouldn’t count.

That said, a growing number of GOP officials are against federal investments in this area, regardless of job creation and economic development, because spending is, you know, bad or something. We’ve apparently reached the point at which Republicans say they want to modernize crumbling infrastructure, and support “innovative” ways to pay for it, but haven’t the foggiest idea how to shape an actual, effective policy.

This is a real fix. On the one hand, the Republicans banned earmarks, so individual members now have less capacity to direct federal dollars to these sorts of projects than they used to have. On the other hand, they also want to diminish the executive branch’s resources, making it less able to tackle these problems alone. That means more and more crumbling roads, more and more unhappy voters, more and more demands from local governments and constituents for Congress to do something about it. But without the will to tax and spend, they can’t.

One thing to keep an eye on, however, is the kind of institutional support that stands behind infrastructure investments. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, for example, don’t agree on much, but they agree wholeheartedly on transportation spending — and each is prepared to push the party the group is aligned with.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.