Don’t Count Out An Infrastructure Bill Just Yet

History shows bipartisan negotiations over transportation legislation never moves quickly.

With every hiccup in negotiations over the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, anxiety and anger rise among Democrats, especially in the House. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York complained the talks are about more about “delaying action” than “investing in our infrastructure.” Representative Salud Carbajal of California called the process “bullshit.” Wednesday’s Republican filibuster of the Democrats’ attempt to start formal floor debate may stoke further pessimism.

Democrats do have plenty of reason to worry. The recent history of Republican cooperation on major legislation is, to be charitable, meager. Democratic control of Congress may not last beyond 2022, and sooner than that the untimely death of a senator (not uncommon in a body where the average age is 64) could—depending on the state involved—restore the upper chamber to Republican control. Delay on infrastructure could mean defeat.

But despite legitimate reasons for mistrust and impatience, we shouldn’t assume that every procedural pothole is a fatal sinkhole. It’s been so long since we last witnessed a complicated bipartisan negotiation that we may have forgotten they take time.

If you read about the history of congressional infrastructure negotiations—and the Federal Highway Administration’s official historian Richard F. Weingroff has done an astounding amount of work to make that history available—you’ll learn that success usually takes up most of a two-year session of Congress.

In the summer of 1954, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed a 10-year program to create a modern highway system. The main obstacle was financing. The White House needed approximately $25 billion to fund construction, but it also wanted to balance the budget, not raise taxes, not increase appropriations and not issue bonds. Something had to give.

By the end of the year, Eisenhower’s business-dominated “Clay Committee,” led by corporate executive and former Army general Lucius Clay, came up with a solution. The existing gas tax rate was projected to bring in more and more revenue in future years. The federal government could issue bonds, pay these off with future gas tax revenues, and leave tax rates where they were. Clay called it a “pay-as-you-use policy” as opposed to “pay-as-you-go.”

Eisenhower preferred toll roads over bonds, but he backed the plan. But key senators immediately flinched. Finance Committee Chair Harry F. Byrd, a democrat from Virginia, was vehemently opposed to bonds; his biographer said he had “an almost pathological abhorrence for borrowing that went beyond reason to the realm of deep emotion.” Senator Albert Gore, Sr. a Democrat from Tennessee, called it “a screwy plan which could lead the country into inflationary ruin.”

In May 1955 the Senate defeated the White House plan on the floor. In July, the House rejected both the White House plan and an alternative bill that relied on higher user fees, the latter squelched by trucking, oil, and tire industry lobbyists. House Speaker Sam Rayburn lashed out: “The people who were going to have to pay for these roads put on a propaganda campaign that killed the bill.”

But Eisenhower kept at it. In the January 1956 State of the Union address, he insisted an interstate highway system was “even more urgent this year than last.” He went light on particulars, save for a warning not to go “outside the bounds of sound fiscal management.” Soon after, the trucking lobby agreed to some highway user tax increases, including a one-cent increase in the gas tax. The resulting legislation, which passed the House in April 1956, bowed to Senator Byrd’s aversion to borrowing. Revenues marked for roads would be kept in a new “Highway Trust Fund” that still stands today.

After resolving differences with the Senate, the final bill passed in June—two years after the White House had hoped. Eisenhower’s combination of determination and flexibility was essential to the bill’s success. As he recalled later, “I grew restless with the quibbling over methods of financing. I wanted the job done.”

The job may have been done too well. Over the following decade, more and more people concluded we were building too many highways. After Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act of 1970, pressure increased on Washington to divert some highway funds to mass transit in order to curb pollution.

In March1972, Nixon’s transportation secretary proposed a new transportation funding system with an urban fund and a rural fund. But corporate interests supportive of highways saw that was a way for urban mass transit projects to poach Highway Trust Fund money. The idea was never turned into legislation, but in September the Senate did pass legislation that would grant cities some ability to tap the Highway Trust Fund for mass transit projects. The more highway-friendly House passed a completely different bill in October that kept mass transit out of the trust fund. A compromise bill adhered to the House position, but gave $3 billion to mass transit from outside the Highway Trust Fund; however, the House failed to muster up a quorum before Congress went home ahead of the 1972 election, and the bill died.

Nixon didn’t give up on a mass transit-friendly bill. Nor did the Senate. In the spring of 1973, each chamber passed legislation similar to the previous year, the Senate allowing diversion of trust fund money for mass transit, the House not. But in July, Representative Jim Wright, a Democrat from Texas, engineered a breakthrough compromise: Cities could tap into the trust fund for mass transit, but not until fiscal year 1976, and money for a cancelled highway segment could not be redirected to a bus and rail project. That deal, which set the still-in-place precedent that Highway Trust Fund money could fund mass transit, was signed into law by Nixon in August—a year and a half after the initial White House proposal.

In March 1990, President George H.W. Bush offered a sweeping proposal to further modernize the transportation system, broaden what types of transportation projects could receive federal money, and increase state and local authority. He battled with Democrats in Congress on multiple fronts, most prominently over financing.

The latter part of 1990 was dominated by the run-up to the Gulf War and Bush’s controversial deficit reduction plan, for which he broke his “read my lips” campaign promise never to raise taxes. By March 1991, Bush had achieved swift victory in the Gulf War, and in a prime-time televised address to Congress he sought to leverage this political capital into transportation infrastructure. “If our forces could win the ground war in 100 hours,” Bush said, “then surely the Congress can pass this legislation in 100 days.”

Democratic negotiators wanted a 5-cent increase in the gas tax, which they called the “Nickel for America” plan. But Bush had just raised the gas tax as part of the deficit reduction plan, and he wasn’t about to break his campaign promise twice. A stalemate lingered well beyond the arbitrary 100-day deadline as Bush issued repeated veto threats—about not just taxes, but also earmarks. Bush’s transportation secretary at one point said, “We do not need to pluck another nickel from our pockets to pave America with pork.” Democrats finally gave up on their gas tax hike in September, settling for an extension of Bush’s gas tax increase. (Despite Bush’s hard line on earmarks, 450 “special projects” costing $6.5 billion ended up in the bill; Bush’s transportation secretary accepted these as “controlled pork.”) A final bill was not signed into law until December, 20 months after Bush’s initial proposal.

That transportation bill was transformative, says Federal Highway Administration historian Weingroff, in “giving state and local officials the authority to make the best choices to meet each area’s unique transportation needs.” Bush, in Weingroff’s view, “put more effort into a surface transportation bill than any president since President Eisenhower,” and it paid off.

Of course, these examples are all examples from an earlier century, when Democrats and Republicans forgot their differences at cocktail hour, Fox News didn’t exist, and Donald Trump had yet to file his first bankruptcy. It would be foolish to conclude from this history that today’s Republicans are negotiating in good faith. But neither should we mistake missed deadlines, sharp words, or even a failed floor vote as definitive proof that they aren’t.

Democrats shouldn’t wait until late 2022 to pass their infrastructure package, because it will be much harder to enact anything of consequence so close to the midterm elections. But if Biden were to pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework this summer, a mere four months after Biden first proposed his American Jobs Plan, that would be, by historic standards, astonishingly fast.

The impatient pessimism from certain Democrats, combined with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s unsuccessful attempt at cloture, may well generate healthy pressure and accelerate the legislative process. But with negotiators expressing optimism that they are “close to a final agreement,” it is premature to declare the bipartisan process a waste of time.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is the host of the history podcast "When America Worked" and the co-host of bipartisan online show and podcast "The DMZ"