In 2008, when the then Obama Campaign issued its proposed vision for homeland security, it impressed a lot of people when it described the creation of a national infrastructure bank. This federally chartered structure would fund critical projects around the country by making the necessary investments in roads, bridges, utilities and more.
While not a new or novel idea, the fact that the then-Senator from Illinois’ campaign put the concept into his stated policy positions showed everyone that his team had done their homework in embracing a new and proactive tool to address the need to repair and invest in America’s infrastructures. With interest from Congressional Republicans and Democrats, the concept of the infrastructure bank would allow for a more responsive and attentive means in deciding which structures received funding.
As recent history has shown, many infrastructure projects around the country are funded by an increasingly political appropriations process that seems to reward States and Congressional Districts based more upon political power than actual need. One needs only look at the projects funded by the annual Appropriations bills of the House and Senate, as well as the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) legislation, to see who the real winners are. As a result, some of the infamous projects (such as Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere” and any number of construction projects in the late Senator Robert Byrd’s home of West Virginia) were able to flourish.
Upon their taking ownership of the White House in January 2009, the new Obama Administration followed through on its suggested campaign policy idea by stating that establishing a national infrastructure bank was one of their priorities. In fact, it was posted right off the White House website and was one of the first items detailed by the new Administration when they took over.
Once again their words offered hope of forthcoming “change.” Giving even more rise to these aspirations, in the weeks before taking the Oath of Office and in the weeks after, the President talked boldly about making investments in America’s infrastructure as a means of getting hundreds of thousands of unemployed Americans back to work.
With senior Congressional champions for the infrastructure bank in the wings, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT), two of the most senior Members of Congress, were ready to work with the Administration to make it happen.
With the economy in dire shape, the new Obama Administration signed off on a Recovery Act package full of plenty of spending but none of the real change to how infrastructure was funded. To them, the money needed to get out to states and locals as soon as possible, so they used the same old means to fund projects around the country. Once again, the mechanisms of old that had funded projects for decades were once again flush with cash. In the year and a half since then, critics on both sides of the political aisle see a package that did not perform as promised or yield the results anyone wanted.
When the time came for the Obama Administration to put forward its own budget, much to the surprise of many, the national infrastructure bank was nowhere to be found. But there was still hope.
In a May 5 appearance at the Center for National Policy, Rep. DeLauro (D-CT), one of the most passionate Members of the House, encouraged the Administration to “act boldly” in fighting for the infrastructure bank. She asserted that throughout our country’s tough times, our Presidents think and act boldly, pointing to Lincoln’s decision to fund the railroad to reach the Pacific; FDR’s decision to build TVA and other projects during the Depression; Eisenhower’s decision to create a national interstate highway system; and Kennedy’s pledge to go to the moon. It was her hope that Obama would do the same when it came to creating the bank to invest in America’s national infrastructure.
It would seem that her hopes and those of many who want to see the national infrastructure bank become a reality are fleeting. Despite public pleas from some of the country’s leading voices on infrastructure investment issues (e.g., PA Gov. Ed Rendell, CA Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the US Chamber of Commerce and more), the infrastructure bank remains an idea whose time has not come.
Despite having windows of opportunity with the 2009 Recovery Act, last year’s budget cycle and even this year’s Appropriations process, the Obama Administration has failed to provide any leadership initiative or requisite details on making the bank a real 21st century tool for renewing and investing in America’s infrastructure. Even with Members of both political parties open to the idea and wanting to see how it would operate, the details for this concept seemed to be as vacuous as the leadership to make it happen.
This is a profound disappointment for those of us who champion critical infrastructure issues. It’s an even greater disappointment when you consider the state of our infrastructure across this country. The ASCE Report Cards and other studies have been blistering in their assessments of America’s infrastructure, but for reasons that defy any sense of logic, the Administration and Congress continue to fund the very mechanisms that have failed to improve our infrastructure standing for the past quarter century.
A famous quote attributed to Einstein comes to mind, where insanity is defined as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
The Obama Administration has had three exceptional opportunities to start a new page in how we fund our country’s infrastructure needs. Instead, they keep singing the same tune as their predecessors, as opposed to being the professed “change” they promised to voters. That is a measure in which no one can take pride or claim accomplishment.
Maybe in the new Congress, they will fulfill Rep. DeLauro’s vision and “act boldly.” Maybe they will also find the courage to change their tune and deliver the real leadership and necessary details this initiative really needs. Until they do, the only accurate term to describe their position on the infrastructure bank is “lip service” and that is never in short supply in Washington. I guess some things never “change.”