HOT SPRINGS -- Infrastructure means different things to different people. Roadways, bridges, airports, harbors and other facilities that carry commerce and people come to mind when Garland County's congressional representative contemplates infrastructure.
"When I think of infrastructure, I think of roads, bridges, waterways, dams and airports and even broadband," 4th District U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Republican, said last week. "You hear new terminology like social infrastructure. I don't know what that means, but I'm worried we may find out soon if the Democrats pass this big package."
That package made up more than $4 trillion in spending when the White House unveiled it earlier this year, including funding for traditional infrastructure as well as subsidized child care, paid family and medical leave, free community college and preschool. The latter initiatives fall under the category the White House has called soft infrastructure or human infrastructure.
Westerman and his Republican colleagues balked at folding both categories into an infrastructure bill, forcing the White House to decouple its soft infrastructure initiatives from the traditional infrastructure spending it proposed. The latter has been debated in the House and Senate for several months, but bipartisan support needed to get the bill through the Senate has yet to develop.
The White House has said it will use budget reconciliation to pass the broader category of initiatives. The special process makes it easier to get bills through the Senate, where a super majority of 60 senators is needed to pass most legislation. Reconciliation bills require only a simple majority.
"It was a crisis situation, but what we've seen since then is just unrestrained spending," said Westerman, referring to the circumstances that gave rise to the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act that garnered broad bipartisan support last year. "Now we're seeing it proposed in even grander levels with a $3.5 trillion to $4 trillion reconciliation bill on top of a trillion-dollar infrastructure package if you look at what the Senate is supposedly proposing."
A bipartisan group of senators negotiated $600 billion in new infrastructure spending Thursday. The group's Democratic contingent said that spending could be folded into a reconciliation bill if it can't get the 60 votes needed in the Senate.
Westerman voted against the $715 billion INVEST in America Act that passed the House earlier this month on a mostly party-line vote. Only two Republicans joined the Democratic majority in passing the bill that included more than $300 billion for roads, bridges and safety investments and $95 billion in passenger and freight rail investments.
The bill stalled in the Senate, failing to get the 60 votes needed to end debate and proceed to a vote.
"The House passed an infrastructure bill that I voted against, because it was about a lot more than just infrastructure," Westerman said.
About $500 billion could address most of the infrastructure improvements the country needs, Westerman said.
"I think that would even be a stretch, especially in the current situation.," he said. "I saw an analysis that said, to kind of get our arms around what $500 billion is, if the current U.S. interstate highway system were built from scratch in today's dollars, it would be between $500 billion and $600 billion. Five hundred billion doesn't sound like that much when somebody else is talking about $4 trillion.
"When you look at how much money that really is, it's astounding. You don't have the labor. You don't have the materials or the engineering and planning capacity to spend that much money in a short period of time. I think we need a reality check on this, and we need to really assess where the infrastructure needs are and do some robust funding for it. But we can't just start throwing crazy numbers out there, and everybody pat each other on the back and say we're addressing infrastructure now."
Westerman said too much public spending on traditional infrastructure will unleash a bidding war with the private sector for materials and labor, exerting more inflationary pressure on the economy.
"We're seeing inflation really rising, which is concerning, especially when we have a private sector that needs to grow and people aren't going back to work," he said. "I think it's a recipe for disaster when you talk about pouring hundreds of billions of more federal dollars into infrastructure right now while we're already seeing inflation and prices rise where it hurts the most, at the grocery store and at the gas pump. And we're going to see it in a lot of other places too. We've got a really tight housing market. We're seeing housing prices go up when we've not got enough supply for houses."
Westerman said surplus funds from the CARES Act could be repurposed for infrastructure improvements.
"If we did a real assessment of infrastructure we could come up with a much lower cost plan that would make huge strides with infrastructure," he said. "Plus we could fund that out of existing funding that's floating around out there from all the way back to the CARES Act.
"We had $1 trillion in surplus from the CARES Act before the Democrats passed this additional $2 trillion in spending. That's where I am on infrastructure right now."