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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Cracks in infrastructure

by John Brummett | May 26, 2021 at 2:58 a.m.

A dangerous crack in the Interstate 40 bridge over the Mississippi River between Arkansas and Tennessee has nothing to do with failing congressional negotiations on an infrastructure bill, unfortunately.

Many of us rushed the day of the bridge's closure to try to leverage the vast inconvenience to urge bipartisan agreement on a major new investment in infrastructure. It was a nice try, if disingenuous.

The specific I-40 problem is a structural failing that a now-fired state inspector failed to note in previous reports. The problem will now be corrected, and there is money for that. The inconvenience and expense are going to be what they're going to be regardless of whether the Biden administration and Republicans can arrive at a compromise--which they probably can't--on a big new, and overdue, infrastructure investment.

The crack probably would have happened if we'd passed a big new infrastructure package a decade ago. And that an inspector missed it years ago is no fault of national political failing.

The current political impasse in Washington is that the Biden administration and most congressional Democrats see the usual opportunity to tie big new and popular spending on traditional infrastructure--roads, bridges, transportation stations and broadband--to expanded partisan thinking to include money for electric-car charging stations, studies of how to mitigate historic destruction of Black neighborhoods by highway construction (as in Little Rock with I-630 wiping out Ninth Street) and Medicare expansion to provide more coverage for at-home care for the elderly and disabled.

Republicans balk at what they call unrelated "social programs" in an infrastructure bill as well as the big price tag, now down from $2.3 trillion to $1.7 trillion, as well as to a proposed increase in the corporate income-tax rate to pay for the measure.

Democrats might do their bill alone, using budget reconciliation to avoid a filibuster, except that Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is the vital 50th Democrat who is holding out for compromise with Republicans and a reduction in the proposed increase in the corporate income tax.

Bipartisan negotiations between $1.7 trillion and $575 billion, as proposed by Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, also of West Virginia, seem stalled. Disagreement is presumably embedded on the corporate income-tax rate. Moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said Sunday that the Biden price tag is too high and that social spending should not be included in an infrastructure bill.

The Memphis problem is entirely separate and momentum is lost.

Senate Republicans have managed to work with Senate Democrats on a regular infrastructure bill putting about $350 billion into roads, bridges and broadband with a few heavily pruned, indeed perfunctory, outlays for charging stations and studies of effects on Black neighborhoods. This development is usual business and separate from the broader infrastructure proposal. But the development may be enough for Republicans to claim a negotiated victory and abandon the bigger bill, getting some projects going and political talking points made.

The broader initiative would have failed for the usual reason, meaning overreach by the party in power to try to make too many political points in an "omnibus" bill and giving the other party too many opportunities to balk, and obstruction as a midterm political strategy by the other party.

It would have failed because Democratic consultant Jim Carville was right, as he often is, when he said the numbers simply don't exist for Democrats to try to govern to the left of Manchin.

It also would have failed because the scenario described here is precisely what voters seem to have voted for in November. They rejected Donald Trump personally, but reduced liberal Democratic control of the House and left the Senate in deadlock. That's a mixed decision that sides more with $350 billion than $1.7 trillion.

It would have failed because of a crack in our politics.

The one on the Mississippi River bridge will get repaired eventually. Political movement across the other seems to be a longer-term situation.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.


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