By Jim Tankersley
© The New York Times Co.
WASHINGTON » President Joe Biden signed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill into law Monday, a bipartisan victory that will pour billions into the nation’s roads, ports and power lines.
While the bill stopped short of realizing his full-scale ambitions for overhauling America’s transportation and energy systems, Biden pointed to it as evidence that lawmakers could work across party lines to solve problems in Washington.
He also said it would better position the United States to compete against China and other nations vying for dominance of 21st century emerging industries. Hours before a virtual summit with President Xi Jinping of China, whose infrastructure initiatives have helped vault China to global leadership in advanced manufacturing and other areas, Biden said the bill showed democratic governments can deliver for their citizens.
“Let’s remember what we’ve got done for the American people when we do come together,” Biden said, celebrating the bill on the South Lawn of the White House. “I truly believe that 50 years from now, historians are going to look back at this moment and say, that’s the moment America began to win the competition of the 21st century.”
The bill Biden signed will not address the nation’s entire backlog of needed infrastructure investments, and it is not as ambitious as Biden’s initial $2.3 trillion proposal. The compromises that were necessary to win over a large group of Senate Republicans pared back the president’s ambitions for investing in “human infrastructure” like home health care and fortifying the nation’s physical infrastructure to fight and adapt to climate change.
Still, administration officials and a wide range of outside economists and business groups largely agree that the package is the most important step in a generation toward upgrading critical infrastructure — and that it could soon begin to pay dividends for a wide range of businesses and people, from electric vehicle manufacturers to rural web surfers.
Some of the first bursts of spending will go toward areas that Biden prioritized in negotiations, like tens of billions of dollars to improve access to broadband internet and to replace hazardous lead drinking pipes. Spending has already been announced to help clear backlogs at the nation’s ports, which are contributing to shipping delays and price increases as the United States sees a pandemic surge in demand for consumer goods, many of which are imported.
The infrastructure spending will not jolt the American economy like a traditional economic stimulus plan, nor is it meant to. Officials say the administration will focus as much on “shovel-worthy” projects — meaning those that make the most of federal dollars — as they will on “shovel-ready” ones that would dump money into the economy more quickly. The package was designed to deliver money over several years, in part to avoid fueling more price increases across an economy that is experiencing its highest inflation rate in decades.
Biden and his advisers say they expect the package to deliver a variety of benefits that will power economic growth over time, including leaner supply chains, faster and more equitably distributed internet access and improved educational outcomes for children who will no longer be exposed to water-based lead that stunts brain development.
It also features tens of billions each for rebuilding roads and bridges, upgrading freight and passenger rail systems and cleaning up environmental pollution, all of which could help boost the productivity of the U.S. economy.
“This is not designed to be stimulus,” Cecilia Rouse, who chairs the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said in an interview. “It’s designed to be the most strategic, effective investments so that we can continue to compete against China and other countries that are making bigger investments in their infrastructure.”
“We will see investments starting next year,” she added, “beginning with our ports, and beginning with other areas where we know we are far behind.”
The victory comes at a precarious political moment for Biden. His poll numbers have dropped amid rising inflation, which has sent prices for food, gas and household items soaring. He is struggling to complete the next part of his domestic policy agenda, a $1.85 trillion collection of tax cuts and spending programs focused on climate change, early childhood and a wide range of social policy initiatives.
On Tuesday, Biden will fly to New Hampshire to visit a bridge in need of repair as he tries to convince an increasingly uneasy American public that the infrastructure bill will lead to tangible improvements in their lives.
Then he will head to a General Motors plant in Detroit on Wednesday, to highlight funding aimed at building as many as 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations and improving the nation’s electric grids. The spending on electric vehicles in the bill is much lower than Biden initially proposed, but administration officials say it will accelerate a shift to lower-emission cars and trucks.
“With the combination of this investment and where we know the industry is going,” said Brian Deese, who heads Biden’s National Economic Council, “we believe this will be the beginning of a real transformation in our vehicle infrastructure.”
The legislation was the product of intense negotiations spanning much of the first year of Biden’s presidency, and of the backslapping, coalition-building politics the president has relished in a government career stretching back to the 1970s. Biden brokered agreements first with Senate Republicans, 18 of whom ultimately voted for the bill, and then with progressive Democrats in the House, who held up its final passage in order to raise pressure on centrists in Biden’s party to support the larger spending bill.