WASHINGTON — Democrats are fighting to approve trillions of dollars in new spending to tackle everything from education to housing to clean energy, the culmination of years of work by advocates across the progressive movement. But finding the votes in Congress may be the easiest part.
The federal government has struggled in recent history to quickly translate cash from Congress into actual shovels in the ground. And for Democrats, deriving a political benefit would require that voters see and feel the impact before the 2022 midterm elections.
President Joe Biden will have to figure out how to spend the money on time, on budget and with the intended impact. Depending on how that all goes, Biden could end up as the next Franklin D. Roosevelt, lauded for restoring faith in big government programs, or unable to get his ambitious plan off the ground.
“Policy positions don’t win elections, but policy results win re-elections,” Tom Perriello, executive director of the Open Society Foundation in the U.S. and a former Democratic congressman from Virginia, told NBC News. “The American people are asking one question and one question only: Will this work?”
Advocates and outside experts say the Biden administration is well positioned to route money through existing programs, boost state and local governments that have an existing backlog of infrastructure projects, and accelerate clean energy trends that already have momentum in the private sector.
But there are also lots of details to fill in and many potential hurdles to overcome, even if the money is approved.
Plans to boost access to care for seniors and disabled Americans could conflict with plans to raise pay for caregivers. Billions of dollars to update the electric grid could run into objections from local communities who don’t want new power lines crossing their territory. The same “not in my backyard” mentality could also affect investments in affordable housing, which the Biden administration hopes to address with new incentives to change zoning laws.
“There’s definitely people who've just been legislators versus governors who think the battle’s over once the president signs the bill, when actually that's just the beginning,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., a former governor, said. “And we've seen, specifically, things like broadband — well-intentioned efforts not really get the expanded coverage that's needed. So how we put in place some kind of mechanism to measure implementation, I think, would be really important.”
Encounter the unexpected
The pressure is already on to manage benefits approved in prior Covid-19 relief bills. There have been delays in getting child tax credits to entitled taxpayers, for example, because the IRS lacks the resources to quickly process them.
Warner said he has been closely tracking implementation of state and local aid to make sure some unusual quirks in Virginia’s local governance structure don’t affect their payouts.
Democrats and allied groups are encouraged by the Biden administration’s experience. The Cabinet is stocked with former mayors and governors who have dealt with these issues firsthand, as well as many veterans of prior administrations like White House chief of staff Ron Klain, who was Biden's chief of staff when Biden was vice president.
“It’s details where you always find the devil,” said Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., who served two terms as governor of his state and two terms as the mayor of Denver before being elected to Congress in 2020. “Obviously, with any large investment in infrastructure and a recovery plan, there are going to be places where you encounter the unexpected. And I will say that I’m impressed by the quality of the staff that are working on those issues.”
A cautionary tale is the 2009 stimulus, whose spending initiatives Biden oversaw as vice president. Then-President Barack Obama promoted the bill as being full of "shovel ready" projects that could quickly get people working.
But investments in ambitious initiatives like high-speed rail failed to get past opposition from Republican governors, who killed transportation projects in Florida and New Jersey. Cost overruns derailed projects in Democratic states like California, where a plan to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles is stuck on more modest Central Valley line additions that are still in progress.
Many voters didn't immediately see or feel the benefits of the legislation, even as supporters now credit the clean-energy incentives with boosting the solar and wind industries and the mix of tax breaks and infrastructure projects with staving off a more severe recession.
The Biden administration has some advantages that Obama didn’t. A big one is time. Obama took over while the recession’s job losses were peaking and legislators were desperate to identify projects that could immediately put people to work. In Biden’s case, the economy is adding jobs, despite a weak report on Friday, and there’s already a $1.9 trillion stimulus law on the books.
“I do think they’ve taken a lot of lessons from Obama,” said Carol Browner, chairwoman of the League of Conservation Voters and a former EPA administrator under Obama. “With Obama, the focus was very much on what we called ‘shovel ready’ projects. If I understand where the administration is, they won’t be limited to shovel ready; they recognize some of these investments take more time.”
The challenges will still be significant.
Browner is concerned about navigating the complexities of the clean energy industry, where every step in the supply chain from mining raw materials to manufacturing could slow its growth if mishandled. But she’s impressed so far with the administration’s foresight.
“They’re not just taking one piece of a puzzle. They’re looking at the whole picture and making sure they’re moving all the pieces together,” she said.
Return on investment
Transportation experts say many of the bill’s goals are likely easier to implement than some of the more ambitious 2009-era efforts like high-speed rail, if not as flashy. While Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is sharing viral memes about bullet trains connecting major cities across the United States and Amtrak is releasing plans for dozens of new routes, funding in the Biden plan is more likely to go toward shoring up existing lines like on the busy Northeast corridor.
Buttigieg, for his part, has stressed that he's thinking ahead as to how transportation money would be distributed.
"It’s going to take a lot of work," he said in interview on Kara Swisher's New York Times podcast. "I mean, it’s one thing to write the check or sign off on the authorization for spending. It’s another to actually get these things in the ground, to get the broadband out to people, to construct the roads, whatever part we’re talking about."
Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, said that much of the infrastructure funding would most likely go to thousands of small projects at the state and local level, which are often already planned out and easier to get off the ground efficiently than larger ones. Think bridge repairs more than The Big Dig.
“I have very little concern there are enough projects out there,” Tomer said. “The bigger question for me is how do we value return on investment: What are good projects versus questionable projects?”
With lots of individual components come lots of opportunities for things to go wrong, however, and Republicans will watch for waste, fraud and abuse.
In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney attacked Obama over a $500 million-plus Department of Energy loan guarantee for Solyndra, a solar company that ended up going bankrupt. “You don’t just pick the winners and losers. You pick the losers,” he memorably said in their first debate.
Less remembered is that one of the other “losers” Romney name-checked in the exchange was an electric car manufacturer named Tesla, a DOE loan recipient that went on to become the seventh-most valuable company in the world.
Now, the company’s success is proof of concept for Biden’s ambitious plan to build thousands of charging stations, and Democrats are hoping they can point to similar impacts when they look back on things in a decade.
With that in mind, some in the administration are trying to manage expectations, especially with potentially tens of billions of dollars going to research projects on advanced technology that may or may not pan out. Even in a best-case scenario, there are going to be duds.
“Sometimes you swing and miss,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told Politico Nightly this month. "And that’s OK."