Saturday, October 30, 2010

The New Republic Picks up Infrastructure Idea (from July 4 Post)

See "Desperate Measures" by Noam Sheiber, October 29, 2010

Shoot the hostage (i.e., kneecap your allies to finagle more government spending). It’s no secret that Democrats are keen to pass a major infrastructure package, which would have the dual benefit of supporting the economy in the short-term while making us more productive over the long-term. Pretty much everyone who studies these things agrees that our infrastructure is either badly outdated, in a state of disrepair, or both. (The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the country could use about $2.2 trillion worth of upgrades and repairs over the next five years.) But, of course, Democrats had zero luck passing a major infrastructure package after the initial stimulus in early 2009. It’s hard to believe they’re going to fare much better with a House Republican majority that’s constantly looking over its shoulder at pitchfork-wielding Tea Party activists. Particularly since several of these activists are on the verge of coming to Congress themselves.

Still, a deal on infrastructure spending may not be entirely out of reach, at least if the White House is ruthless enough. One idea along these lines comes care of David Shulman, a senior economist at UCLA’s Anderson Forecast center. Shulman proposes a several-hundred-billion dollar infrastructure package in which the administration agrees to suspend Davis-Bacon, the law requiring contractors for government-funded construction projects to pay locally prevailing wages, as deemed by the Labor Department. Conservatives complain that the law artificially inflates costs and is a sop to labor. (I have somewhat mixed feelings toward the law but am more sympathetic.)

Shulman would also have the administration fast-track environmental approval of construction projects—under current law, it can take months to assemble the various environmental-impact statements and reports, and there can be costly litigation along the way. Shulman recommends that the White House oversee an accelerated environmental review process and set up some provision for expediting judicial review. (The American Prospect’s Harold Meyerson hinted at some similar ideas back in May.)

Unions and environmentalists would howl, of course—in many cases for good reason. But that’s partly the point. (In fact, the louder the better.) If a spending package has the right opponents, then the conservative media-industrial complex may come around, bringing the GOP leadership along with it.

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