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Faculty Viewpoints

The Compromise Infrastructure Bill Reflects the Public’s Priorities

The infrastructure bill that advanced in the Senate this week doesn’t please partisans on either side. But an analysis from Yale SOM’s Jeffrey Sonnenfeld shows a rough correspondence with the objectives favored by the public in polls.

Senator Kyrsten Sinema speaking at a news conference on July 28, 2021. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

Senator Kyrsten Sinema speaking at a news conference on July 28, 2021. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

  • Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld
    Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies & Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management

This commentary was originally published in Fortune.

Who is winning the infrastructure sweepstakes? Wednesday night’s Senate vote, with 18 Republicans joining 50 Democrat senators in agreeing to advance the bill, offers one of those rare Washington wins for all in these divisive D.C. days. While infrastructure may not be a pretty word, like a great work of art, its beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There is not a consensus on how broadly infrastructure is defined, how much should be invested, and how to pay for this investment. Thus, during the Trump administration, the recurrences of fizzled fanfare over sequential infrastructure weeks became fodder for late-night comics.

At first blush, President’s Biden’s ambitious $3 trillion proposal was just carved down to a mere $1.2 trillion package. An original analysis, however, shows that there has been more going on than the presumed battle between business and government or the GOP and Democrats over funding. The real issues are major gaps in business priorities, major gaps between party priorities, and some lingering differences between both parties and the priorities of the American public. There are many conflicting principles to unravel in this exercise. As Groucho Marx offered: “Those are my principles. If you don’t like them, well, I have others.”

This week, 140 top business leaders, spanning a wide slice of U.S. industries, from finance and manufacturing to travel, technology, and restaurants, signed a public letter calling on U.S. lawmakers to promptly pass the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and free it from the Congressional weeds. The letter pleaded for this “long awaited and desperately needed program to renew and rebuild our nation’s crumbling infrastructure” and called it a “necessary foundation for our nation’s sustainable growth.”

On Wednesday evening, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg celebrated this new compromise as two-thirds of Biden’s initial spring proposal—separating out human infrastructure from physical infrastructure. At last month’s Yale CEO Summit, the 200 CEOs and 65 mayors attending showed their approval as Buttigieg declared, “There is a broad bipartisan consensus for this the current moment a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to strengthen the country’s infrastructure, to serve us into the next century to make sure that America can win the future.”

The progress made in cementing this bipartisan compromise has not been easy, as the definitions of this term have varied so broadly.

For the president, this compromise legislation was fundamental not only to the nation’s future, but to defining success for his administration before the political treadmill of the 2022 midterm election cycle kicks in. For House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the compromise legislation on physical infrastructure needed to be matched with social infrastructure heavily favored by more left-leaning Democrats. Among some in the GOP, such legislative wins are seen as threat to 2022 Republican campaign success. In fact, despite being a great promoter of vague infrastructure goals in office, this week, former President Donald Trump attacked “RINO Republicans that are so dedicated to giving the Radical Left Democrats a big and beautiful win on Infrastructure.” Trump threatened that Republican voters “will never forget” the names of GOP lawmakers who support the infrastructure progress.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s wife, Trump’s former transportation secretary Elaine Chao, told the attendees at our June event: “Most people define infrastructure traditionally, as physical infrastructure. The U.S. transportation infrastructure is incredibly decentralized, and a big issue is how any funding is allocated and split. Infrastructure spending is not allocated based on urgency or national priority; it is given to the states and each state decides how to allocate these funds. How to pay for infrastructure is the real issue.”

GM CEO Mary Barra focused on the importance of moving the infrastructure package forward and making sure it supports infrastructure for electric vehicles. Buttigieg commended the auto industry’s enthusiasm for electric vehicles. He said that electrification is part of the infrastructure of the future and called for showing more imagination in defining infrastructure.

Of course, electrification infrastructure is important not just in cities and suburbs but for low-income Americans and those in rural areas, who can save a great deal of money by switching from gas-powered transportation to electric vehicles. “I see this as a great opportunity to advance the clean energy transition,” said Lynn Good, president and CEO of Duke Energy Corporation. She wants to see properly structured incentives for clean energy, along with permitting reform, that unleash private capital to invest in renewable energy. Buttigieg agreed with the idea of a fertile partnership between the public and private sector for both transportation and energy infrastructure.

Mark Penn’s Harris poll data showed that most Americans believe new infrastructure investments are needed, but most Americans define infrastructure as related to roads and bridges. About half of Americans (52%) believe an infrastructure bill should include major investments in fighting climate change, and a majority of the population believe infrastructure spending should be funded by a mix of public and private funds.

Survey data, when matched against the varied proposals of the Biden administration, the GOP, and the bipartisan compromise plan, show that the compromise bill satisfies the actual objectives of the celebrated “bipartisan public sentiment.”

Even more telling, original national survey data prepared for us by Morning Consult, when matched against the varied proposals of the Biden administration, the GOP, and the bipartisan compromise plan, show that the compromise bill satisfies the actual objectives of the celebrated “bipartisan public sentiment.”

These features show that the American public’s top infrastructure priorities are, in order: water, roads and bridges, safety, power grid, electric vehicles, environmental remediation, broadband, and public transit. The Biden administration’s priority funding order, however, was electric vehicle infrastructure, roads and bridges, power grid, broadband, public transit, passenger and freight rail, water systems, and airports. The GOP plan favored, in order of spending: roads and bridges, water systems, broadband, and public transit. The compromise priorities in spending favor: roads and bridges, power infrastructure, broadband, passenger and freight rail, water systems, and public transit.

Thus, in short, the American public and both parties share lower interest in ports and waterways. The Democrats have far greater interest in the railroads than does the general public or the GOP, not surprising given the economic backbone that Amtrak for provides for Eastern blue states (let alone for a president whose long Senate career was defined by his Amtrak commutes from D.C. to Delaware). The GOP, meanwhile, had surprisingly little interest in the fragile power grid, despite its poor quality in red states like Texas, and little interest in electric vehicle infrastructure but more interest in public transit than some might have expected. The compromise package succeeds in meeting public priorities for roads and bridges as well as power infrastructure but undervalues public demands for water system quality, infrastructure safety, and electric vehicle support.

Yet another lesson that can be inferred is that political differences have not been insurmountable—just complex to unravel. The business community’s disparate interests have come together to endorse the compromise package—if only career politicians could do so. If there is a will to accomplish this urgent national plan, it surely can be done. As Thomas Edison said, “Many of life’s failure are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Department: Faculty Viewpoints