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How the infrastructure bill finally reached the finish line

By |  November 16, 2021
Michael Johnson of the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association. Photo: NSSGA

Says NSSGA’s Michael Johnson: “We have to think about how we create a more efficient economic circulatory system and how we improve the health of it if we are going to face the evolving economic challenges in a world economy.” Photo: NSSGA

The U.S. House of Representatives finally passed the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act at the beginning of November, with President Biden signing the bill on Monday. So, what does the $1.2 trillion law ultimately mean for aggregate producers, and how did members of the House finally come together to pass a bill that will have a measurable impact on the industry? P&Q paid Michael Johnson, president and CEO of the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (NSSGA), a visit to get some answers.

Are you surprised at all that the infrastructure bill ultimately passed considering the road through the House was rather rocky this fall?

Johnson: I think when you saw 69 Republicans in the United States Senate come together to vote for the bill – such a broad bipartisan group of that chamber in support of this legislation – it set the stage for it to move through the House fairly easily.

Unfortunately, Democratic intraparty politics came into play. The Democrats got in their own way on this. I think if they had moved it earlier after it came over from the Senate and not mixed it in with the larger social spending and reconciliation conversation that they would have had even more support from Republicans, because it’s good policy.

Infrastructure has traditionally been bipartisan. It’s traditionally been something Republicans and Democrats have come together on to do good for the country, to do good for their constituents.

It’s worth remembering that one of the few things Congress is actually charged with doing in the Constitution was something George Washington thought was incredibly important to this nation succeeding, and that is establishing and maintaining a network of post roads to facilitate commerce between the various states. That is charged to Congress in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution.

Now, they talked about post roads at the time. That was a precursor, obviously, to state highways, interstate highways and the interconnected multimodal infrastructure system we have today. Washington couldn’t have envisioned that, but he certainly knew back then that it was important to connect waterways to roads to facilitate the economy that would be essential to this country surviving, at that point, and now thriving.

What impact do you think the Election Day 2021 results had on the House’s passage of the infrastructure bill? Infrastructure was, at one moment, tied to reconciliation, but after the election it seemed like some legislators came to a better understanding of their constituents’ needs and realized they needed to do something on infrastructure.

Johnson: I think the state elections in Virginia and New Jersey got the attention of the Democratic majorities in Congress.

Often, elections are more about what the party in control did wrong, more so than any mandate for the party who comes to power to do anything but be better than the party that was in control.

If you go back to 2020, the margins were very narrow. Congress is a reflection of that. You’ve got a 50-50 Senate, with the vice president breaking a tie. You’ve got an effective six-seat majority for the Democrats in the House. That’s not a mandate for anything except being functional, getting things done and delivering for your constituents on what you told them you were going to do. Those things made them decide you were better than the other guys they were upset with.

What the Democrats hopefully got out of the loss of the governorship and the loss of many state legislative seats in Virginia – and a closer-than-anyone-thought-it-would-be gubernatorial election in New Jersey – is an unmistakable message that you are not delivering on the proposition that the voters elected you to deliver on. And that is to, No. 1, be functional; give us what we need to get out of the pandemic and get our economy going again; get out of our way and let us get back to living our lives, but do it in a way that equips us to have a better quality of life going forward than we had before we gave you this opportunity.

The Democrats, as both parties have tended to do in years past, seem to have interpreted the election as a mandate that it wasn’t. That set up an intraparty dynamic in which the liberals and conservatives were at odds. Conservatives and moderates tend to come from those swing districts, where victories are narrow, and they know it’s important to build consensus across the aisle to do things that earn the praise and support from your constituents rather than to drive controversial policy that’s not popular with your constituents.

Democrats are having to work their way through these growing pains within their caucus, and that will need to continue into the midterms. I think the election was a wakeup call to them. It had all the subtlety of a baseball bat to the forehead, for anybody paying attention, that what you’re doing is out of pace from what you were elected to do and what the people want from you.

What message, if any, do you have for infrastructure bill naysayers who say Republicans just handed a political victory to President Biden?

Johnson: I would say this is a bipartisan bill. It attracted 69 votes in the United States Senate. More than two-thirds of that chamber supported this bill. Republicans and Democrats came together to get it done. Among those supporting were Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont).  Thirteen Republican members of Congress joined with Democrats in the House to get this bill done.

It is a bipartisan bill to help us grow GDP, create great jobs and better position ourselves to compete in a world economy. It’ll give us that extra strength we need to push back against the Chinese in their efforts to be the new No. 1 economy in the world. You can’t let politics get in the way of that.

At NSSGA, we can’t let partisan politics distract us. We’ve got to work with whoever shares our goals in advancing the kind of policy we need to advance our industry, grow our economy and make America stronger. We’ll look for friends wherever we find them to do that.

I’m not worried about who gets the credit for this historic legislation. I’m more worried about who gets the results of the win. And that’s the American people.

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