Image for Infrastructure Investment Talks Underway as Earmarks Officially Return

Negotiations have begun on a federal infrastructure investment package and Senate leaders confirm congressional earmarks are back. A deal on infrastructure appears a ways off, but Members of Congress are already soliciting ideas for earmarks.

President Biden played the first card by unveiling his $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan, which calls for investment in traditional and non-traditional infrastructure – from roads and bridges to childcare facilities and affordable housing.

Senate Republicans have countered with a smaller, narrower proposal that allocates $568 billion entirely to traditional infrastructure. An analysis by The Washington Post shows the Senate GOP plan actually would increase investments for roads, bridges, airports, public transit, waterways and water systems by only $189 billion over current baseline spending. Biden’s plan would increase spending for the same line items by $785 billion.

The bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus has floated a proposal somewhere in between the Biden and Senate GOP plans, though no specific spending amount was cited. Congressman Peter DeFazio, chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has announced he will introduce a bill that closely tracks Biden’s plan.

Despite the gap in spending and types of investment in rival infrastructure plans, the White House and Senate Republicans confirm they are talking and point to “very encouraging signs” that a bipartisan deal can be reached. DeFazio seems less certain and has taken steps to make an infrastructure investment plan that could qualify for budget reconciliation, a procedure that bypasses Senate filibuster rules and requires only a simple majority.

The biggest stumbling block to a deal remains how to pay for whatever level of spending is negotiated. Biden proposed a corporate tax increase. Senate Republicans dismissed that idea and hinted they could support some form of user fees. The Problem Solvers Caucus floated a federal gas tax hike, including indexing future increases to fuel economy standards, construction costs and inflation.

The biggest stumbling block to a deal remains how to pay for whatever level of spending is negotiated. Biden proposed a corporate tax increase. Senate Republicans favor user fees. The Problem Solver Caucus says just raise the federal gas tax.

Another potentially complicating factor is Biden’s expected introduction of his American Families Plan, which he bills as an investment in the nation’s “social infrastructure”. Weighing in at around $1.5 trillion, Biden’s newest plan would invest in services such as parental leave, childcare and education. The initial reaction by Republicans was negative. Progressive Democrats want these investments included in the American Jobs Plan so they aren’t left behind in the dust of a major negotiation on infrastructure. 

Biden will unveil his American Families Plan ahead of his first address to Congress on Wednesday, where he is expect to tout the accomplishments during his first 100 days in office.

Congressional earmarks have been shunned for a decade, but Democratic leaders are ushering them back in time for Fiscal Year 2022 appropriations. Democratic House leaders signaled the return two months ago, while Senate Appropriations Chair Patrick Leahy gave the high sign just this week. Senate Republicans voted last week to maintain their self-imposed caucus rule against earmarks. However, GOP senators who stray from the party line apparently won’t be reprimanded, at least by their colleagues.

The House imposed a limit of 10 earmark requests per fiscal year by each House member. The Senate didn’t impose any limit, but Leahy indicated earmarks would be constrained to no more than 1 percent of all discretionary spending. It remains unclear what federal spending accounts will be eligible for congressional earmarking.