During this pandemic, my crystal ball and I are social distancing; while I am working at home it is tucked away in my Capitol Hill office. Luckily, I was able to dig out my old magic-8 ball from the back of my closet, but each time I turn it over the message reads “Gone Fishing.” At first I thought it a fluke, but now I realize it might be trying to tell me something.
That is because the outlook for a federal infrastructure stimulus package is so murky even Nostradamus would not try to predict when Congress might act. In fact, we are all at risk of whiplash, given that it is “infrastructure week” yet again. Take for example this recent rapid exchange on infrastructure:
- On March 31st, the President tweeted ““With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill. It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country! Phase 4.”
- On April 1st Speaker Pelosi fired up all infrastructure cylinders by holding a press conference calling for immediate action on infrastructure using the Democratic Moving Forward framework as its centerpiece.
- On April 2nd, skepticism from Senate Majority Leader McConnell and House Minority Leader McCarthy caused Pelosi to put infrastructure on the backburner and refocus the fourth COVID-19 relief package on hospitals and small businesses.
You get the idea. As politics play themselves out, there are things you can be doing to help build a credible case for infrastructure investments in a future congressional recovery package.
First – Santayana (not the guitar player, I am told) very wisely once said, “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Translated into modern times this means, take some time to revisit the lessons of the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). The path to passing ARRA was fraught with pitfalls, many of which were created by hastily cobbled together project “wish lists,” rather than populated by projects worthy of federal investments. Try to avoid letting someone’s wish for a public swimming pool sink your chances for revitalizing a levee system.
Second – Prove naysayers-with-long-memories wrong by showcasing your ARRA successes. If you received project funding under ARRA, how quickly did you get shovels in the ground? How many jobs did you create? Almost as soon as the ink was dry, ARRA drew scrutiny over not being able to live up to hype of being “shovel ready”. You can help to change that negative narrative by reminding federal audiences how ARRA delivered for your community in terms of job creation and project outcomes.
Third – Identify and quantify the gaps in your project funding streams. During debate on the floor of the US House of Representatives on February 11, 2009, Jim Oberstar (then Chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee) rallied his colleagues to vote for ARRA by stating that 1.4 million construction workers were out of work (in the same speech he also stated that “we’ll hold their feet to the fire and a blow torch to their bottom sides” regarding ARRA speed and transparency, but Oberstar’s famous one-liners are for another time). At this point in time, COVID-19 related impacts to infrastructure projects do not line up with the conditions felt during the Great Recession. The construction workforce has not been decimated (yet), but rather infrastructure is being impacted by an evaporated funding stream. Important revenue streams like sales tax and gas tax have fallen off a cliff.
Forth – Take stock of the kinds of federal assistance your infrastructure priorities need — think beyond just supersized competitive grant opportunities. Could financing or regulatory relief be beneficial? For example, the Corps’ WIFIA program could support $2 billion in loans if Congress appropriates $25 million. Could the Corps WIFIA program help your community?
Fifth – Evaluate your grant writing capabilities. Using ARRA as a roadmap, most federal funds flowed to federal agencies for competitive grant opportunities. While the world may seem upside down right now, things have not progressed to the point that Congress is seriously considering a reinstatement of earmarks. If you have an in-house grants writer, start looping them to the potential for an infrastructure package.
Sixth – Read the federal tea leaves. Over the last six months the President, Senate Republicans, and House Democrats have all shared their infrastructure priorities. Read through the President’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal, read through Senate Environment & Public Works Committee Chairman Barrasso’s highway bill, and read through Speaker Pelosi’s Moving Forward framework. Spoiler alert, they are all singing from a different sheet of music.
Even in the best of times passing a federal infrastructure package has proven to be very heavy lifting and I think we could all agree these are not the best of times. Aging infrastructure was crumbling long before COVID-19 arrived. Now is the time to marshal your resources and make a credible case for infrastructure, by building a list of reasonable priorities Congress can rally behind. If one of your priorities happens to be replacement of an aging pier, maybe my magic 8-ball will have been right after all.
Julie Minerva is a Washington, DC based infrastructure advocate who in good, bad, and uncertain times specializes in Civil Works and all things related to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. You can find her at: firstname.lastname@example.org