When Joe Biden selected the slogan “Build Back Better” as the theme of his presidential campaign, he drew attention to the crucial importance of repairing and enhancing the nation’s aging infrastructure. Now a month into his presidency, Biden has signaled he is ready to put a $2 trillion infrastructure plan at the center of his legislative agenda.
This comes not a moment too soon: As the devastating failure of the Texas energy grid has made clear in recent days, reinvesting in the nation’s infrastructure is an urgent need with public health and safety hanging in the balance.
But while Biden looks to deliver on his campaign promise to build back better and avert future disasters like the one we are watching unfold in Texas, the infrastructure agenda may test another campaign promise: “unity” and “bipartisanship.” Biden invited a bipartisan group of lawmakers to the White House on Feb. 11 to discuss infrastructure, without it seeming to sway the Republicans toward embracing his agenda.
This is not surprising. The history of the nation’s infrastructural development suggests that rather than bipartisanship, Biden will need to lean firmly into using the partisan power of the Democratic control of Congress to achieve his infrastructure goals. In fact, it is partisan power that made ambitious infrastructural development possible in the past. Alongside the importance of partisanship, Biden will need to recall a second lesson from past development to fully capitalize on the possibilities of rebuilding and reimagining our decaying infrastructure: consulting local communities when designing and implementing new infrastructure systems.
The nation’s most expensive and expansive public works project — the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways — is invoked by many, even President Barack Obama, as the product of bipartisan work. In reality, however, the development of the interstate highway system hinged on partisan Congressional power.
Yes, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower did sign the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. But the legislation itself was a product of a shift in partisan control of Congress, after Democrats recaptured both houses in the 1954 midterm elections. Democratic Party leaders subsequently used their committee leadership positions to design the foundations of the interstate system. For example, Sen. Denis Chávez (D-N.M.), then chairman of the Senate Public Works Committee, advanced the general plan for a federally funded, tax-based highway system. Rep. Hale Boggs (D-La.), chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on roads, worked in the lower chamber to design the specific tax mechanisms that still to this day fund the construction and maintenance of the interstate system.