President Obama packed so many proposals into his State of the Union address Tuesday night that it was hard to grab hold of each one before he careened on to the next. And that's not counting the occasional zingers, including his reference to his two presidential election victories in response to a brief outburst of grade-school hooliganism from the Republicans in the House chamber.
We've already reported on Obama's proposals for free community college education and for closing loopholes in the capital gains tax. On Tuesday he made a new pitch for an idea he's been pushing almost since the start of his first term: for more investment in America's infrastructure.
Wisely, he contrasted the urgency of that investment with the Keystone pipeline, the useless and dangerous project being pushed so hard by Republicans and Congressional Democrats alike. "Let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline," he said. "Let’s pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than 30 times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for decades to come."
Obama's vastly underestimated the jobs that could be created by a proper infrastructure plan--or vastly overestimated the jobs that would be created by the pipeline. The government's final environmental impact statement estimated short-term employment from construction of the $3.3-billion pipeline at 42,000 jobs, but that's only for two years. Permanent employment on the completed pipeline would come to 35 workers. (So much for the attempt by Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, the GOP's designated State of the Union responder, to rebrand the pipeline as the "Keystone jobs bill.")
A full-scale assault on America's infrastructure needs, by contrast, would require more than $200 billion a year through 2020 over and above what we're already spending, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Economic Policy Institute, but would create and sustain more than 3 million new jobs. Infrastructure spending not only creates construction jobs, but establishes the foundation for economic growth decades into the future.
The need is dire. Talk to the average owner of a manufacturing business, and you'll hear that their most pressing demand is for an improved transportation network. U.S. public infrastructure spending as a share of the economy has plummeted since 2009, under pressure from budget-cutters in Congress; it's now lower than it's been since 1995. (See accompanying graphic.) The harvest can be measured in news items about potholed highways, overstretched ports and airports, and collapsing bridges -- the latest an interstate bridge collapse on Monday that took the life of a construction worker. The civil engineering society, in its latest report card, gave America's infrastructure a D+.
The government's highway trust fund, which pays for interstates and other transportation projects, is depleted because Americans are driving less and using more fuel-efficient vehicles, reducing federal gas tax revenues. Congress has shored up the fund with a series of annual appropriations, but that's no way to run an infrastructure program. Obama's 2013 proposal to trade a revision of the corporate tax for infrastructure spending went nowhere in Congress. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who now commands a majority, dismissed it as a plan for "tax-and-spend liberals."
That's a knee-jerk partisan reaction that won't do in today's world. Obama observed Tuesday that "21st century businesses need 21st century infrastructure—modern ports, stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest Internet. Democrats and Republicans used to agree on this." Why shouldn't they agree still?