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Commentary: It’s time to shore up America’s infrastructure and become a leader in emerging technologies

An aerial view of the Sixth Street Viaduct Replacement Project that crosses the 101 Freeway in Los Angeles.
An aerial view of a progress underway on the Sixth Street Viaduct Replacement Project that crosses the 101 Freeway in Los Angeles Thursday, April 15, 2021. The bridge is an ongoing $588-million bridge replacement project, consisting of 10 sets of arches, which will be LED-lit, forming the “Ribbon of Light” along the viaduct.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

There is no debate — America knows that we need a substantive and far-reaching infrastructure package to address years of neglect, while simultaneously positioning the United States to be the world-class leader in emerging technologies and industries. What is debatable, however, is how much we need to do and how we are going to pay for it.

Let’s start with what we need to do. Our country has kicked the infrastructure can down the road for decades while other countries like China, Germany, France and many others have made enormous investments in their infrastructure. On average, our European counterparts spend 5% of their GDP on maintaining and building new infrastructure, China spends around 8% . The United States only spends 2.4% . And we see our nation’s deferred maintenance all around us: neglected highways, roads and bridges; ports and airports in desperate need of upgrades to better meet the needs of global trade; crumbling school systems long overdue for upgrades to effectively educate our kids; an outdated electrical grid incapable of meeting the needs of a 21st-century economy; clean water for all communities and extreme vulnerabilities due to the ever-increasing challenges caused by climate change.

While in Congress I acted to build bipartisan support for tackling many of these issues. I co-sponsored legislation that would provide grants to train and prepare people for clean energy jobs. I co-sponsored bipartisan legislation to invest in electrical grid storage so disasters like what we saw in Texas don’t happen again, and an area I’m particularly proud of is my work on creating safe drinking water systems.

The most visible tragedy of our nation’s failure to invest in this critical infrastructure is the crisis in Flint, but it doesn’t stop there. Every year millions of Americans are drinking water deemed unsafe by the EPA. Right here in our own backyard the Orange County Water District had to shut down nearly a third of its wells because of toxins linked to cancer, liver and kidney damage, low birth weight and other health problems. My office sprang into action and introduced the PFAS User Fee Act of 2019 which would force polluters to pay for the upgrades necessary to decontaminate our water supply. This is just one example of how decades of failing to invest in our nation’s most basic infrastructure has real world effects on people’s wages and health.

It’s not enough just to address what we have failed to do, we need to be prepared for the coming decades of change by positioning the U.S. to be the world leader in emerging technologies such as renewable energies, biotech, robotics and additive manufacturing. To accomplish this imperative goal, we need to get high-speed broadband to every corner of this country. Every child and every business deserve the opportunity to grow and excel regardless of if they are in rural areas, urban areas or somewhere in between. We need new incentives for affordable housing developments to meet the needs of a growing population that deserves to be able to live where they work. We need a 21st-century electrical grid that can meet the electrification demands of our 21st-century economy. Finally, we need investment in infrastructure to meet the ever-increasing extreme weather events brought on by climate change.

It is imperative that we make these investments, but we also need to recognize that our country has an ever-growing aggregate national deficit that is well over $20 trillion. Continuing to add to the debt without a plan to address it is irresponsible and dangerous. That’s why when I was in Congress, I proposed the Fiscal Responsibility & Long-Term Economic Security Act. My bill would have created a Joint Select Committee to review the federal government’s fiscal imbalance and mandated that the committee’s recommendations were fast tracked for a vote in Congress. Infrastructure bill or no infrastructure bill, this is an issue that must be addressed and desperately needs immediate bipartisan attention especially considering these spending packages. Any new deficit spending should be done in conjunction with a comprehensive plan to address the annual and aggregate deficits.

Now let’s turn to the infrastructure package and how the Biden administration is proposing to pay for it. The Biden administration has made numerous proposals in various areas to increase taxes. While I don’t agree with the entirety of the plan, it’s also important to call out dishonest fear mongering. Contrary to what some of my Republican friends are saying, the Biden administration has made it clear that individual taxes will not be raised on any family making under $400,000 a year. We should be able to have policy disagreements without resorting to distortions and lies.

I supported the need to reduce the corporate income tax under the previous administration, so that American companies could be competitive on the global stage. However, we missed the mark by not also eliminating outdated and unneeded subsidies and incentives when we dropped the corporate tax rate down to 21%. By ignoring these loopholes, the true corporate tax rate in America is 11.3%, far lower than our global competitors. Rather than raise the corporate tax rate to the levels being proposed by the Biden administration, let’s first do a comprehensive review of what corporate tax subsidies and incentives can be removed to help cover the cost of the infrastructure plan and reduce the need for increasing the corporate tax rate.

If the corporate tax increase does occur, we need to continue exempting small businesses. I know the blood, sweat and tears that small business owners put into their work. We should not be raising taxes on them, especially as they fight to rebound from the pandemic.

Finally, let’s make sure that we are focused on infrastructure projects that have the greatest return on investment by driving GDP and lowering the actual costs of the infrastructure plan. In other words, let’s help pay for the plan by ensuring we get the highest return possible on our collective investment.

Addressing our nation’s decaying infrastructure not only will bring our nation into the 21st century, but we will also be making investments to position America as the world’s leading economy for generations to come. Republicans and Democrats alike must come to the negotiating table and work together to find the best plan to revitalize our nation’s infrastructure, if we do nothing, or even the bare minimum, we will be limiting the American people’s prosperity and subjecting our kids and their kids to an ever-declining American economy.

Harley Rouda is the former U.S. Representative for California’s 48th congressional district, where he served as Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment and as a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He is currently running to regain the Congressional seat in 2022.

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