OPINION — Let me tell you what is probably not going to make this column go viral: Me writing about infrastructure. But you know what I’m about to do? Write about infrastructure. That’s because, even though a journalist’s livelihood has come to depend on generating traffic, tweets and sticky, sharable content, somebody somewhere in America has got to do the boring stuff. Today I’m that person. Hopefully soon, Congress will join me in doing boring too.
Boring stuff, by definition, is so much a part of our everyday lives that nobody pays much attention to it. It’s turning on your water faucet and seeing clear water flow from the spigot. It’s going to the store for groceries and driving on a road that’s so smooth you never worry if you’ll complete the entire journey. It’s crossing a bridge and never thinking twice whether you’ll get to the other side, or plugging in your phone to charge it overnight and assuming you’ve got enough power for the job, because you want to have enough power for it.
For every daily, supposedly boring task you complete in a day, you’re welcome, America, because an army of skilled workers did the thousands of logistical, technical, electrical and highly engineered infrastructure projects that made them possible … and then Congress helped pay for it all, most if it with little fanfare and much of it before you were born.
But lately in Washington, boring has gotten even less attention than usual. It’s hard for roads and bridges to compete for attention with Bob Mueller and Russian election meddling. And there’s no way to break through Michael Cohen reporting for prison or the Pentagon deploying a Navy strike group to the Middle East to “send a message” to Iran (which both happened this week) with a comprehensive plan to upgrade aging water systems and levees.
There’s very little media attention, and even less voter bandwidth, for members of Congress doing the hard work of boring. But it’s crucially important, especially if you take a minute to think about what’s quietly happening to the country’s basic services while half of us are glued to “Game of Thrones” or Donald Trump’s latest tweet.
According to a report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers, the country’s infrastructure in general rates only a D+. Anyone who rides the Red Line to work in Washington won’t be surprised to know that mass transit in the U.S. gets a D-. Aviation infrastructure like air traffic control systems get a D. As you drive home today, try not to think that 9 percent of bridges in the country are structurally deficient or that in West Virginia, that number spikes to 19 percent.
The number and severity of looming crises around the country is so vast it’s hard to get your head around, which is probably why so many of us don’t like to think about it. Years after the Flint water crisis in Michigan, the ASCE’s report card warns that ongoing underfunding of drinking water systems in the state could lead to “major crises affecting millions of the state’s residents.” And even after billions flowed to Louisiana for levee repairs after Hurricane Katrina, the state still has inadequate funding to maintain the miles and miles of levees that protect the state.
The good news is that there is actually news on this front. Democrats have always wanted to move a big, beefy infrastructure package, and last week, Trump told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a group of Democrats he wanted to do something on the issue that’s “not typically Republican.” That comment, along with Trump’s agreement with Dems that a $2 trillion price tag could be about right, is the strange sound of harmony coming from the two sides.
Of course paying for all this is the tricky part. For the first time in the Trump presidency, GOP leaders are balking at the idea of deficit spending, having already approved the plans that hiked the debt to $22 trillion this year. After a $2 trillion price tag came out of the Democrats’ meeting at the White House, House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy said last week, “It’s the payfors that are concerning to me, especially with the amount of debt that we have.”
McCarthy called any increase in the 18-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax “a non-starter” and added that he wouldn’t want to lump everything into the package that the Democrats call “infrastructure.” Even with those caveats, he didn’t pan the idea entirely.
One of the ideas he floated, though, to pay for projects with public-private partnerships, did get panned, but by Trump, whose own advisers came up with just such a proposal last year. “That was a Gary [Cohn] bill,” Trump reportedly said in the meeting. “That bill was so stupid.” He also added, “I’ll lead on this.”
The next meeting, featuring the really tough conversations about how to come up with $2 trillion, is slated for two weeks from now. Between now and then, the attorney general could be cited for contempt of Congress. The Democratic primary field could grow by one or two or five, and at least 15 presidential polls will rank their chances in the election 18 months from now.
But the boring problems will have an exponentially greater effect on the lives of ordinary Americans than which committee receives the testimony of Robert Mueller. Or if he testifies at all. That doesn’t make Mueller’s report irrelevant. But it does beg Congress to examine its priorities.
There is magic in the mundane. Power in the humdrum. Solve a problem someone sees every day, and you’ll get re-elected, no matter what the president tweets about between now and then. So, please, do the boring, Congress. Fill the potholes. Pay attention to the pots and pans.
Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.