In implementing infrastructure law, Biden turns to two former mayors for help

President signs measure that creates new spending on climate change, equity and broadband access, with Landrieu and Buttigieg at helm

President Joe Biden, flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris and lawmakers, signs the infrastructure bill on the South Lawn of the White House on Monday evening. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden, flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris and lawmakers, signs the infrastructure bill on the South Lawn of the White House on Monday evening. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted November 16, 2021 at 5:45am

With the stroke of a pen, President Joe Biden on Monday put a bow on the infrastructure bill that is one of his key domestic priorities, and he asked two former mayors to help make it real.

“Now our focus moves to implementing [the] infrastructure law,” he said during a chilly ceremony on the White House’s South Lawn. 

With former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu as infrastructure czar and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a former mayor of South Bend, Ind., at the helm, Biden now enters the endlessly tricky territory of smoothly implementing a complicated law that creates new spending for climate change, equity and broadband access.

Biden is familiar with that terrain.

As vice president to Barack Obama, Biden was tasked with overseeing the implementation of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the $787 billion spending bill passed after the 2008 financial crisis that was the largest spending package until the COVID-19 pandemic and involved about 275 programs within more than 25 federal agencies.

In picking Landrieu, whose official title is senior adviser, Biden has selected a “quarterback” tasked with thinking “about how the sum should be more valuable than the individual parts, how to set up each agency to succeed and how to be responsive to community needs,” said Adie Tomer, head of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

[Lawmakers brave more than just cold at White House signing ceremony]

Landrieu, who served as New Orleans mayor from 2010 to 2018, dealt with the city’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina and the impact of the BP oil spill during his time in office. He also focused heavily on equity, taking down four Confederate monuments in the city and writing a book about institutional racism.

That may be significant because equity has been a key component of Biden’s infrastructure plans. One program in the law is aimed at tearing down infrastructure that has split Black and Brown communities from their larger cities. Among the places Biden specifically cited when introducing his infrastructure plan: the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans, which divided a traditionally Black community.

Task force

Also Monday, Biden signed an executive order establishing an Infrastructure Implementation Task Force to coordinate and set priorities for its implementation.

The task force is co-chaired by Landrieu and National Economic Council Director Brian Deese and will include Buttigieg; Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael S. Regan; the secretaries of Interior, Energy, Commerce, Agriculture and Labor; and Office of Personnel Management Director Kiran Ahuja, among others.

Priorities, meanwhile, included investing taxpayer money efficiently, creating good-paying jobs with prevailing wages and building resilient infrastructure to withstand the impact of climate change.

As the key designee for implementing the law, Landrieu’s job will be as a “network builder” who can link federal agencies, states and localities and those involved in prior pandemic response bills to ensure smooth implementation, said G. Edward DeSeve, who as special adviser to Obama helped Biden implement the recovery act. DeSeve is coordinator of the Agile Government Center at the National Academy of Public Administration and the Agile Visiting Fellow at the IBM Center for The Business of Government.

DeSeve said the 2009 stimulus bill was designed under a 10-20-30 format, meaning  10 percent of the rural development investments were made in persistent poverty communities, where 20 percent or more of the population had lived below the poverty line for the last 30 years. That approach, he said, would be a good way to focus resources this time around.

Buttigieg, who as Transportation secretary oversees about half of the $550 billion in new spending in the law, will also play a vital role in that network, DeSeve said.

Grant master

Of that transportation money, nearly $122 billion will be spent over five years on competitive grants that Buttigieg will have some say in allocating by setting criteria for recipients. He’ll also have a say in helping to stand up some of the law’s new programs, such as the focus on equity. 

Buttigieg will oversee the $110 billion in new money for roads, highways and bridges, $39 billion for transit and $66 billion for railways, but he’ll have little oversight over the $73 billion the law devotes to power grids, the $65 billion to expand broadband access or the $55 billion for improving drinking water.

Still, Marc Scribner, a senior transportation policy analyst with the libertarian Reason Foundation, predicted Buttigieg “will play a significant role” in implementing the law that passed with bipartisan support.

“But it probably makes sense for the White House to have a central point of administrative oversight given that the scope ... is so broad,” he said of Landrieu’s role.

DeSeve said the prospect of a former mayor overseeing implementation makes sense.

“If you’re a mayor, you’ve had to deal with the multiplicity of programs out there and had to figure out a way to reconcile the competing demands of different organizations and different groups,” he said. 

That Landrieu worked on significant infrastructure issues as mayor during the rebuilding of New Orleans after Katrina helps give him added credibility.

During the stimulus bill implementation, DeSeve said his job was to help Biden, who in turn worked with Cabinet officers, mayors and governors to ensure the money was being spent well. 

Biden, DeSeve said, “didn’t see himself as a czar at all. He saw himself implementing the program for the president.”

Speaking Monday at the White House, Biden cited the significance of his experience implementing the recovery act, saying it was “one of the most efficient implementations of a major program in American history.”

He said his monitoring of the programs earned him the nickname “Sheriff Joe” from Obama, and he recalled speaking to more than 160 mayors, sometimes two or three times, with county executives and with “every governor, save one.” (“Sarah Palin. We didn’t have her number,” said DeSeve, referencing the then-Alaska governor.)  

“And now, we owe it to the American people to do the same thing again,” said Biden, adding that Landrieu will have “full access to every tool the federal government has to get it done.”

“We have the high obligation and responsibility to make sure this money is used wisely and used well,” Biden said.