Will MAGA Republicans block Baltimore bridge rebuilding?

Shortly after a massive container ship struck Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge, bringing it down, President Joe Biden promised that the federal government would “pay the entire cost of rebuilding” the bridge. This would clearly be the right thing to do, not only to help the state of Maryland, but also to limit the economic damage from a disaster that has blocked both a major highway and a major port. Among other things, the Port of Baltimore plays a key role in both coal exports and the trade of agricultural and construction equipment, so the bridge disaster will have direct negative effects on the heartland as well as on the East coast.

And if America were still the same country that enacted the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 – passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress and signed into law by a Republican president – ​​that gave birth to our interstate system, it makes no doubt that Congress would approve the funding soon after returning from the Easter break.

But we are no longer that country. Biden will likely be able to secure funding for reconstruction, but that is by no means a sure thing.

Lessons from Minnesota

The rise of MAGA Republicans is only part of the problem. I’ve seen several people cite the reaction to the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minnesota in 2007 as an example of what things were like in better political times. Indeed, a few days later, Congress unanimously voted for $250 million in aid.

But it was an isolated case. The Minnesota bridge collapse highlighted the state of disrepair of America’s infrastructure, and one might have expected the disaster to lead to concrete action, but that is not the case. President Barack Obama pleaded with Congress to approve broad increases in infrastructure spending and was able to sign a highway funding bill in 2015, but it was largely blocked by opposition from the Republican Party. As president, Donald Trump repeatedly promised to overhaul America’s infrastructure – “it’s infrastructure week” became a running joke – but never delivered on his promises.

Major action on infrastructure didn’t come until late 2021 with the enactment of the bipartisan Infrastructure Act – which, despite its name, received just 13 Republican votes in the House. And that was with the Democrats in total control of Congress. It’s not crazy to worry that MAGA hardliners will block aid to Maryland the same way they blocked aid to Ukraine.

But again, MAGA is only part of the problem. Let’s talk for a moment about why it took 14 years after the Minnesota Bridge collapsed for us to finally take major action on infrastructure.

Part of the answer is extreme partisanship, which took hold long before Trump took control of the Republican Party. It was clear throughout most of the Obama years that Republicans wanted to prevent good things from happening under a Democratic president. Under Obama, Republican lawmakers cut federal spending after taking control of the House, ostensibly because they were worried about the national debt, only to turn on the spigots once Trump took office.

There was also an element of reflexive opposition to public spending in general, no matter how obvious. Mitch McConnell, as Senate Majority Leader, did little to oppose Trump – but he did rein in infrastructure spending.

Finally, to the extent that Trump had anything resembling an infrastructure plan, it was very, well, Trumpian. Even before he took office, I predicted that he wouldn’t do much to build infrastructure, because he and his associates were clearly not interested in developing a clean plan for government investments. Instead, they launched a backdoor scheme involving tax credits that would not have generated significant new investment but likely would have provided enormous opportunities for cronyism and corruption.

Caught in the culture wars

The history here is reason enough to be concerned about rebuilding in Baltimore, even if the bridge collapse was not embroiled in culture war politics. But of course it is.

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