Iowa delegates split on Biden’s infrastructure agenda

While the federal spending bills are at a standstill, some Iowa delegates of both parties agree that the infrastructure investment bill should move forward. Parties are split on the Build Back Better Act.


Rachel Wagner

A bridge is seen in Iowa City, Iowa on Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021.

Lauren White, Politics Reporter

Iowa delegates are split on support of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure legislative agenda, as negotiations on two key bills stall in Congress.

Sen. Chuck Grassley said that he hopes the progressive wing of the Democratic Party sides with the moderates who want to move ahead with the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and drop the larger social spending package.

“I think the other stuff is very expanding of government activity in our society, particularly when there’s a lot of programs that either discourage work or there’s not a work requirement with them, and they aren’t targeted towards the people that actually need it,” Grassley said of Biden’s proposed $3.5 trillion spending package.

Last month, the Senate passed the $1 trillion infrastructure bill in a 69-30 vote as a bipartisan win for the president. The yes votes included Grassley. Iowa’s junior senator, Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, voted no.

While Congress disagrees about the next step, some members of both parties agree that the infrastructure plan should be a go. However, Biden said the bill may not go forward without the passing of the larger, more controversial spending bill that includes climate action and expanses to the social safety net.

Members of the House Progressive Caucus have tied the two bills together, withholding their votes on the infrastructure bill until the House passes the larger spending bill, which the White House has dubbed the Build Back Better Act. But in the Senate, Democrats have yet to align on a figure for the package.

Biden’s original proposal called for $3.5 trillion for child care, free community college, climate change action, paid family leave, and more. Moderate Democrats Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are pushing for a lower price tag, and their votes are vital to get to the 50-vote mark needed to pass the legislation through reconciliation.

Ernst said that Iowans are still struggling to rebuild from the pandemic and that additional spending would increase the burden on their wallets.

“The last thing we need to do is saddle more taxes and more debt on the American people. This is just a massive expansion of the federal government, and I simply will not support this multi-trillion dollar reckless tax and spending spree,” Ernst said.

What’s in the infrastructure bill? 

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or H.R. 3684, is a 2,707 page bill that outlines $1.2 trillion in spending — only $550 billion of which is new. The rest of that number comes from funding normally allocated each year for highways and other infrastructure projects.

Water infrastructure, broadband, the environment, and power grids are some of the items with new money allocated to them. Bridges and roads will receive the most with $110 billion for construction, repair, and congestion relief.

Some of the price tags in the legislation include:

  • $110 billion for road and bridge improvements
  • $105 billion for railways and public transportation
  • $55 billion for water infrastructure
  • $65 billion for broadband expansion

Data visualization by Caleb McCullough

What do Iowa delegates have to say?

Rep. Cindy Axne, Iowa’s sole Democrat in D.C., said that the Build Back Better Act is not yet finished, but the framework, she said, will lead to thousands of new jobs in Iowa, cheaper prescription drugs and health care premiums, more investments in child care, education, and the environment.

Axne said that Iowans have told her about their own struggles in rural communities when they don’t have the necessary broadband, and farmers have said that they want cleaner agricultural practices. Broadband and climate change are both issues that are being looked into with the infrastructure plan.

“Iowa farmers and producers have told me how they see the effects of climate change up close and want to see clean-burning biofuels be a part of the clean energy agenda that takes us away from fossil fuels,” Axne said.

The House has yet to vote on the infrastructure bill, but Axne said that she is willing and ready to vote for it.

“It will bring big investments back to Iowa, including millions to help expand rural broadband coverage,” Axne said.

Rep. Randy Feenstra, who represents Iowa’s 4th District, said an extreme hike, like $3 trillion, in government spending would hit everyone while Iowans are already struggling.

“That $3.5 trillion spending bill. I’m telling you, this is scary stuff people,” Feenstra said at Rep. Ashley Hinson’s BBQ in Linn County on Aug. 28.

In a visit to an Air National Guard operation on Friday, Feenstra said he was unsure of the feasibility of the infrastructure package, Siouxland News reported.

“Infrastructure is an asset but there needs to be a way to pay for it,” he told the Sioux City TV station. “That’s the thing that never gets talked about and that’s the thing that I get so passionate about, being a fiscal hawk and saying we want infrastructure but we need to pay for it. We can’t just throw it on the backs of my children and the generations to come.”

Iowa’s 2nd District Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks said she hoped Congress would focus on infrastructure alone. The bill, she said, will help Iowans with things like waterways, bridges, dams, and airports.

“Concentrating on those things as infrastructure, and then coming together as both parties to figure out how we fund them, and what we need to do about our funding,” Miller-Meeks said.

Miller-Meeks is prepared to vote for the infrastructure plan, but — as for the larger spending bill — she is concerned that it would put the country in economic jeopardy.

“When you’re chasing too much, you have inflation. We’ve already seen inflation … People aren’t feeling the effect of having an increase in their salary, because it’s costing them more to buy food,” Miller-Meeks said.

Hinson said on Iowa Press in September that she is not in support of the infrastructure bill as it stands in the House. She said her constituents want targeted infrastructure to help their communities, and the infrastructure bill as it is does not prioritize the things it should. About 11 percent of the bill is dedicated to roads and bridges.

“The way I see the bill as it’s written right now, it’s more than 2,000 pages long. I don’t think there’s enough in there for actual roads and bridges, which we know is crucial to Iowa,” she said.

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Explaining the spending bills

Marc Goldwein, the Vice President and Senior Policy Director for The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said that the infrastructure is an investment in the country through both investing in people as well as physical infrastructure.

Physical investments can include improving roads or replacing lead pipes, while investing in people may mean universal or means-based preschool and climate change funding, Goldwein said.

“I think that the best thing about this package is that it is focused on the kinds of investments that would bring returns in the future,” Goldwein said.

Goldwein said the House needs to find the common denominators in their spending priorities. These are areas that have the highest support and the highest return.

“They have a lot of things they want to do in a large package, but the package is not as large as their ambitions, so they need to figure out how to size this thing right,” Goldwein said.

What about the reconciliation bill? 

Reconciliation simplifies the voting process by requiring a simple majority to pass a bill in the Senate, rather than needing 60 votes.

The Democrats used this tool in March to pass the American Rescue Act to provide relief during the pandemic.

The reconciliation bill, Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, is much larger and far reaching.

Goldwein said members of Congress still don’t know exactly what’s going to be in it because they have $6 trillion worth they want to accomplish with that package, which looks like it will be closer to $2 trillion.

“So, it’s not clear which things are going to be in, which things are going to be out, and which things are modified,” Goldwein said.

Another question Congress is wrestling with right now, Goldwein said, is how to pay for the bill. They have an idea for increasing taxes on corporations and those who make more than $400,000 a year.

Until these decisions are made, the Build Back Better agenda may continue to be at a standstill.