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• About 6% of the Biden proposal would pay for roads, bridges, and highways. But those aren’t the only types of public works that have traditionally qualified as “infrastructure.”
• Cheney’s narrow definition excludes items in Biden’s proposal such as public transit, rail, airports, ports, waterways, the electrical grid, drinking water systems, and broadband.
• Cheney’s narrow definition also contradicts her repeated use of the word “infrastructure” in relation to past bills that cover a wide range of matters beyond roads, bridges and highways.
As President Joe Biden seeks to win congressional support for his American Jobs Plan, Democrats and Republicans have been attacking each other over how they define the key element of the proposal: infrastructure.
The third-ranking House Republican, Liz Cheney of Wyoming, appeared on CBS’s "Face the Nation" and argued that just a tiny fraction of Biden’s proposal consists of "infrastructure."
During the April 11 edition of the show, host Margaret Brennan reminded Cheney that in 2017, she supported President Donald Trump's infrastructure proposal. "Nothing ever came of that, of course," Brennan said. "But you liked the concept. Why are you opposed to it now?"
Cheney responded, "Well, it's a very different proposal, obviously. Something less than 6%, as you mentioned, of this proposal that President Biden has put forward is actually focused on infrastructure."
We didn’t see where Brennan "mentioned" the 6% figure earlier in the interview, but Cheney’s statement caught our eye, because other Republicans have cited a similar figure, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.
The difference is that McConnell, McCarthy and Scott specified that the 6% figure referred to spending on roads, bridges and highways. They were correct: Biden’s proposal calls for spending roughly that much on roads, bridges and highways.
Cheney, on the other hand, used the broader term "infrastructure," a word that would seem to encompass other provisions in the proposal, from railways and waterways to airports and the electric grid.
We checked with Cheney’s office to see whether she had misspoken. In a statement to PolitiFact, they said she had not.
"Roads, bridges, and highways are what constitutes 'infrastructure,'" the statement said. It continued, "When taken at what infrastructure is supposed to mean — rebuilding or investing in improvements for roads, bridges, and highways — under 6% of the Biden outline goes towards 'infrastructure.'"
However, outside experts questioned that narrow interpretation.
"That’s not my definition," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the right-of-center American Action Forum. "Mine is broader than hers."
A BNSF Railway train hauling carloads of coal from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming, seen east of Hardin, Mont., on July 15, 2020. (AP)
It’s clear that some elements of Biden’s proposal do not fit a traditional definition of infrastructure, such as $400 billion devoted to expanding access to long-term, home and community-based care under Medicaid.
Supporters have defended such categorizations. On ABC’s "This Week," Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said the definition of infrastructure "evolves to meet the American people's aspirations."
But some experts see the administration as stretching the definition too far.
"Much of what the president is calling ‘infrastructure’ consists of exercises in industrial policy," said James E. Moore II, director of the Transportation Engineering Program at the University of Southern California. Economists consider infrastructure spending to be "money that generates a return, while industrial policy tends to be a losing proposition. The administration has picked a label for its spending plan that it hopes will deflect criticism."
Some other elements of the plan fall into a gray area, arguably fitting under some definitions of infrastructure. These include $590 billion for research and development and domestic manufacturing; $400 billion in clean energy tax credits; and $328 billion for capital investments in housing, schools, child care centers, veterans’ hospitals and other federal buildings.
But other provisions would fall under the traditional umbrella of infrastructure, beyond the $115 billion for roads, bridges, and highways.
Here’s a list, drawn from to an analysis of the proposal by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget:
Public transit: $85 billion
Passenger and freight rail: $80 billion
Airports: $25 billion
Ports and waterways: $17 billion
Protecting critical infrastructure and increasing resilience of land and water resources: $50 billion
High-speed Internet: $100 billion
Power infrastructure: $100 billion
Drinking water supply system upgrades: $111 billion
These elements total $683 billion, which works out to about 26% of the $2.65 trillion proposal. That’s more than four times the 6% Cheney considers to be infrastructure.
The categories totaling $683 billion are "not only infrastructure but critical infrastructure," said Robert Greer, an associate professor in public service and administration at the Texas A&M University Bush School of Government and Public Service. "As a Texan, we are acutely aware of energy system modernization issues given the recent rolling blackouts."
Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, agreed.
"There is no reason to exclude traditional infrastructure categories — transportation, water resources, energy, and telecommunications — when assessing the American Jobs Plan," Tomer said. "For decades, and in some case centuries, the federal government has supported direct investment in these physical capital systems and related policies like workforce development and planning grants."
When we asked the American Water Works Association what they thought of Cheney excluding their industry from her definition of "infrastructure," legislative director Tommy Holmes said, "I have often heard ‘roads and bridges’ being used as shorthand for all infrastructure, but I have never been in a serious discussion of the nation’s infrastructure that did not include the nation’s drinking water and wastewater systems."
Heat comes off the pavement near high-tension electrical lines in Los Angeles on Aug. 15, 2020. (AP)
Cheney’s statement on "Face the Nation" is especially striking since she has a paper trail of defining "infrastructure’ more broadly. Here’s what she’s included in her discussion of infrastructure in the recent past:
Railways and waterways: In September 2020, Cheney announced her support for the Building U.S Infrastructure through Limited Delays & Efficient Reviews Act, which would overhaul the review process for big projects under the National Environmental Policy Act. "For too long, vital improvements to our roads, bridges, railways and waterways have stalled due to NEPA’s outdated guidelines," Cheney said. Cheney also co-sponsored the Critical Infrastructure Act of 2019, which addressed regulation of water infrastructure.
Rural broadband: Cheney applauded the Federal Communications Commission’s February 2020 authorization of money to expand rural broadband in Wyoming. "We need to continue prioritizing this crucial infrastructure," she wrote. She also released a statement in 2018 that supported the Farm Bill, touting rural broadband as one of the bill’s "important investments in infrastructure."
Water supply: In 2019, Cheney announced that she was co-sponsoring the Water Quality Certification Improvement Act, which, according to a news release, would clarify "the permitting process for pipelines and other infrastructure projects." And in a September 2017 newsletter for constituents, Cheney noted House passage of the Water Resources Development Act, which aided "water infrastructure" such as the Fontenelle Reservoir in her home state.
Transit and the energy grid: Cheney co-sponsored the Transit Infrastructure Vehicle Security Act, which bars transit rail-car purchases from certain countries, and the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act, which defined the "energy infrastructure of the United States" as including "pipelines, refining capacity, electrical power generation and transmission, and renewable energy production."
In other words, just in the past few years, Cheney has either co-sponsored or touted her support for bills that defined infrastructure as encompassing railways, waterways, broadband, water distribution and the energy supply, including renewable energy.
Biden’s proposal includes all of those elements, but Cheney ignored them in her latest definition of infrastructure.
"Cheney was making a very legitimate criticism," Moore said. "It is unfortunate she exaggerated her case."
Cheney said, "Something less than 6% ... of this proposal that President Biden has put forward is actually focused on infrastructure."
The figure she cited applies to spending on roads, bridges and highways, but excludes items in Biden’s proposal that experts say are widely considered to be infrastructure, including public transit, rail, airports, ports, waterways, the electrical grid, drinking water systems and broadband.
Moreover, her narrow definition of infrastructure contradicts her own repeated use of the word "infrastructure" in relation to bills that cover a wide range of matters beyond roads, bridges and highways.
We rate the statement Pants on Fire.
Liz Cheney, interview on CBS’s "Face the Nation," April 11, 2021
Mitch McConnell, tweet, March 31, 2021
Kevin McCarthy, tweet, April 1, 2021
Tim Scott, tweet, April 5, 2021
Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, "What's in President Biden's American Jobs Plan?" April 2, 2021
House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, "Jurisdiction and Rules," accessed April 13, 2021
Office of Liz Cheney, "Cheney Co-Sponsors Legislation To Support Coal By Expanding Carbon Capture Technology," March 17, 2021
House Committee on Natural Resources, "House Republican Leaders Introduce Bill to Modernize Infrastructure Project Reviews, Cut Costs & Help Rebuild America," Sept. 22, 2020
David McKinley, "McKinley Introduces Legislation to Advance Energy Infrastructure Projects," April 10, 2019
Liz Cheney, "Congresswoman Liz Cheney Supports Farm Bill, Votes to Protect Wyoming Ranchers," Dec. 12, 2018
Bureau of Reclamation, "Bureau of Reclamation announces path forward for expanded operational capacity at Fontenelle Reservoir," May 24, 2018
Congress.gov, Critical Infrastructure Act of 2019, accessed April 13, 2021
Congress.gov, Transit Infrastructure Vehicle Security Act, accessed April 13, 2021
Congress.gov, National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act, April 13, 2021
The Hill, "Energy secretary: 'We don't want to use past definitions of infrastructure,'" April 11, 2021
Washington Post Fact Checker, "The GOP claim that only 5 to 7 percent of Biden’s plan is for ‘real infrastructure,'" April 5, 2021
Email interview with Tommy Holmes, legislative director for the American Water Works Association, April 12, 2021
Email interview with Sanya Carley, professor at Indiana University's Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, April 13, 2021
Email interview with Adie Tomer, fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, April 13, 2021
Email interview with Robert Greer, associate professor in public service and administration at the Texas A&M University Bush School of Government and Public Service, April 13, 2021
Email interview with James E. Moore II, director of the Transportation Engineering Program at the University of Southern California, April 12, 2021
Interview with Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, April 13, 2021
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