The Political Problem with Federal Investment in Infrastructure

A comprehensive and timely study, Pork Barrel Politics traces the history of distributive spending in Congress and its relation to Congressional elections at the primary and general election stages. Sidman finds that the effects of distributive benefits vary across parties, and can include significant indirect effects by deterring potential party primary challengers.

~ Gregory Koger, University of Miami 

Building new and modernized infrastructure is a issue that almost all legislators, regardless of party lines, are in favor of, yet little progress has been made. In today’s guest blog post, Andrew H. Sidman, author of Pork Barrel Politics: How Government Spending Determines Election in a Polarized Eradiscusses the role elections and pork barrel spending have in blocking infrastructure development.

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Despite over $4 trillion in spending last year, federal investment in new infrastructure seems a far-off dream. In the early months of Donald Trump’s presidency, infrastructure was thought by some to be an issue on which the president could spur bipartisan cooperation, so rare in our body politic today. Such hopes, however, have dwindled as the president’s campaign promise to spend $1 trillion on new infrastructure has gone unfulfilled.

As Congress marches toward impeachment, the recent agreement between the president and Democratic leaders on infrastructure spending has faded to a distant memory. Both in the popular consciousness and in the academic literature, these projects were thought to be the kind of government action that all legislators could support; the projects that provide legislators tangible benefits for their constituents. In this era of hyper polarization, however, the failure so far to achieve broad compromise on infrastructure investment should not be surprising.

As Congress marches toward impeachment, the recent agreement between the president and Democratic leaders on infrastructure spending has faded to a distant memory.

In my new book, Pork Barrel Politics: How Government Spending Determines Election in a Polarized Era, I analyze the role of pork barrel spending, of which infrastructure spending is a part, under the ebb and flow of political polarization. Infrastructure spending, which is easily targeted to specific locations, is the original pork barrel. Nearly two hundred years ago, such projects were called internal improvements and they were focused primarily on rivers and harbors. Many projects were packaged into omnibus legislation and “pork barreling,” as the process would be derided in the future, was born.

The lore that infrastructure or public works spending is something that all legislators desire first developed in an era of low polarization. These considerations, however, of how this and other pork barrel projects matter to elections mask the reality of how political and contentious this spending can be.

Political polarization is the catalyst that makes infrastructure spending, the pork barrel generally, and nearly every other issue, take on heightened ideological sensitivity. When the public is polarized, even issues that barely registered before become ripe for partisan division. The pork barrel is part of government spending, which is an issue over which we have perennially divided ideologically. Yet, it is only when polarization is high that people link the spending occurring where they live to their broader attitudes on spending. And it is when polarization is high that we see robust effects of the pork barrel on elections.

When the public is polarized, even issues that barely registered before become ripe for partisan division.

Conservatives, the primary constituency of the Republican Party, oppose this spending. Liberals, the primary constituency of the Democratic Party, support it. The link between pork and electoral fortunes, however, is more complex for Republicans. While ideologues in the mass public will reward or blame legislators of both parties, it is Republican incumbents and not Democrats that are more likely to be challenged in primary elections. Republicans who pork barrel face general election challengers that are better funded. It is Republicans who completely lose the ability to use pork to deter experienced politicians from challenging them. Flowing through all of these effects, pork barreling can be very costly for Republican incumbents during periods of high polarization.

All of this implies that Republican members of Congress will not have much of an appetite for infrastructure spending. Arguably, the best chance President Trump and congressional Republicans had to fulfill the president’s campaign promise and pass a bill with which the party would be satisfied was in the president’s first two years. Republicans prioritized tax legislation and, in the Senate, staffing the courts, but there was barely any consideration of new infrastructure spending.

In this polarized environment, with elites and the public turning nearly every issue into an ideological battleground, classical spending on public works will continue to be divisive along predictable partisan lines.

That sentiment has not changed. Larry Kudlow, the Director of the National Economic Council, recently embodied conservative thought on this issue in a speech to the North American Infrastructure Leadership Forum. Mr. Kudlow essentially told attendees that the president will loosen regulations, but not to expect any federal investment in infrastructure. That conservatives, like Mr. Kudlow, feel this way should not come as a surprise.

In this polarized environment, with elites and the public turning nearly every issue into an ideological battleground, classical spending on public works will continue to be divisive along predictable partisan lines. Republican legislators, despite the country’s desperate need to modernize our aging infrastructure, support these projects at their own electoral risk. Recent history and my research suggest that it is a risk they are not willing to take.


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