Fact check: Claims a poor foundation for infrastructure talks

Comparisons of Biden’s and the GOP’s plans haven’t accurately reflected what’s included in each.

By Glenn Kessler and Salvador Rizzo / The Washington Post

Democrats and Republicans in Washington often do not speak the same language anymore. Just as there are “red” and “blue” states, there are “red” and “blue” versions of infrastructure proposals. Democrats have an expansive view of infrastructure, including such things as home-care services, that Republicans deride as not “real” infrastructure, such as roads and bridges. Meanwhile, Democrats want to add spending on top of existing appropriations, while Republicans include existing spending in their numbers, which make their budget proposals look bigger.

Yet all too often, reporters act as if the two sides are speaking the same language. That makes it seem as though the two sides are actually close to being on the same negotiating page; when in fact they are not.

We’ve fact-checked these things before, but it’s time for a refresher course!

What each would spend

“I actually believe there’s a deal to be had if we leave things out like the Green New Deal, and recyclable cafeteria trays and climate justice, because $500 billion to $600 billion of infrastructure is a massive amount of infrastructure.”

— Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., in an interview on ABC News’s “This Week,” May 2

“We’re open to doing a roughly $600 billion package.”

— Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., remarks to reporters, May 3

President Joe Biden says he has proposed spending $2.25 trillion on infrastructure. Senate Republicans say they have countered with a $568 billion, five-year plan. When you take out the stuff that Republicans claim is not “real” infrastructure and just compare the same line items, such as roads, bridges and airports, over the same time period, Biden’s proposal is $785 billion, by Democrats’ math.

That sounds like the two sides are really close, right? Nope.

In reality, the GOP spending number is less than a quarter of the size of Biden’s plan — $189 billion versus $785 billion — and that’s not counting the other stuff that Biden considers infrastructure.

That’s because for every line item but broadband, the Senate GOP is counting existing spending as part of its offer. So there is not significant new spending in the GOP counteroffer. Biden’s numbers, by contrast, do not include existing spending.

A good example is roads and bridges. Biden says he wants to spend $115 billion, and Republican senators say they want to spend $299 billion. Some reporters have made the mistake of writing that the GOP wants to spend more than Biden on roads and bridges. But Biden is not counting $260 billion in existing spending over the next five years, while the GOP is including such spending.

So the real comparison is:

Biden: $115 billion for roads and bridges, or a 44 percent increase

Senate GOP: $39 billion, a 15 percent increase.

The difference is especially stark on public transit. Without adjusting the numbers to account for existing spending, it looks as if Biden is proposing an $85 billion increase, while the GOP has countered with $61 billion. But Biden’s number is 125 percent higher than existing spending; and the GOP proposal actually is a 10 percent cut.

On broadband, the one line item that is all new spending in the Senate GOP plan, the party would spend $65 billion and Biden has proposed $100 billion.

Spokespeople for Barrasso and McConnell confirmed the $568 billion figure used by Republicans includes existing spending.

“It includes baseline funding with additional spending for broadband,” said Laura Mengelkamp, Barrasso’s deputy communications director.

“He’s referring to the Capito plan,” said McConnell spokesman David Popp, referring to Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who has said the numbers represented “baseline-plus.”

We’ve examined this issue, with appropriate caveats, in this article. Senate Republicans are perfectly clear about what they are talking about. But not enough reporters are translating the numbers so they can be properly compared.

The 5 percent claim

“The president’s plan is not an infrastructure plan. Only 5 percent of it goes to infrastructure.”

— Sen. John Neely Kennedy, R-La., in an interview on “Fox & Friends,” May 3, 2021

Some Republicans keep repeating this Three-Pinocchio talking point, which seriously distorts Biden’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure spending proposal.

Granted, the Biden plan includes large expenses such as $400 billion to expand home-care services under Medicaid and more than $100 billion in electric vehicle incentives and purchases, among many other items that do not fit the traditional definition of public infrastructure as concrete-and-steel structures for transportation, and wires and pipes for utilities.

But Kennedy’s “5 percent” talking point does a disservice to anyone seeking a neutral breakdown of the $2.25 trillion spending plan.

For example, looking only at concrete-and-steel structures for transportation, and wires and pipes for utilities, the combined spending would be $548 billion, or 24 percent of the $2.25 trillion pie in Biden’s proposal.

Here we are counting roads and bridges ($115 billion), passenger and freight rail ($80 billion), airports ($25 billion), waterways and ports ($17 billion), high-speed broadband ($100 billion), electric-grid and clean-energy investments ($100 billion), water systems ($66 billion), and eliminating lead pipes, which can be poisonous ($45 billion).

Kennedy’s staff did not respond to a request for comment. He is not listed as one of the sponsors of the GOP counterproposal, which includes many of those same categories.

The bottom line is that to get to “5 percent,” you would need to ignore investments Biden has proposed in railways or water systems or other categories that are universally recognized as infrastructure; including by Republicans who have signaled they want to negotiate with Biden.

Salvador Rizzo is a reporter for The Fact Checker. He previously covered New Jersey politics and Gov. Chris Christie, with stints at the Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record and the New York Observer.

Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. Send him statements to fact check @GlennKesslerWP.

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