As construction and engineering experts study proposals and plans outlined by President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, they are encouraged by their strong support for increased investment in infrastructure, a long-desired but elusive goal for the industry. But the shape and scope of an infrastructure bill, or any other major legislation, will depend on Congress—and whether Republicans retain control of the U.S. Senate.
At ENR press time, court challenges from President Trump were in the works over the outcomes of presidential races in several states in which Biden and Harris were declared the winners.
Many industry lobbyists and executives are trying to analyze and forecast the impact of a Biden presidency. Policy priorities outlined by the ticket include a national approach to fighting COVID-19, boosting U.S. economic recovery, reversing the Trump stance on climate change, as well as pulling back from his policies on immigration restrictions and border wall construction.
The president-elect would have the U.S. rejoin the Paris climate agreement. Environmental groups and others also expect him to take action to roll back Trump executive orders that eased environmental requirements. That could include rules dealing with the National Environmental Policy Act, the scope of federal jurisdiction over work near certain bodies of water and clean air emissions.
Also in the cross-hairs could be a Trump order, set to take effect in late November, which mandates ideological language in sex-based and race-based diversity training programs used by federal agencies, and contractors.
Linda Bauer Darr, the American Council of Engineering Companies’ president and CEO. says it remains to be seen whether Biden takes a broad approach to regulations and undos the reversals of the Trump administration or instead “is the peacemaker, the compromiser, the negotiator.”
Biden, who had the backing of the building trades and other unions, also is expected to take a stance much more favorable to organized labor. That could manifest itself in new executive orders.
But regarding legislation, the fate of the new administration’s plans depends on which party has the Senate majority.
That in turn hinges on the outcomes of two January runoff elections, both in Georgia. If GOP candidates win at least one of those contests, their party will have a slender Senate majority. While the margin would be only one or two votes, it would be enough for the GOP to block at least some Biden-backed bills advanced by House Democrats. That party will remain in control of the House in the new Congress, despite losing several seats on Nov. 3.
An open question is whether Biden will be able to convince any Senate Republicans to side with him on particular votes.
For engineering and construction groups, infrastructure proposals are a prime focus. Biden has proposed a wide-ranging infrastructure plan that includes funds for highways, “green spaces,” water systems, the electricity grid and broadband.
The plan also seeks to upgrade 4 million buildings, weatherize 2 million homes, shift more toward clean energy sources and generate “millions of good, union jobs,” according to a campaign statement. The statement also says the plan would cost $2 trillion, but some of that would go to bolster the auto industry. It didn’t specify how much each infrastructure sector would receive.
Jimmy Christianson, Associated General Contractors of America vice president for government relations, says a Biden infrastructure bill is likely to be similar to the Moving Forward Act, which the House passed in July. That bill provides $1.5 trillion for infrastructure, including $494 billion over five years for highways, transit and rail programs.
But Sean O’Neill, Portland Cement Association senior vice president for government affairs, says if Republicans keep control of the Senate, getting a sweeping infrastructure package that covers transportation and non-transportation sectors through Congress will be “a long shot.”
A lighter lift, he suggests, would be a long-term highway-transit reauthorization bill, which industry hopes also would include provisions to restore the financially struggling Highway Trust Fund to solvency. O’Neill says that such a measure can pass, even in a divided Congress.
One point in favor of a highway-transit measure is that it faces a deadline in 2021. When the last surface transportation measure expired Sept. 30, Congress failed to approve a multiyear successor. Instead, it cleared a one-year extension, which expires Sept. 30, 2021.
Jay Hansen, National Asphalt Pavement Association executive vice president for advocacy, says, “I think President-elect Biden is very pragmatic.” If Republicans hold the Senate, “It’s divided government,” Hansen says, which means on transportation, compromises will be necessary, as with other legislation. He adds, “And I think Biden can steer this thing down the middle.”