Biden's Infrastructure Bill Could Change Rural America's Alliance With GOP

As the 2022 midterms near and the Democratic Party looks to cling on to its slim majority in the House and Senate, President Joe Biden's $1 trillion bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, described by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer as "once-in-a-generation legislation," has been placed front and center.

Shana Gadarian, chair of the political science department at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, views the bill as a significant American achievement, telling Newsweek that it could prove so monumental that the bill may shift the perceptions rural Americans hold toward the federal government and subsequently how they take in messaging from the Republican Party.

With Republicans advocating for a position of governance that limits the scope of federal power and leaves decision-making to communities, Gadarian said their political platform benefits from limited actions being achieved at the federal level. When approaching governance, she said the GOP prefers to offer U.S. citizens incentives in a way that they often do not realize. For example, while Democrats are more likely to offer checks, Republicans are more likely to carve out tax exemptions, she said.

"When people can connect good things in their lives to government action, they are more trusting of government, they are more supportive of broader and bigger government, but they have to be able to make that connection," Gadarian said. "If you think that the government is bad and can't be trusted, then you want to say, 'Well, let's devolve power down to the states.'"

For many in America's rural heartland, the federal government has come to be viewed as a far-flung entity that favors major metropolitan areas and meddles in their lives, producing few positive results and sometimes making their situations worse.

While studies gauging the attitudes rural Americans hold toward the federal government are sparse, a 2017 poll by the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation found that 60 percent of rural Americans say that "federal efforts to improve living standards either make things worse or have little impact." It found that rural Americans showed "far more concern" over job opportunities than urban Americans, and a majority of rural Americans felt the federal government did more to help people living in city centers.

For states in the south, midwest, and mountain west that have a smaller percentage of their populations living in urban areas compared to those in the northeast and pacific west, these viewpoints play a more significant role in state politics, resulting in many state voters leaning Republican. A 2020 report published in the journal Political Behavior found the further an individual lived from an urban center, the more likely they were to identify as conservative. The report stated that the median distance Democrats live from a city of 100,000 is 12 miles, the distance for independents is 17 miles, and the distance for Republicans is 20 miles.

President Biden Signs Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill
If properly promoted, President Joe Biden's infrastructure bill could shift how rural Americans view the federal government and its role in their lives. Here, Biden talks to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Vice President Kamala Harris look on after he signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act at the White House on November 15, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Mike Arent works as a navigational lock and dam operator with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is a member of the International Federation of Professional & Technical union's Local 561 chapter. He is positioned at a dam in Gainesville, Alabama, a town of 177 people that sits along the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.

Because of the importance of America's waterways to the nation's economic functioning, Arent and other lock and dam operators worked throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. At the height of the crisis, to protect workers against the virus, Army Corps split up operator duos, leaving Arent to spend 12-hour days working alone. The days were long, lonely, and challenging, but Arent was happy to take on that challenge.

"There's a pride in what we do," he told Newsweek. "[The Army Corps of Engineers] is a very tight group and do care about what's going on with the personnel and to make sure they're always safe."

Despite the passion that Arent and his peers put into their work, many of them know things could be done smoother and more efficiently, but making those changes stands outside of their control. The median age of the nation's waterway infrastructure is 60 years old and 70 percent of them have exceeded their intended design life.

While he did not speak toward the partisan aspects of the bill, Arent said that the bill's $2.5 billion allocation toward waterways will impact his livelihood and his community for the better. He said by investing "taxpayer dollars" into projects like lock and dam restoration, rural Americans in areas like Gainesville will see real, tangible changes in their communities, changes they can see when they clock in to the jobs that so many of them take great pride in.

Gadarian echoed Arent's sentiment, noting that the infrastructure bill could prove to be the kind of "bread and butter" issue that changes how people see the federal government's role in their lives. However, she emphasized that the projects must be clearly marketed as a federal achievement in order to avoid the potential for local officials to passively take credit for it. If this is done effectively, she said rural Americans could begin to develop a warmer attitude toward both Washington and the Democratic party's platform of an active federal government.

"People in rural places really have gotten the short end of the stick for a long time with economic development because of globalization and because of the kind of general way that our economy has moved into skills-based labor centered in urban places," Gadarian said. "If the Democratic party wanted to build support in rural places, one of the things is clearly bringing jobs but also saying, like, 'these jobs come from a federal work program.'"

Biden already appears set on making sure the bill impacts the lives of rural voters. On January 14, he announced that the federal government would pick up the full cost of repairs for bridges off the interstate that he said is "essential to [business operations in] small towns, rural towns," doing away with the original stipulation that communities share in the cost.

Pennsylvania, a 2020 Presidential Election Swing State
The infrastructure bill designates funds to rebuild roads, bridges, and railways, among other things. This photo shows views of downtown Shamokin, Pennsylvania, on September 15, 2020. Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) told Newsweek that it would not allow this moment and the party's role in realizing it go unnoticed, saying that the bill would stand front and center as the DSCC looks to maintain and potentially expand Democratic leadership in the Senate.

While the bill was passed in a bipartisan fashion, with 19 Republicans signing on, a majority of GOP senators voted against the act. The DSCC said those who voted "nay" will face heat during election season for voting against the popular, bipartisan measure. Both Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson voted against the bill and will likely face questions about their decisions as Democrats focus their efforts on these two races, which analysts view as potential swing elections.

"Senate Democrats kept our promise, brought both sides together and did what Republicans would not do: Deliver a bipartisan infrastructure law that rebuilds our country, grows good millions of paying jobs and lower costs by strengthening our supply chains," Jazmin Vargas, spokesperson for the DSCC, told Newsweek.

"While Democrats are highlighting our focus on issues like infrastructure that matter to working families, Republicans will have to explain why they are standing against these popular policies—and in 2022 voters will hold every GOP Senate candidate accountable."

Adam Hersh, who's studied the economics surrounding Biden's agenda as an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, indicated that this could prove to be a winning strategy. He told Newsweek that when it comes to this piece of legislation, it's hard to find much wrong with it. Infrastructure has been needed in the United States for so long that, beyond potential temporary closures that may come during construction projects, the bill will largely be seen by Americas as a win once its effects reshape their communities, he said.

As currently written, the bill is likely to be met with little political disdain, Hersh said. Accusations of favoritism tied to funding that could disproportionately go to one state over another are already cemented into the bill based on needs. And when it comes to distribution, Hersh said "long-established" criteria on the doling out of funds should further protect against this potential issue. The needs the bill addresses are expected to differ between regions, he said, meaning the measure will likely address an area's most pertinent infrastructure needs, again shielding the bill from significant criticism.

"For so long we have under-invested in infrastructure so that now every state is in dire need of infrastructure," Hersh said. "This is constructed in such a way that when it was passed legislation it gave something for everybody to be happy about, which is why the group of Republicans came along with it."

Senator McConnell Campaigns For Re-Election In Kentucky
Rural states stand to benefit from the bill, including Kentucky which World Population Review ranks as the eighth-most rural state. Here, Kentucky Senator and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell walks to his escort vehicle during a campaign stop on October 28, 2020, in Smithfield, Kentucky. Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images

However, he hearkened back to Gadarian's point about the need for a consistent promotion strategy, noting that any political favor to be gained from the measure, particularly that which nets the federal government praise, will need to be pushed by political leaders. Joseph Kane, who specializes in the economic role of infrastructure as a fellow with the Brookings Institution, agreed with this assessment.

Kane told Newsweek that voters will need a consistent reminder that these infrastructure improvements were taken at the federal level in order for any long-term shifts in their perceptions to be achieved. He emphasized though that history has shown such efforts are possible, highlighting former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal package of policies and programs in the 1930s as a primary example.

During the rollout of the New Deal, infrastructure projects were clearly marketed as an object of federal doing through the use of plaques and insignia. This program, which history generally marks as a moment of great success, launched a period of two decades in which the presidency was under Democratic control as a prime example.

"I look back to other transformative moments for U.S. Infrastructure, like the New Deal, and think of how from an early age, even in history classes, we're taught that this was a time where the U.S. got things done," Kane said. "I think a lot of that is attributed to the federal government...And with infrastructure once again as an economic stimulus, not just for long-term, but as a foundation for long-term growth, I think that will ultimately change the perceptions [toward the federal government]."

Matt Biggs, president of the IFPTE, was adamant, like Hersh, about how significant an impact the infrastructure bill will have on both the country and the lives of his fellow members in his union.

The IFPTE represents over 90,000 workers across the United States and Canada, including dam and lock operators like Arent. He said that jobs created by the bill and the infrastructure that will remain operational because of it will have a tremendous impact on the lives of the union members and other workers they collaborate with who live in rural America.

"In this day and age, it's nice to see a bill that will impact millions and millions of people for the better pass like this," Biggs told Newsweek. However, despite his happiness with the bill being passed, he feels frustrated with how the victory has been so quickly passed over as the news media has refocused on the failure to pass the Build Back Better Act, voting rights legislation and filibuster reform. Instead of celebrating the bill as a federal achievement, both parties and much of the nation's media have moved toward the next legislative debate.

"It's disappointing when you have a bill like this passed, that's going to impact so many people at the community level, real people, real families, and it's not just going to be a one-time thing, it's sustained over years in its creation of good jobs for American workers in rural communities, the communities that need it most, and it's just kind of been lost," Biggs said.