In a small room inside the U.S. Capitol, Sen. Bernie Sanders today was trying to marshal support for a $1 trillion infrastructure investment bill he formally introduced today, discussing the consequences of not spending money on our roads, public transportation, water systems and other public assets.
Just outside the nation's capital, those consequences were becoming all too vivid for residents of a working-class neighborhood.
A 90-year-old water main, well beyond its expected life span, broke in the town of Bladensburg, Md. early this morning. According to WRC-TV, a family whose home was being flooded by the broken water main sought to escape in their car, only to have the car swallowed up by a sinkhole just as they were about to leave. Miraculously, the family managed to escape without injury.
Earlier this month, New Jersey transportation officials have had to close two bridges because they had deteriorated to the point that they were unsafe. And New Jersey Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox warned that more bridges in the state could be closed; 500 of the state's bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
Stories like this appear all over the country with increasing frequency, underscoring how our fraying infrastructure networks are succumbing to the ravages of age, too much demand and too little spent on maintenance.
It's the reason Sanders (I-Vt.) is calling for a grassroots effort to push his infrastructure investment bill, which he said would create at least 13 million good jobs over the next five years if it passes the Senate.
Urging calls to both the House and Senate during a brief meeting with reporters, Sanders said, "The American people have to demand that they act, and act now."
The bill that authorizes federal spending for the nation's surface transportation network expires this spring, and committees in both the House and Senate are slowly gearing up their proposals. But what has dominated the conversation so far is the gathering momentum for a proposal to pay for any increases in transportation spending by enticing multinational corporations that have stashed profits overseas to avoid U.S. taxes to bring that money back into the U.S. at a deeply discounted tax rate, far less than the tax rate working people pay on their wages.
Sanders won't support such a plan. "My own view is that when corporations stash their money in the Cayman Islands to avoid paying their fair share of taxes, they should pay them," he said. A repatriation tax holiday to persuade multinationals to bring profits back into the U.S. would only give corporations an incentive to continue to stash profits overseas in anticipation of the next tax holiday, he said. "I think there are better ways to do it."
Sanders' bill would over five years invest $735 billion to repair road and public transit networks, provide an additional $15 billion a year for passenger and freight rail, $2.5 billion more a year for airport improvement projects and $145 billion in water infrastructure projects, plus additional funding for national parks, waterways, and broadband and electrical grid improvements.
Sanders did not include a specific proposal for funding the plan in the bill, but he did make clear one principle he believed should guide the funding debate. "At a time when we have massive wealth and income inequality – since the Wall Street crash 95 percent of all new income of this country goes to the top 1 percent, and when hedge fund managers in this country paying a lower effective tax rate than firemen and nurses, I think there are progressive ways to raise money." Sanders said.
"What I wanted to do was focus on the need to build the infrastructure, not to start the debate right away on how to fund it," he said. "We'll have a debate on how to fund it in the weeks and months to come."
That is a debate that should not be left in the hands of Republican congressional leaders and the corporate lobbyists who pull their strings. It needs to be driven by people like the families who are displaced by that water main break in Bladensburg, who are suffering the devastating effects of an ideology that prioritizes tax cuts for the wealthy over caring for the essential public assets on which we all depend.