Today, millions of people on the East Coast begin the process of rebuilding their cities, roads, bridges, and subways while others learn to deal with the possibility of being without electricity for up to two weeks in the aftermath of Sandy’s devastation. Analysts are estimating that the economy will be hit with a bill between $20 and $30 billion thanks to the hurricane and our nation’s infrastructure is being pushed to its limits as people begin to get back to work.
Meanwhile, at the height of the 2012 President election, in four debates between the campaigns, not one policy proposal has been said about the two major determinants of Sandy’s widespread destruction: climate change and inadequate infrastructure spending. Sparsely mentioned with empty platitudes and vague generalities, the conversation will no doubt turn to these ideas in the last days of the campaign. And it’s important to step back and look at where the two parties stand on these issues of critical importance.
Exactly one year ago, the United States Senate sent a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) to the Republican controlled House of Representatives. The plan, pioneered by the Obama Administration, was to provide seed capital of $10 billion to spur on public-private partnerships to build wireless Internet, roads, bridges, water systems and power grids capitalized at an estimated $640 billion over the next 10 years, while limiting public funds to below 50% of any project they invest in.
Flanked by the presidents of the AFL-CIO (“big labor”) and the Chamber of Commerce (“big business”), an odd combination if ever there were one, Senators Kerry and Hutchinson proudly proclaimed that their bill would save hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending for infrastructure spending in the future and cut the deficit significantly by making improvements now instead of replacing everything in the future. The bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission, the conservative Heritage Foundation and progressive Center for American Progress as well as almost every economist on both sides of the political spectrum heavily supported the idea.
This came after hundreds of new reports were released regarding the crippling infrastructure facing the American people, one claiming that one in four of all bridges in the United States were inadequate or structurally deficient and another claiming that the cost of replacing America’s crumbling water infrastructure would add $250 Billion to the deficit unless addressed immediately. And instead of relying on federal spending or state/local municipal bonds, the Obama Administration proposed building a low-cost way of financing the infrastructure that our nation desperately needs.
The bill promptly died in the House. It was “dead on arrival” according to John Mica, Republican Chairman of the House Transportation Committee, who effectively killed the bill while fundamentally stalling America’s hope for a modern infrastructure by not even offering an alternative.
Several months later, Republican leadership attempted to force through one of the most anti-environmental bills in American history. H.R. 3409 passed the House with every Republican Congressional Representative voting for it, blocking all attempts to stop carbon pollution, eliminating the EPA’s support for clean cars, destroying all regulations on mercury and toxic air standards, rolling back the Clean Water Act, and eliminating penalties for coal pollution. Luckily, the Democratically controlled Senate never passed the horrendous bill, but it shows where the Republicans really stand on environmental standards.
The next couple of months will no doubt be defined by a deluge of new reports on climate change and calls for rebuilding infrastructure in America’s largest city, New York City, thanks to Hurricane Sandy. Ironically, Hurricane Sandy in all its damage and destruction has done more to change the conversation and move policy forward than any presidential candidate, congressional leader, or agency head.
While the damage is truly devastating, the images being broadcasted around the world are absolutely embarrassing for the richest and most powerful nation on earth as millions live without power for days. If there’s any bright forecast for the destruction it is that the process of reconstruction will hopefully begin a new era of infrastructure, reflective of the changing environment, and provide a wake up call to everyone that the impact of climate change is closer than we think.
As FEMA and first responders work around the clock to ensure the safety of Americans up and down the East Coast, perhaps instead of demonizing FEMA’s inadequacy (under their own President’s response to Katrina), the GOP and Mitt Romney would do well to come back to reality and look at the actual problems that are facing this country.