Is this moving America forward?
Illustration Credit: Alyssa Osben

As the virus continues its rampage through the US, upending the economy and throwing the re-election of the President into jeopardy, a stimulus package of some kind was to be expected. The Moving America Forward Act, an $1.5 trillion amalgamation of several infrastructure projects is expected by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to pass the House before the 4th July recess. This bill has been lauded as the green stimulus package that the US has been crying out for, but it is not clear that the White House will agree to its sweeping proposals. It makes extensive spending commitments that there is not necessarily the appetite for, especially after the earlier measures to protect the economy during the pandemic.

The pandemic has put the economy ‘on pause’, but this is an unhelpful euphemism. Shops and businesses were forced to close, workers did not have jobs to go to but still needed to eat, and real GDP contracted 11% in the second quarter. This pandemic has ended the longest expansion since World War II: 19.5 million people are currently unemployed in the US. Figures suggest that roughly 44 million people have been forced to seek unemployment aid during the pandemic. The economy is not ‘on pause’, it is in a downward spiral: the US is faltering.

The bill proposes investing heavily in infrastructure projects, which will boost the recovery of GDP to pre-pandemic levels. This includes tripling funding for Amtrak to $29 billion as well as targeting $130 billion at ‘high-poverty schools with facilities that endanger the health and safety of students’. It also promises $100 billion for high-speed internet access to all parts of the country, and seeks to protect access to clean water and further efforts to reduce the reliance on polluting sources of energy.

What makes this project different is its focus on sustainable solutions

Whereas previous attempts to protect the economy have focused on mitigating the impact of the crisis itself, this bill seeks to ensure a quick recovery. An infrastructure project creates jobs and invests in communities, increasing confidence as well as providing better facilities for citizens. What makes this project different is its focus on sustainable solutions; will this mark a significant shift in the policy focus of the Democratic Party?

If this bill reads suspiciously like a ‘Green New Deal’, championed by progressives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, then that is probably because it contains many of the core ideas of the progressives’ proposal. Call backs to FDR’s New Deal are the hallmark of campaigns for such a programme of investment, especially in the wake of a financial crisis – the Democrats are reminding voters that it was their party that rescued the economy from the Great Depression.  

However, despite the ‘Moving America Forward’ Bill promising $1.5 trillion to ‘support American manufacturing and ingenuity on a path toward zero carbon emissions’, it is not being branded as a Green New Deal. Moderate Democrats, while taking on some of the ideas proposed by the progressive wing of their party, are also distancing themselves from the ‘socialists’, who will scare off swing voters in the fall. The language of the bill seems to appeal directly to those ‘rust belt’ voters, in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, while the ideas contained within it are trying to placate the progressive wing of the party.

‘we can support American manufacturing and ingenuity and create millions of jobs that cannot be exported’. Language like this is openly seeking to reassure those voters that Trump’s isolationist policies appeal to. These voters are the ones most affected by globalisation. When companies move to where labour is cheaper they are the people who lose jobs. In  voting for a Presidential candidate, they look to those who promise job security.  

the Democrats need to be a viable option to turn toward

It seems that, by grouping together bills that are typically unrelated, Pelosi and the House Democrats are seeking to stake a claim to the economic recovery. The Democrats are trying to prove to the voters who will decide the result in November that they are the party of economic sensibility. Biden’s chance for success relies heavily on voters turning away from Trump, but the Democrats need to be a viable option to turn toward.

Pelosi might be playing a risky strategy here, forcing a compromise that will please no one. A bill that ought to appeal to progressives but does not use their language might anger more than it pleases. A ‘green bill’ might not attract the attention of rust belt voters at all, or be condemned as obvious electioneering. In trying to accommodate the wishes of not only the entire Democratic party, but also voters in the centre, she may have missed the mark completely.

It is also not clear how exactly the Democrats might pay the bill for this project. $1.5 trillion is hardly a trifling sum. Some have pointed to Trump’s promise of a $2 trillion stimulus, arguing that the President is willing to stump up the cash. But $2 trillion worth of borrowed money – especially with Trump’s isolationist stance – is not a policy likely to motivate the President’s base.

Democrats don’t need to worry about how they would ever pay for these projects

This is a blatant attempt by the Democrats to claim the economic recovery. This bill sets Trump up for criticism, as whatever measures he now takes to ensure recovery will be undermined by ‘what ifs’. It seems unlikely that this bill will pass the Senate – ‘the Grim Reaper has said nothing is ever going through in the Senate’, said Speaker Pelosi. Democrats don’t need to worry about how they would pay for these projects; they aren’t expecting to realistically ever have to.

It is difficult, then, to see this bill as anything but electioneering – despite progressive hopes that the mainstream Democrats might be moving to the left. The impact of the crisis on the elections in November is uncertain. While Trump has not received a rally around the flag effect, his polling numbers have stayed relatively steady. But both parties are clearly aware that to stand a chance in the autumn they need to lay claim to the economic recovery: this bill, alongside the stimulus packages early in the crisis, forms much of the Democratic case.