The current administration’s Infrastructure plan has lofty goals: build a sustainable infrastructure and safeguard a clean energy future. The administration plan, as imagined, would modernize and strengthen our resources and reverse the decades of infrastructure neglect. In doing so, The Biden Administration believes the plan would also effectively boost the economy and reduce the growing economic disparity we face as a nation.
So, how does this bill, chock full of domestic repairs and improvements for the American people, affect national security? In this article, I will briefly describe why an infrastructure (implemented properly) is vital to our national security and the uncertainties and issues we need to address to ensure this bill fulfills its promise to strengthen our country both home and abroad.
Let me be clear. A strong infrastructure not only improves the day-to-day quality of life for our citizens, but it is fundamental for the safely and security of our nation. Improving our structures and upgrading our technology help protect us from unwelcome penetration from our enemies and strategic competitors. Pervious systems embolden our adversaries capable of cyber-attacks to influence and gain political, economic, and military advantage over the US and our allies. Cybersecurity is has already been an issue with Russian hackers infiltrating the Ukrainian power grid. Similarly, China has likely engaged in cyber-attacks that have penetrated US corporate networks to steal data and has the ability to temporarily disrupt critical infrastructure.
Our national security depends not only on countering our enemies, but it is also determined by what we actively achieve, influence and promote. National security depends on this soft power, our ability to leverage our economic muscle, to project national value.
Despite all sides understanding the urgent need, the infrastructure bill has yet to be passed. There are two reasons for this gridlock - what this bill is for and how (and how much) we invest. So let us take a closer look: The first issue is understanding and clarifying what this bill should accomplish. For our purposes in this blog, we will focus on national security issues specifically.
What do we mean when we talk about infrastructure?
Unfortunately, there is so much back and forth on this it is like watching a ping-pong ball in motion. Because each congressperson has a differing view of what is essential to include in this package - based on individual perspective, constituent makeup, home state priorities, political party and even congressional committee membership – this ping-pong ball will keep bouncing.
Infrastructure, from the French “infra” below and “structure” building is, at its core, comprised all of the basic systems that support a modern, well-run society. There are three types of infrastructure: Soft Infrastructure, Hard Infrastructure and Critical Infrastructure. Which system falls into which bucket is rather vaguely defined, but I will attempt to categorize it the best I can.
Soft Infrastructure refers to the institutions that help maintain a healthy economy, such as healthcare systems, law enforcement and educational programs. Hard Infrastructure comprises the physical systems that run a modern economy. These include roads, bridges and trains, oil refineries, etc. Critical Infrastructure are the systems that are vital to existing in a society, such as transportation, agriculture, telecommunications, etc. Those that fall into the critical infrastructure category vary, depending on the individual perspective. It is therefore understandable that we have much back and forth within congress to come up with a singular, cohesive definition and ultimately a singular cohesive list of items to include in the bill. Items such as human infrastructure, college loan payoffs, federal and state childcare, homeless initiatives, and hefty environmental policies were some items included in the original proposal and divide the parties’ ideologies regarding what Government should provide.
What infrastructure initiatives should be included in the bill specifically to bolster national security?
Our infrastructure is inextricably linked to our strength, security and safety. Better infrastructure facilitates higher level of global competitiveness and inhibits our advisories from breaching our systems. Often attention is on the hard infrastructure portion of the need (roads, bridges, etc.), and that is indeed an important component of a solid infrastructure. In fact, directly or indirectly all of these initiatives benefit our country from a national security perspective. But some systems have greater impact, both long term and short term and, realistically, those are the ones that will provide the highest return.
I argue that most critical to protection of the U.S. is in the digital infrastructure rebuild. The need for opportunity/access for high-speed internet, systems with resiliency and redundancy as well as cyber and crypto protections is the highest priority. This digital infrastructure should be well thought through and built on agnostic platforms for continued enhancement using high encryption technology that is treated as classified material. Protecting our vulnerabilities from attack while providing increased speed and agility to users and managers is not only vital to our national security, but it is necessary that we do this now. Digital infrastructure should have the “backbone” and integration framework to carry the US into digital dominance into the future. Once the idea of what needs to be included is settled, we need to turn our attention to cost.
With all the bells and whistles included, what impact will this trillion-dollar bill have on our national debt and our economy more broadly – and is it worth it?
This bill would be a “once in a generation investment,” but this investment comes with a cost - and a high one at that. So the question is this – is it worth it? And, from a national security perspective – will spending this money be an investment in our safety and security?
There is significant literature that supports the argument that investing in modernizing infrastructure promotes economic development and growth, and encourages a significant positive effect on the economy with increasing returns. Conversely, poor infrastructure constrains and deters such growth. But the question is still one of scale. At what point is it too much of a cost? Although I often talk about Great Power Competition as a major threat to the US, I believe that the biggest threat that will prevent us from competing with other Great powers is our ability to control our ballooning debt. Currently the national debt is $28.5T. The projected budget and infrastructure bill will be $6T with an annual projection revenue coming into the US Government of $3.9T. There are additional spending decrees as well that I am not calculating, but this gives you an idea of the projected addition to the national debt with the current proposals (increase of $2.1T). This is an unsustainable pattern of debt growth without offsets and it will become a long-term national security issue for the US.
How can we protect against waste to ensure the best use of our dollars?
Once we have earmarked the money to be spent, we need to ensure that we eliminate wasteful spending by streamlining what works, cutting out what is unnecessary, duplicative, and outdated. The focus should be on modernizing how government operates and improving the way services are delivered. i3CA has built planning teams to help states and local counties analyze their requirements to best prepare for the money once it arrives. These planning teams are led by me to help identify, plan, create projects, build metrics and prioritize efforts to better prepare states for the money they receive and how to track/justify. One of the areas that needs further attention is the lack of capacity to spend the money without waste. Do you remember the “shovel ready jobs” that were never Shovel Ready in 2009? Well, the same applies to this current effort. Some states have told me that they already have a hard time spending certain money and tracking the effects and currently there is not a way to ensure transparency. It is vital that we advise how to conduct planning in a way to eliminate as much waste as possible. This begins with building a plan that already has assessment criteria and tracking methods in place. i3CA plans to deploy high-speed dashboards on which the population can track each project and see current status with metrics already embedded. This will help transparency as well as accountability.
According to the White House, the price tag comes in at $1.2 trillion over eight years, with more than $500 billion in new spending. How the measure would be paid for was a central point in negotiations, with Republicans opposed to undoing any of the 2017 tax cuts.
Here's a look at what's included in the agreement, according to the White House fact sheet:
Goals of the plan
The White House said the plan, known currently as "The Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework" would, according to the fact sheet:
Improve healthy, sustainable transportation options for millions of Americans by modernizing and expanding transit and rail networks across the country, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Repair and rebuild roads and bridges with a focus on climate change mitigation, resilience, equity and safety for all users, including cyclists and pedestrians.
Build a national network of electric vehicle chargers along highways and in rural and disadvantaged communities.
Electrify thousands of school and transit buses across the country to reduce harmful emissions and drive domestic manufacturing of zero emission vehicles and components.
Eliminate the nation's lead service lines and pipes, delivering clean drinking water to up to 10 million American families and more than 400,000 schools and childcare facilities that currently don't have it, including in tribal nations and disadvantaged communities.
Connect every American to reliable high-speed internet.
Upgrade the power infrastructure, by building thousands of miles of new, resilient transmission lines to facilitate the expansion of renewable energy, including through a new grid authority.
Create a first-of-its-kind Infrastructure Financing Authority that will leverage billions of dollars into clean transportation and clean energy.
Make the largest investment in addressing legacy pollution in American history.
Prepare more infrastructure for impacts of climate change, cyberattacks and extreme weather events.
How would we pay for it?
The White House said the plan will be paid for with unused coronavirus relief funds, unused unemployment insurance and sales from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, among other measures.
Here is a full look at the sources they've proposed, according to the fact sheet:
Reduce the IRS tax gap
Unemployment insurance program integrity
Redirect unused unemployment insurance relief funds
Repurpose unused relief funds from 2020 emergency relief legislation
State and local investment in broadband infrastructure
Allow states to sell or purchase unused toll credits for infrastructure
Extend expiring customs user fees
Reinstate Superfund fees for chemicals
5G spectrum auction proceeds
Extend existing spending restraints over mandatory government programs
Strategic Petroleum Reserve sales
Public-private partnerships, private activity bonds, direct pay bonds and asset recycling for infrastructure investment
The expectation that infrastructure investment will generate economic growth
Further details will not come out until a bill is finalized but I wanted to get this out early so that all of us can advise the county, state and government institutions on opportunities and areas of concern in the planning arena. I fully support a need for an infrastructure bill. We should invest in physical and digital infrastructure, but we need to define and examine the specifics to truly understand the cost benefit. If you would like information about i3CA’s planning teams and technical advice for this project please reach out to me at email@example.com.