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The Infrastructure Bill Includes Upgrades To Roads, Bridges And... Salmon Recovery?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Senate is preparing to vote as early as this week on a roughly $1 trillion infrastructure bill. Now, the bill is massive not just in price tag, but also in page count. It runs 2,700 pages. Which got us wondering, what is actually in this bill? What would it actually do if it becomes law? For some answers, we are turning to NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. She has been reading through this enormous piece of legislation.

Hey, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: All right. What does this bill do?

SNELL: Well, it expands investments in what are mostly considered traditional types of infrastructure. It builds on, you know, the regular highway bill that Congress has been writing and passing for ages. At the core, this bill is a recognition by a group of lawmakers from both parties that Congress could and should be funding more projects; you know, programs and systems that make it easier for people to get around, for people to do work and for the country to trade with the rest of the world. I'd say the biggest investment is about $110 billion for roads and bridges. There's also money for airports, public transit, the power grid, broadband and some limited environmental protection.

KELLY: And what would this bill not do? What isn't in this bill?

SNELL: This is just the stuff that could get the support of enough Democrats and enough Republicans to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. And it was negotiated in the Senate. So this is a very Senate-driven bill. It doesn't have the broader climate change provisions that Democrats and, particularly, a lot of progressives in the House want. It also doesn't have the paid leave or free college or child care elements that President Biden proposed. It's mostly just an expansion of traditional infrastructure.

KELLY: Bills this big - again, 2,700 pages - are often littered with incentives to convince enough lawmakers to vote for them. Pork, I believe...

SNELL: Yes.

KELLY: ...Might be the technical term. Have you - as you've been reading and reading and reading all these pages, have you found anything unexpected lurking in there?

SNELL: There are really some niche things that kind of fall well outside of what we'd think of as infrastructure. Like, there's a study of whether first responders should use bicycles when responding to disasters. There's also money for research on wildlife and vehicle collisions. But there are also regional programs that are clearly intended to satisfy some specific lawmakers. There's extra money for a salmon recovery fund for states on the West Coast to build up salmon populations. Now, that's places like Washington and Alaska, two states represented by senators who negotiated this bill. Plus, there are specific investments in Alaska and Appalachian highways. So Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and the two senators from West Virginia, they were critical to putting this bill together, so there's no surprise there.

KELLY: OK. So things like highways, genuine infrastructure issues, but it does sound like there's some pet projects in there.

SNELL: Sure.

KELLY: And I always wonder, how does that work? How do lawmakers justify putting in these super specific, in some cases, self-serving elements into a big bill like this?

SNELL: You know, in many ways, this is just what happened or really used to happen in a representative system like Congress. Many lawmakers think they were elected by constituents to go to Washington to advocate for funding and the protection of the needs of the community they represent. And a lot of what we're seeing here is, you know, lawmakers saying that they're making good on that. Often, that means for pushing for studies or funding for programs that benefit their constituents. You know, in normal legislative times, Congress spent most of their energy deciding how the federal government should invest money. And I should note that its investments in a vast country with really diverse needs.

KELLY: Yeah. You're telling us that this is not necessarily nefarious, this pork that shows up.

SNELL: There are bad actors out there and some pretty egregious giveaways on occasion, but this is just the way things typically work when they're writing a big bill like this. So this is just kind of the work that Congress has traditionally done.

KELLY: That is NPR's Kelsey Snell. Thank you, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.