President BidenJoe BidenUS & Israeli Security Officials Talk Iran & Palestinians In Washington Over Money – Presented By NRHC – Biden Plays Hard With Debt Limit With The Long, Winding Road Of Bill McConnell Highway MOREThe jaw-dropping $ 5,000 billion infrastructure program – roughly $ 50,000 in debt for every American family – hangs on broad skepticism about both the goals and the means to spend that money. There is a bipartisan agreement on at least some of the goals: spending $ 1.2 trillion to repair roads, build new transmission lines, expand broadband, and provide clean water could improve America’s competitiveness as well as its economy. environmental sustainability.
There’s a deal to be made here: take this moment to review how Washington spends the money. Skeptics are right that otherwise most of the money will go up in smoke. What we need is a new set of spending principles, based on the principle of business reason, enforced by a non-partisan National Infrastructure Board.
The key to governance is implementation. Great speeches in press conferences are seldom successful. Or throw money at a problem. The chaos in Afghanistan reveals what happens when top-down diktats are not accompanied by a practical plan to carry out the objective. But the Biden administration has no plans for how to judiciously implement its infrastructure proposals.
What is certain is that without reform most of the money spent on infrastructure will be wasted. Red tape, delays, rigid contract rules, fees, and other inefficiencies ensure that U.S. taxpayers will receive less than 50 cents of the value of infrastructure for every dollar. It’s optimistic. Comparative studies of infrastructure costs in developed countries show that mass transit in the United States can be four times more expensive like, say, Spain or France. A highway overpass in Seattle costs three times as much than a comparable project in France, and seven times more than in Spain.
What causes waste? No American official has the power to use common sense, at any point in the process, to build an infrastructure wisely. Other countries have “state capacity” – a euphemism for public departments where civil servants have the power to make contracts and other decisions comparable to their private sector counterparts. In the United States, by contrast, the accountability of public servants is preempted by bureaucracy.
Here are some of the main factors of waste:
– Authorization can take years because no official has the power to 1) limit environmental reviews to significant impacts; 2) resolve disagreements between competing agencies; or 3) expedite the resolution of lawsuits. In our study Two years, not ten years we have found that delay alone can more than double the actual cost of projects.
– Rigid procurement protocols strive to detail each nut and bolt in advance, limiting the flexibility needed to deal with unforeseen problems inherent in any complex construction project. This leads to massive waste as well as expensive change orders.
– Collective bargaining rights of unions have accumulated over decades, for example, demanding twice as many workers as needed to operate a New York subway tunnel boring machine. Work rules are not designed for safety or efficiency, but to provide compensation even when there is no work.
– Legislative mandates further increase the cost of public projects. The Buy American Laws can increase costs by 25 percent, sometimes more. The Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 increased labor costs by more than 20% above the market by demanding the “going wages” – which is a euphemism for the highest wage that can be justified. An army of Washington bureaucrats is tasked with dictating wage rates and benefits in hundreds of construction job classes in each of the 3,000 designated labor markets in the United States.
– All these legal processes, rigidities and rights justify legal action for any unhappy bidder, contractor, union or environmental group. Lawsuits not only add costs to delay projects, but are generally used as a weapon to extract payments and concessions that further increase costs.
Thick rule books have supplanted human responsibility. Washington allocates money, with a lot of legal conditions. It then gives grants to states and localities, many of which are in fact insolvent – precisely because they cannot manage their public unions and other interest groups. Time is passing. Lawyers and consultants produce environmental impact statements. Various groups oppose and threaten legal action. Unions demand ever greater benefits. Underserved civil servants try to write procurement guidelines that anticipate every detail and every eventuality. The lowest bidder wins, even if he has a bad record. Some infrastructure is built, often poorly, and always at a cost that far exceeds what a commercial builder would have paid. The waste here is an outrage – political leaders might as well take taxpayers’ money and throw it down the chimney.
How to build the infrastructure? What causes waste in construction infrastructure, as NYU’s Alon Levy puts it, is “rigid[ity], where what is needed is flexibility and autonomy»Officials with responsibilities. Someone should be in charge of every project, and whoever is in charge should have the flexibility to negotiate contracts, adapt to new conditions and most importantly not be crippled by independent demands.
Building roads, bridges and power lines is not rocket science. Other countries and private companies know how to do it. Most public engineers know the required performance standards. Through the simple mechanism of making officials accountable, Levy found, other countries are able to “spend a fraction of what the United States does on the same bridge or tunnel.”
Giving officials the flexibility to use their judgment, however, requires a mechanism to overcome Americans’ distrust of government. This is what keeps the American Byzantine bureaucracy in place. Any reform effort is met with resistance from groups claiming “What if … a civil servant was on the spot?” “What if… the official was called Robert Moses and wanted to bulldoze poor communities? ”
Opponents of spending reform are rallying as I write. The $ 1.2 trillion Senate bill includes licensing reforms that aim to limit the licensing process to two years. But even this modest reform is under attack by “environmental justice” groups who argue that two years is not enough time to examine these issues. Likewise, a reform aimed at speeding up permits for interstate transmission lines is vigorously opposed by the government. state energy regulators. They pull the strings of mistrust. But their real objection is that minimizing delays removes the legal veto they use to gain lucrative benefits for themselves.
What is needed to overcome mistrust is a non-partisan watchdog that is empowered to avoid waste and corruption. In other developed countries, most citizens accept official authority. But the Americans don’t. The creation of a trusted watchdog institution means that it cannot be under the control of any of the political parties. An example are the non-partisan “base closure commissions” that decide which defense bases should be closed.
I propose a non-partisan National Infrastructure Board, analogous to supervisory boards in Australia and other countries. Its responsibilities would not be to build infrastructure, but to oversee and report on how infrastructure is built. Funding could still flow through states, but only on condition that timelines and contracts meet commercial reasoning standards. No more feather adornment. More gains. States would lose funds if they continued with current practices.
The power of a trusted watchdog is exponentially greater than its size. The availability of responsibility, not micromanagement, is the element that avoids waste while instilling confidence that everyone is doing their part.
America is at an institutional crossroads. Nothing works as it should because no official, or teacher, or hospital administrator, or director, is allowed to make wise choices. Pruning the jungle of paperwork never works because the underlying principle is to avoid human judgment on the spot. The only solution is to replace the jungle with a simpler framework activated by human responsibility and accountability. But who will oversee these officials? This is why a trusted watchdog is essential.
Philip K. Howard is a lawyer, author and chairman of Common Good, a bipartisan reform coalition.