Opening Statement of Chairman Leahy for Hearing on “The American Jobs Plan: Infrastructure Climate Change, and Investing in Our Nation’s Future”

Today, we convene the first hearing of the full Senate Appropriations Committee for the 117th Congress.  And what more appropriate topic than that of infrastructure.  There is no other Committee within the Senate whose jurisdiction touches every aspect of our government and of Americans’ lives.  The same, of course, can be said for infrastructure.

Gone are the days when “infrastructure” has meant only bridges, highways, roads, and rail.  To narrow our view of infrastructure to just this is not only prosaic – it reflects a willful ignorance of the real needs facing our communities, our cities, and our nation at large. 

The American Jobs Plan is a sweeping proposal that will inject sorely needed resources into our transit systems.  It will build affordable housing long needed in communities across the country.  It will address the disparity in reliable broadband access that currently only furthers the divide between rural and urban America. It will invest in our people and in research and development.  And it will incentivize the development and implementation of climate-friendly technologies and construction that will, at last, begin to chip away at the long ignored climate issue that is simply the greatest universal challenge of our time.  The reality of climate change can no longer be ignored.  We now have the opportunity to take a step toward mitigating our carbon footprint, and to make our infrastructure more resilient to the challenges ahead.  It is not a question of whether or not we should take this opportunity; it is necessary to our future that we do.

In rural America – places like Vermont – the challenges are even greater.  Accounting for 97 percent of the nation geographically, but just 23 percent of the population, rural America has been left behind for too long.  In Vermont, 20 percent of homes lack adequate access to quality, high-speed broadband.  The race for 5G services across the country ignores the fact that in Vermont, plenty cannot even get access to 4G services.  In the pandemic, this has meant the difference between access to education for students – or not.  It has meant the different between receiving potentially life-changing telehealth services – or not.  It has meant the difference between simple connections with family and friends – or not.  But building out broadband access is not just about laying fiber and walking away.  With it, schools, hospitals, office buildings and homes must also have the necessary framework in place to access those services.  It is all connected, and not just by roads and bridges.

I have heard the nay-sayers.  Those who say we have spent too much, too quickly, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Those who say these investments are for states to make, not the Federal Government.  Those who say now is just not the time.  To those people, I say: if not now, when.  And if not us, then who.  The climate crisis is here.  We must step up.  Our economy – necessarily curbed over the last year to stop the spread of the deadly pandemic – is in need not just of cash infusions to Americans, but of jobs, good paying jobs, that will help rebuild America, not to what we were – but to where we must be to compete on the international stage.  There is no more pivotal time than now.

America cannot be left behind.  The world is in an economic race – and we are losing to China.  Beijing is investing heavily in new roads, railways, and water infrastructure.  They are investing in the economy and transportation of tomorrow, and so should we. Today, our country only invests about 2.3 percent of GDP on our infrastructure.  This is a 60 year low from when these investments peaked in the 1950s.  Other industrialized countries, like our European allies, more than double our investment in this sphere.  We cannot maintain our position as the leader on the global stage by thinking small.

This is the Senate Appropriations Committee.  We work annually – every single year – to enact meaningful appropriations bills that address the needs of the time.  But today, the need outweighs the resources our annual process can provide.  We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to not just put a patch on the problem – but to make the aggressive and substantial investments that are demanded by the moment.  This is a popular initiative.  And why shouldn’t it be?  The American Jobs Plan stands to significantly improve the quality of life here in America – in urban and rural areas alike.  We are sent here to advocate for the needs of our constituents.  The American Jobs Plan addresses many of those needs.  It’s long overdue.  And if we could, for a moment, cast aside the partisan rancor, we could all agree it is the bold step we need at this moment in history.

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