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Eye on the News

John P. Avlon
Obama’s Infrastructure Opening
The president-elect can rally support for public works, homeland security, and government transparency at the same time.
7 January 2009

The neo-Keynesian fervor sweeping Washington is set to culminate in President-elect Barack Obama’s proposed $775 billion stimulus package. The Democratic congressional leadership has announced its desire to draft and pass the package of new spending, tax cuts, and infrastructure investment so rapidly that it may be ready for Obama’s signature immediately after his inauguration. But given the American people’s healthy skepticism of big-government action after the Great Society, the president-elect would be wise to reach out beyond traditional Democratic constituencies to make his case. A good place to start is the massive infrastructure-investment plan that is at the heart of the stimulus package. Here, in the largest public works project since the New Deal, Obama could find unexpected common ground with conservatives on homeland security and governmental transparency.

We know that terrorists eyed attacks on bridges and tunnels even before September 11; they have frequently struck train stations and other public transportation hubs abroad. Hardening these potential targets by strengthening their physical and security infrastructure reduces their vulnerability to devastating attack, and therefore reduces their attractiveness to terrorists. At the same time, strengthening infrastructure can help communities withstand natural disasters and build a more resilient society. So while Democrats rightly see the breach of the levees in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward as a symbol of the urgent need for infrastructure investment, it’s also a homeland-security priority, as Steve Flynn powerfully argued in his 2007 book The Edge of Disaster.

The simple truth is that America’s infrastructure is aging. Most of it was built between the 1930s and the 1960s. “We have an impending crisis with infrastructure, but it is easy to ignore until you have a catastrophe,” Robert Dunphy, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute, warned recently. But America can’t afford to wait for a catastrophe, and with a Democratic Washington, the price tag of infrastructure investment is no longer an impediment to action, as it was during the Bush years.

Still, the ever-present threats of waste, fraud, and abuse could render a multibillion-dollar infrastructure project ineffective unless Obama follows through on a campaign promise and insists on accountability and increased transparency. Adopting a concept championed by conservatives like Newt Gingrich, Obama frequently discussed using technology to improve transparency in Washington. As a first-term Illinois senator, he pointed to bipartisan legislation he had sponsored with Oklahoma conservative Tom Coburn as evidence of his commitment: the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act introduced in the Senate in 2006. The bill, sometimes referred to as “Google for Government,” was ultimately passed after being placed on “secret hold” by notorious pork-barrelers Robert Byrd and the now-convicted Ted Stevens. Today, interested citizens can track an estimated $1 trillion in federal grants, contracts, earmarks, and loans at www.USAspending.gov.

Subjecting the economic stimulus bill—and particularly its notoriously pork-prone infrastructure provisions—to the same heightened transparency would help address concerns that the stimulus bill will turn into just the latest big-government boondoggle. The Obama administration should take a lesson from the $700 billion TARP bailout package, which wasn’t subject to such transparency and has since become the target of a growing public backlash.

The Obama administration can build a more enduring base of support by funding projects that strengthen our homeland security and by imposing accountability through technological transparency. It’s one way Obama can set the promised post-partisan tone at the outset of his presidency. As then-senator Obama said at the launch of USAspending.gov, “We can’t reduce waste, fraud and abuse without knowing how, where, and why Federal money is flowing out the door.” His words are even more relevant now, with the spending floodgates wide open.

John P. Avlon is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics.

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