- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 1, 2021

President Biden‘s $1.2 trillion infrastructure package is set to be a boon for the wife of Sen. Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat and key swing vote for the White House‘s agenda.

Mr. Biden‘s legislation, as written, greatly expands funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission. The federal agency, which is responsible for promoting economic development in the 13 states that make up Appalachia, is led by Mr. Manchin’s wife, Gayle.

Also tucked into the bill is an obscure line that amounts to a massive carve-out of Mr. Biden‘s “Buy American” pledge and would allow federal agencies to offshore some jobs funded by the package.

Senators began debating the mammoth spending bill Monday as Republicans called for a “robust” amendment process and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, pushed for a final vote by week’s end.

According to language included within the infrastructure bill, which was released Sunday night, the Appalachian Regional Commission would receive an additional $1 billion over the next four years. The funding is set to increase the agency’s federal budget by more than 50% annually.

The agency requested $235 million this year from the federal government to fund its operations. That was more than 30% higher than the $175 million the agency was awarded in 2020.

Mr. Biden‘s infrastructure bill, however, gives the Appalachian Regional Commission an additional $200 million yearly for its projects. In total, the commission would receive $1 billion more through the 2022 to 2026 fiscal years.

The Appalachian Regional Commission’s funding increase is significantly higher than what other federal regional commissions would receive.

The Southwest Border Regional Commission is slated to receive an additional $1.25 million. The commission oversees the border regions of Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas, which are facing the brunt of the immigration crisis.

Apart from money, the infrastructure package expands the Appalachian Regional Commission’s authority to increase broadband internet access by providing grants and “technical assistance.”

Since Mr. Biden appointed her to the $160,000-a-year co-chair position in May, Mrs. Manchin has made broadband access a top priority.

While traveling across the region to tout the need for “connectivity” and encouraging governors to corral internet utilities, Mrs. Manchin said Appalachia cannot compete economically with the rest of the country without proper internet access.

“The COVID-19 pandemic brought to reality again the inequity we face,” Mrs. Manchin said at a recent event in Ohio, as reported by The Columbus Dispatch. “Your ZIP code should not define your destiny.”

Those priorities and the Appalachian Regional Commission, in general, are well represented in the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package.

It is not clear whether Mr. Manchin, who was central to drafting the bill, explicitly pushed for provisions beneficial to the commission. Mr. Manchin’s office did not return requests for comment on this article.

On Sunday, Mr. Manchin praised the infrastructure bill as a “big deal” that eluded previous administrations.

“This is something we should be proud of. This was a give-and-take proposition,” he said. “Nobody got what they wanted. Everybody got what we needed, and that’s the most important thing.”

Mr. Manchin’s role in helping craft the deal underscores his position as a vital political player in Washington.

Although Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the White House, the party’s hold on the Senate is tenuous at best. The upper chamber is split 50-50 between the parties, and Democrats hold the majority thanks to the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.

Given the narrow margin, Mr. Manchin, a self-described “moderate to conservative Democrat,” holds immense sway over whether the Biden administration’s agenda becomes law.

Even with Mr. Manchin’s influence, it remains to be seen whether the infrastructure bill, in its entirety, will become law. To succeed, the bill needs at least 10 Republican supporters to overcome the Senate‘s 60-vote filibuster threshold.

Although the deal has garnered bipartisan support, Mr. Schumer is moving quickly so lawmakers won’t be cutting back their August recess.

“I hope we can use our time in the Senate efficiently,” Mr. Schumer said. “The longer it takes to finish the bill, the longer we’ll be here.”

Republicans say it’s improper to pass a 2,702-page bill that many have not had adequate time to read, debate or amend.

“Our full consideration of this bill must not be choked off by any artificial timetable that our Democratic colleagues may have penciled out for political purposes,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “The American people need the Senate to continue taking it seriously.” 

The bipartisan infrastructure package is being pitched as a win for the domestic economy, but an obscure line in the bill could increase the offshoring of American jobs.
The bill requires federal agencies to prohibit more funding for infrastructure “unless all of the iron, steel, manufactured products, and construction materials used in the project are produced in the United States.”

The bill, however, also includes a massive carve-out allowing heads of federal agencies to waive that mandate. Federal bureaucrats are granted wide discretion when granting the waivers, especially if relying on American-made goods and resources “would be inconsistent with the public interest.”

Other reasons for granting a waiver would be an insufficient domestic supply of construction materials or if buying American would “increase the cost of the overall project by more than 25 percent.”

For years, such waivers have allowed the government and federal contractors to skirt “buy American” provisions mandated by law.

President Trump attempted to tighten such loopholes via executive order.

Republicans’ embrace of “America First” economic policies forced Democrats to run on the issue during the 2020 campaigns. Mr. Biden, in particular, proposed a wide-sweeping agenda to ensure “the future is made in all of America.”

That agenda was anchored by a $400 billion “Buy American” federal procurement program, on top of a $300 billion investment in domestic research and development programs.

Mr. Biden expanded on the policy last week by raising requirements for products purchased with taxpayer money. The federal government currently allows agencies to skirt the requirements provided that at least 55% of an item’s “component parts” are manufactured in the U.S.

Mr. Biden is proposing to raise the threshold immediately to 60%, with a goal of 75% by 2029.

“In recent years, Buy American has become a hollow promise,” the president said recently. “My administration is going to make ‘Buy American’ a reality.”

Republicans say the White House is not serious about the issue, as evidenced by its infrastructure bill.

• Haris Alic can be reached at halic@washingtontimes.com.

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