Americans for Tax Reform led a coalition with other center-right organizations flagging concerning developments in the infrastructure bill negotiations. Price controls and rate regulation; dramatic expansion of executive brand and agency authority; and government-controlled internet should never be on the table.
You can read the letter below or click HERE for a full version:
July 23, 2021
RE: Broadband Infrastructure Spending
We write to you today over some concerning developments in the bipartisan infrastructure negotiations on broadband. We are guided by the principles of limited government and believe that the flaws in the infrastructure framework go well beyond the issues discussed here. Nonetheless, our present aim is to advocate specifically against proposals that would enact price controls, dramatically expand agency authority, and prioritize government-controlled internet.
The infrastructure plan should not include rate regulation of broadband services. Congress should not authorize any federal or governmental body to set the price of any broadband offering. Even steps that open the door to rate regulation of broadband services will prove harmful in the long run.
Nor should Congress continue to abdicate its oversight responsibilities to executive branch agencies like the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Giving NTIA unchecked authority to modify or waive requirements, renders all guardrails placed by Congress meaningless. There must be oversight of the programs to ensure that taxpayer dollars go toward connecting more Americans to broadband as opposed to wasteful pet projects.
Historically, attempts by NTIA to close the digital divide through discretionary grants have failed, leading to wasteful overbuilds, corruption, and improper expenditures. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 created the $4 billion Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant program administered by NTIA. From 2009, when BTOP was instituted, to 2017, at least one-third of all the reports made by the Inspector General for the Department of Commerce were related to the BTOP program, and census data showed that the BTOP program had no positive effect on broadband adoption. And this was with only $4 billion in taxpayer dollars. We cannot afford to make the same mistake with much greater sums.
Legislation must be clear and not create ambiguities that are left to the whims of regulators. While “digital redlining” is unacceptable, the FCC should not be allowed to define the term however it sees fit and promulgate any regulations it thinks will solve problems—real or imagined. Doing so would give the agency carte blanche to regulate and micromanage broadband in any way it desires. This would be an egregious expansion of FCC authority. Moreover, definitions and regulations could change whenever party control of the agency changes, leading to a back-and-forth that creates uncertainty for consumers and businesses.
Legitimate desire to ensure that low-income Americans have access to broadband infrastructure should not be used as a smokescreen to codify aspects of the recent Executive Order on Competition, which should not be included in any bipartisan infrastructure agreement. Republicans fought hard to support the FCC’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order. Any legislating on the functions and deployment of Internet technologies must move as a standalone bill through regular order with committee review. These questions are far too important to shoehorn into a massive bill without rigorous debate.
Any funding for broadband buildout must target locations without any broadband connection first, and this should be determined by the Congressionally mandated FCC broadband maps. Congress has oversight over the FCC and the FCC has already conducted several reverse auctions. Reverse auctions get the most out of each taxpayer dollar towards closing the digital divide. Areas where there is already a commitment from a carrier to build out a network, should not be considered for grants, and the NTIA should not be able to override the FCC’s map to redefine “unserved” and subsidize duplicative builds.
Government-controlled Internet should not be prioritized in any grant program. With few exceptions, government-owned networks (GONs) have been abject failures. For example, KentuckyWired is a 3,000-mile GON that was sold to taxpayers as a $350 million project that would be complete by spring of 2016. Those projections could not have been more wrong. More than five years past the supposed completion date, fiber construction for KentuckyWired is still “in progress” in some parts of the state and a report from the state auditor has concluded that taxpayers will end up wasting a whopping $1.5 billion on this redundant “government owned network” over its 30-year life. NTIA should certainly not encourage these failures to be replicated.
We appreciate your work to help close the digital divide and agree that access to reliable internet is a priority, however we should not use this need to serve as a cover for unnecessary
government expansion. Please feel free to reach out to any of the undersigned organizations or individuals should you have questions or comments.
* individual signer; organization listed for identification purposes only
The hack that shut down the Colonial Pipeline has most Americans worried about threats to the nation’s computer network. According to a recent surveyby Rasmussen Reports, 85 percent of Americans are at least “somewhat concerned” about the safety of the nation’s computer infrastructure.
Their concerns are not idle ones—they exist across vital sectors of the economy. Over the last decade, the health care industry has become increasingly vulnerable to ransomware attacks like the one we’ve just been through in the energy sector. Experts have been raising the alarm but thus far their warning cries have not received the attention they deserve.
That needs to change. Policymakers need to pay attention as these kinds of attacks become more frequent and more expensive. According to a study conducted by Comparitech, in 2020 alone 92 individual ransomware attacks occurred that cost an estimated $20 billion and affected over 600 separate clinics, hospitals and organizations and more than 18 million patient records.
Health care systems rely more and more on devices that use network-integrated software components. These machines—MRI machines, CT scanners and the like—are a vital part of 21st century health care. We cannot do without them so we must take steps to ensure they cannot be hacked. Unfortunately, despite growing vulnerabilities, hospitals and other providers are allowing cost concerns to create a serious security gap that could further jeopardize the integrity of certain medical devices, as well as health systems more broadly: third-party medical device servicing activities.
Online infrastructure must be protected from hackers who can cause life-saving technologies to crash with the push of a button. These technologies are essential to diagnostic and therapeutic services and for patient care. People literally cannot live without them yet it’s not clear they are being protected, especially when they need to be repaired. Problematically, these vulnerabilities are being studied just as intently by manufacturers and operators as they are by America’s enemies.
By way of example of how wide the problem may stretch, in contrast to repairs undertaken by the original manufacturers of the equipment, who are heavily regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and who operate within what are called “mandatory quality system requirements,” independent firms who compete in the same space at lower cost are generally allowed to operate without supervision. There are no applicable industry standards against which their work can be measured—yet their ability to do the same work cheaper makes them attractive to institutions like hospitals and clinics where cost is a primary concern.
The practical implications of this should be obvious. In an interconnected health care ecosystem which the United States has, devices and systems are constantly updating, requiring everyone from manufacturers to hospitals, doctors and clinics to those who maintain and service highly technical, life-saving devices to do their part to keep systems safe. There’s been some regulatory process recently that’s made things safer, but the job is not yet done.
Imagine if a foreign intelligence service stood up a company to repair medical devices or debug health care software for some of the nation’s biggest hospital systems. In that circumstance, the potential for chaos, even death, exists as does the chance private medical information of untold numbers of Americans could be compromised. Significant issues still exist where medical device servicing and aftermarket repairs are concerned. If an independent operator separate from the original manufacturer of a critical piece of interconnected medical hardware even inadvertently opened a backdoor to a threat by bungling a repair job or using a few unauthorized lines of code, the damage could be severe. No one likes the heavy hand of regulation, but in the interests of safety, some minimum standards are needed.
This is the kind of small issue that, when compared to his multibillion-dollar infrastructure plan, President Joe Biden could push for a solution in a bipartisan manner. He’s already issued an executive order on cybersecurity, but he needs to do more as does Congress. A thorough review of important systems that can be hacked, taken offline, or held for ransom is long overdue.
The danger is real, and the American people understand it, especially after everything we’ve been through during the pandemic. We know Russia, China, Iran and others are trying to hack our critical systems, and in a few cases, succeeded. This is a problem too important to ignore and Republicans and Democrats should come together to deal with it before it becomes a problem we can’t live with.
Let’s start with the internet.
It has its roots in a program called the ARPANET, which was established by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Private sector entrepreneurs then transformed the internet from an obscure government experiment into the cultural and economic success that it is today. It has made our technology sector the envy of the world and enables us to keep innovating and competing with the likes of South Korea, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, and China.
This matters in light of President Joe Biden’s recently unveiled American Jobs Plan. While billed as a $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, less than 10% of allocated funds are actually for traditional infrastructure such as roads, highways, bridges, ports, airports, etc. Instead, Biden redefines infrastructure to include all sorts of things, including research and community colleges, that, while they are possibly meritorious investments, have nothing to do with infrastructure. On broadband internet services, which both parties agree isinfrastructure, Biden’s plan has a stated goal of 100% U.S. connectivity.
One problem: The plan wouldn’t actually help connect more people to the internet.
That’s because it relies on government-run broadband to improve America’s internet experience. Government-run networks have a history of failure. They tend to drive out private investment and leave taxpayers holding the bag when the plans fail — without the better broadband they were promised. A perfect example of how government often stymies innovation and entrepreneurship is found in Kentucky. Kentucky Wired, a $1.5 billion plan to improve connectivity across the state was announced under Gov. Steve Beshear. Andy Beshear, Steve Beshear’s son and the state’s current governor, vowed to complete the project by October 2020. But Kentucky Wired has failed. Lesson: Investing public money in laying cable when increasingly affordable satellite networks are at our doorstep is not only counterproductive but irresponsible.
Biden’s plan ignores the dynamics of the marketplace in a similar manner. It also signals rate regulation and arbitrary speed mandates that would discourage satellite providers such as Amazon and SpaceX (Starlink) from investing in infrastructure and creating new jobs. Instead of bridging the digital divide, Biden would widen it by hampering the free market.
Biden’s plan focuses exclusively on a single technology for providing internet access: fiber. To be clear, fiber is often the backbone of the internet and works well in densely populated areas. Private industry has invested billions in deploying fiber across the country. Yet, laying thousands of miles of fiber optic cable is very expensive. Many factors affect the cost of fiber infrastructure, but, on average, the cost of deploying fiber runs between $18,000 and $22,000 per mile. In rural areas, it is often far too expensive for most businesses to recoup their fiber deployment costs. The good news is that America uses a mix of technologies to get online — from cable and fiber to 5G and NextGen satellites. If Biden chooses not to impose a one-size-fits-all solution, the private sector can meet the challenge of closing the digital divide. But as it now stands, Biden’s plan would stop this competition between technologies. Instead, it would replace that competition with a top-down approach in which government picks the winners and losers rather than letting consumers make the choices.
A better idea would be for Biden to expand Broadband Opportunity Zones and encourage billions in investment where it is needed the most. Private enterprise will invest in solutions that work for underserved areas.
Put simply, Biden’s infrastructure bill is a bad deal for America. It is entirely reasonable to fund the building and maintenance of interstate roads, bridges, ports, and highways. It is also good to incentivize innovation and investment. Sadly, Biden’s bill discourages those imperatives without good cause and at great risk.
The COVID-19 pandemic introduced an unprecedented amount of uncertainty into transportation infrastructure planning. Travel fell significantly across all modes and remains depressed, particularly for shared transportation modes such as commercial air travel and mass transit. Changes in travel behavior may persist long after the coronavirus pandemic finally ends, particularly for commuting trips given that a large share of employees may continue working from home. Given this uncertainty, investments in new infrastructure meant to provide service for decades into the future are incredibly risky. As Congress considers surface transportation reauthorization in this low-confidence era, it should adopt a preference for the lowest-risk class of projects: maintaining and modernizing existing infrastructure under a “fix it first” strategy.
COVID-19 led to dramatic changes in travel behavior. By April 2020, when much of the country was under stay-at-home orders, road traffic fell 40%, mass transit ridership fell 95%, and air travel fell by 96%. Since then, road travel has largely recovered, with vehicle-miles traveled back to within 10% of the pre-pandemic baseline.
However, travel by shared transportation modes, such as commercial aviation and mass transit, was still down by approximately two-thirds year-over-year by the end of 2020, according to data collected by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Travel is expected to continue its rebound as the number of people vaccinated grows and the pandemic wanes, but changes in travel behavior driven by factors such as the rise of remote work are likely to persist. To what degree pandemic-spurred changes in travel demand are permanent is unknown at this time, and this uncertainty has rendered pre-pandemic infrastructure planning and investment models nearly useless as accurate guides to the future.
While the drop in transportation demand and the fixed nature of transportation infrastructure supply has significantly reduced the productivity of existing transportation infrastructure, some are calling for large new investments by claiming that the nation’s infrastructure networks are crumbling. However, a review of the available evidence suggests a different and more complicated picture of infrastructure asset quality.
For example, Reason Foundation’s most recent Annual Highway Reportfound, “Of the Annual Highway Report’s nine categories focused on performance, including structurally deficient bridges and traffic congestion, the country made incremental progress in seven of them.”
Similarly, a June 2020 National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper on transportation infrastructure concluded, “Not only is this infrastructure, for the most part, not deteriorating, much of it is in good condition or improving.”
However, Reason’s Annual Highway Report shows large variation across states and the NBER analysis is limited in that it fails to account for transit infrastructure beyond rolling stock. Rail guideway assets such as tracks and signals have deteriorated in many cities. To be sure, there are sizeable transportation infrastructure needs in the United States. Reconstructing the Interstate Highway System alone has been estimated by the National Academy of Sciences to cost at least $1 trillion over two decades and mass transit’s maintenance backlog likely exceeds $100 billion.
Given all we know about existing transportation infrastructure needs and the uncertainty surrounding future travel activity, Congress should adopt a risk-minimizing “fix it first” strategy to restore our existing transportation assets to a durable state of good repair. This approach has been endorsed by organizations and think tanks across the political spectrum, from the progressive Transportation for America to the free market Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Building new infrastructure that will last three to five decades based on pre-pandemic travel modeling is fundamentally imprudent at this time. Physical capacity expansions such as highway widening and new rail lines should at the very least face heightened scrutiny from policymakers until there is more confidence in post-pandemic travel behavior that can be used in transportation infrastructure planning and investment decisions.
Infrastructure projects that are paid for by users, not by federal taxes, can be a big boost to the economy.
With President Joe Biden looking to pass a major infrastructure bill and other policy priorities, the growing question is how he will pay for them. While some Republican senators have signaled some interest in cutting bipartisan deals, both sides should be focusing on budget cuts and reprioritizing existing revenues. They must avoid tax increases that could undercut the economic recovery as the number of vaccinated Americans grows and we hopefully emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.
President Biden has called for upping the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent. While that’s still lower than the country’s corporate tax rate prior to the 2017 tax cut bill, which was then 35 percent, it’s a bad idea. At 28 percent, the federal corporate tax rate, combined with state corporate taxes, would be over 32 percent, putting the U.S. back to having the highest corporate tax among the highly-developed OECD, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, nations. For example, Canada’s corporate tax rate is 15 percent and Mexico’s is 30 percent. One outcome of Biden’s proposed tax hike would be more corporations looking to move out of the U.S. to lower-tax countries.
Decades of research also show higher corporate tax rates get passed on to workers, who end up paying the majority of the costs in the form of lower pay and benefits. The Tax Foundation estimates Biden’s corporate tax increase would eliminate 159,000 jobs, reduce long-run economic output by 0.8 percent and wages by 0.7 percent, with the bottom 20 percent of earners on average seeing a 1.45 percent drop in after-tax income in the long term.
Biden also wants to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans. “Anybody making more than $400,000 will see a small to a significant tax increase,” Biden recently said to ABC.
Raising taxes on the wealthy consistently polls well with voters of both major political parties, but it’s a bad policy that doesn’t work as intended. An analysis in the Quarterly Journal of Economics of decades of data shows that tax increases on individual incomes reduce average incomes and economic activity, but the effect is the fastest and largest when taxing the top one percent. The so-called 1990 luxury tax, for example, killed so many jobs that the federal government actually lost revenue because of it. That is because the rich do not sit on mountains of gold in their vaults, as some might imagine. Most of their money is either invested or spent so raising taxes on the rich lowers consumption and all the jobs that creates, and lowers investment and all the jobs that creates. Hence, the top one percent pay considerably more in income taxes than the bottom 90 percent of taxpayers combined.
The country is expecting significant economic growth this year as more Americans are vaccinated and able to travel to visit loved ones, go on vacations, eat in restaurants and attend things like sporting events. Tax increases would undercut this growth by taking money that would be invested in expanding existing businesses or opening new ones.
President Biden and Republicans need to show some seriousness about dealing with the nation’s debt and deficits. In the debate leading up to the recent $1.9 trillion spending bill — which came after President Trump’s own $2.2 trillion stimulus bill and four years running up debt and deficits — the GOP could not credibly claim it cared about debt and deficits. Republicans and conservatives “ditched any semblance of fiscal restraint during the last four years of economic expansion (i.e., precisely when it’s easiest to cut spending),” Scott Lincicome recently noted in his newsletter for The Dispatch.
Spending cuts are needed and the country’s massive defense spending, over $700 billion a year, is ripe for cutting. A group of House Democrats is urging Biden to trim the Pentagon’s budget. Unfortunately, Republicans want more, not less, spending. “The problem with decreased or flat defense budgets is that our adversaries aren’t looking at cutting defense spending. It’s the opposite,” Rep. Mike Rogers, the leading Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, claimed.
As a military veteran I’d argue he is wrong because our current military is more than capable of defending our nation and, if we stopped our absurd and broken attempts at nation-building overseas, our defense budget is more than adequate already.
If Republicans aren’t going to support ending our forever wars and reducing defense spending, they should at least try to ensure that any big infrastructure and spending bills embrace the user-pays principle and utilize public-private partnerships. Raising the federal gas tax is counterproductive — as vehicles become more fuel-efficient — and politically unpopular, but private companies and private equity firms are ready to invest billions in major infrastructure projects. From water and sewer systems to roads and bridges, infrastructure can be built via public-private partnerships using private capital and charging user direct fees to pay for it.
Users don’t pay any more than they would’ve otherwise, the projects get built faster, private investors take most of the financial risks of losses if something goes wrong with the project, such as delays and cost overruns, and the companies can make a profit if they deliver the project efficiently.
Infrastructure projects that are paid for by users, not by federal taxes, can be a big boost to the economy. Combining this approach with some smart realignment of other federal spending would allow President Biden to achieve his policy goals without the harmful tax cuts he is considering and the consequent blow to the economy and to lower-income workers.