Amy Klobuchar dives into 2021 policy with $1 trillion infrastructure plan

Amy Klobuchar’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan, explained

Amy Klobuchar dives into 2021 policy with $1 trillion infrastructure plan
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) on March 19, 2019, in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It’s infrastructure week for Amy Klobuchar’s presidential campaign as the Minnesota Democrat rolls out a proposal for a $1 trillion infrastructure investment package.

If that number sounds familiar, you may recall that Donald Trump frequently promised an infrastructure plan on that scale during his 2016 campaign — one of several breaks with GOP policy orthodoxy that turned out not to amount to much once he won. Upon taking office, he repeatedly promised various plans, only to have his administration ultimately roll out a set of tax cut and privatization schemes that went nowhere in Congress.

In parallel to that, Senate Democrats coalesced around a plan to actually spend $1 trillion, with the money parceled out across various types of infrastructure. Klobuchar’s plan is fundamentally similar to that one — marking out a clear commitment to spend a bunch of money on various things while steering clear of any contentious reform ideas.

Klobuchar serves on the Senate’s Commerce and Transportation Committee, so she’s familiar with these issues, and none of her rivals in the crowded presidential field has staked out an infrastructure plan yet, making this an opportune target for her.

Klobuchar’s plan — infrastructure, not tax cuts

The central element in Klobuchar’s proposal is a $650 billion increase in federal spending on infrastructure programs.

She specifies rural broadband, municipal waterworks, energy efficiency retrofits, school construction, airports, seaports, inland waterways, and mass transit as all worthy of increased funding, along with — of course — highways and bridges.

$650 billion is less than $1 trillion, of course, so she gets to her total dollar figure by positing that a $25 billion seed investment in an infrastructure bank will allow state and local governments to secure an additional $200-300 billion in private funds for infrastructure projects.

The idea is to pay for this with higher corporate taxes — a mix of partially rolling back Trump’s rate cut and some loophole closures. That sets up a debate about America’s priorities: Will we build a more prosperous America by hoping that corporate tax cuts spur private sector investments that trickle down to create broad benefits, or should we just take the money and build some stuff?

From the standpoint of a tedious infrastructure nerd, however, Klobuchar’s proposal doesn’t really answer any of the interesting policy questions.

No priorities, no reforms

The obvious thing missing is any sense of how this money should be divided up.

Right now, federal money mostly funds new highway construction and much of it is relatively low value because the United States already has a lot of highways and the most useful ones already exist. Klobuchar name-checks a bunch of non-highway priorities but offers no opinion as to which of those are particularly important or whether traditional projects should be made less of a priority.

Another issue that’s gotten increasing attention in the press is the exorbitant cost of US tunnel-building (mostly a mass-transit problem, but highways go in tunnels too sometimes), which often makes it hard to get projects done.

Progressives have also raised a lot of concerns recently about the details of how infrastructure gets approved in the United States.

Officials in Oregon, for example, are claiming that widening a highway in Portland will reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the logic that faster-moving cars will burn less fuel.

Decades of research indicate that this is not the case and that the new, larger highway will induce more driving, but the project evaluation framework in the United States fundamentally does not incorporate this insight.

Klobuchar’s plan doesn’t really aim to change these structural features of US infrastructure policy, choosing instead to mostly emphasize the idea that we should put more money into it.

That’s all very much in keeping with Klobuchar’s normcore political persona. She’s not promising (or threatening) to transform America. She’s saying that we could have more of the nice stuff that people if we spent money on building that stuff, rather than on tax cuts for the country’s most profitable companies.

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Urban Planning and the Democratic Debate Field

Amy Klobuchar dives into 2021 policy with $1 trillion infrastructure plan

Perhaps it's a symptom of the Democratic Party being in the position of challenging a Republican incumbent, but compared the 2016 presidential campaign, the 2020 campaign has noticeably shifted the national political discussion to matters of the built and natural environments.

No campaign talking point distinguishes this election cycle more than the prominence of the housing crisis in the policy proposals and media coverage generated by the Democrats.

High housing costs, evictions, and homelessness are weighing on the country, despite improving employment and the exuberant claims of the Trump administration about the strength of the economy. As a result, multiple Democratic candidates are pushing ambitious, and potentially expensive, proposals for fixing the housing affordability crisis.

Compare that to the previous campaign, when housing affordability had already reached crisis level, but the final two candidates for president conspicuously avoided the topic of housing and made only vague gestures toward the subject on the campaign trail.

The most substantive housing policy proposal originated from the Democratic candidate for vice president, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia).

Even when confronted with questions about housing at the first of three debates, the two presidential candidates circumnavigated substance.

Immediately after Donald Trump's election, however, the consequences of the election for cities, infrastructure, the environment, and social justice became clear—in fact, the seeds of President Trump's administration had been obvious throughout the campaign.

Trump promised to overturn environmental regulations and shrink the size of federal lands. Trump also demonized inner cities. The administration's efforts repeal the tenets of fair housing protections, add a citizenship question to the U.S.

Census, and rescind environmental regulations were all foretold.

It was still a surprise when the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the Trump administration turned out to be a YIMBY (i.e., Yes In My Back Yard, a term to describe pro-development forces), or a when a Republican in the U.S.

Senate introduced legislation called the “Yes In My Back Yard Act,” or when President Trump signed an executive order to create the “White House Council on Eliminating Barriers to Affordable Housing Development.

” It will be up to more willingly opinionated pundits to consider whether Trump's recent pro-development gestures are designed for a campaign that must appeal to voters in swing states that might still be suffering in the current housing market.

In the context set by the housing market and the Trump administration's policies, only four of the 20 Democratic candidates for president who will take the stage at this week's debates have published a thorough, specific policy proposal intended to address the ongoing housing affordability crisis in the United States. (That number doesn't include candidates who have proposed or implemented housing plans affecting local or state constituents in current or previous offices.)

If that seems a small number, it could be because the housing crisis is still having an impact on the campaign commensurate with the importance of the housing market to voters.

Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, agrees that the chatter about housing at this point in the campaign is unprecedented, recently telling NPR: “We've seen candidates talking more about the crisis and the solutions than we have I think in entire presidential campaigns in history.”

Political Risk

The focus on the housing crisis might imply too much confidence that a chosen policy direction is a slam-dunk for any of these candidates—ideas that might have served the basis for an ideological litmus test in previous campaigns are now highly contested.

Kriston Capps recently wrote on the schism in the Democratic party regarding housing policy.

On one side of the issue are candidates and other famous Democrats pushing for development incentives and a lot of funding and subsidies for housing construction.

On the other hand are leading party figures Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), who opposes development concern for gentrification and displacement.

Then there are NIMBYs, many of whom vote Democrat. What will happen when homeowners, hyper-focused on preserving neighborhood character, hear a Democratic candidate for president talking about loosening local control in favor of more development and the end of single-family zoning? Noah Smith examines the implications of these conflicts in an article written for Bloomberg in June 2019.

Add to that dynamic the Republican Party, including the Trump administration, adopting the views of a run-of-the-mill YIMBY, and it's clear that this housing crisis makes for some strange bedfellows. Voters on either side of the political aisle are bound to encounter personal conflict on the issues.

Climate Change

The housing crisis isn't the only existential threat facing voters. Don't forget climate change, a subject of obvious and essential relevance to many voters, not just planning related professionals and academics.

The Democratic candidates for president have noticed, even if climate change hasn't proven to be an effective political strategy for Democrats on the federal level yet.

By this count, climate change is the topic of planning relevance most ly to appear on the campaign platform of a Democratic candidate for president in 2019.

Compared to the four candidates who created official policies focused on housing, 11 of the 20 Democratic candidates have posted specific policy proposals regarding climate change on their campaign websites (ten are listed here, but you'll have to dig a bit on Pete Buttigieg's website to find that proposal).

In the media, Jay Inslee, Beto O'Rourke, and Joe Biden appear to be leading the discussion on climate change, so far, among the candidates. Inslee has centered climate change as the primary focus of his campaign.

Some of the momentum behind climate change as a key plank in presidential campaign platforms could be the result of simply heading the warnings of reports from the United Nations, the Department of Defense, and the U.S.

Environmental Protection Agency about the consequences of failing to reduce carbon emissions from the world's economies. Or it could be growing concern over extreme weather, rising seas, or record-breaking wildfires.

Or it could be simple political calculus in response to the decision by President Trump to exit the Paris Climate Agreement and rollback the Obama era Clean Power Plan.


 A few candidates have followed the example of Donald Trump in featuring infrastructure as a signature campaign issue and presidential talking point (despite Trump's lack of success so far in living up to campaign promises on the subject).

As will be clear from the following list, infrastructure lags behind housing and climate change as a subject of campaign and media interest at this point in the campaign.

One Big, Final Caveat

All of these policy proposals come with the caveat of the limits of federal power, especially when it comes to overthrowing local land use planning powers or the ability to lower prices for everyone that could benefit from a more accessible rental market.

While all of the recent actions of Republicans (the “Yes In My Back Yard Act” and the “White House Council on Eliminating Barriers to Affordable Housing Development” fall well short of the substantive policy change that produces immediate effects on the economic and regulatory systems perpetuating the housing crisis, at least they come from officials currently holding office.

Democrats still have to get elected before they can start to build the political coalition to put some of these proposals to the test.

Still, the actions of the Trump administration are reason to take the policy proposals of presidential candidates seriously.

The Democratic debate occurs a few days after Trump the president finally made good on Trump the candidate's promise to undo one of President Obama's signature environmental accomplishments, the Clean Power Plan.

 President Donald Trump seemed a long-shot candidate in the primaries before emerging as the frontrunner in the Republican Party. President Trump also seemed unly to win the general election…until he won the general election. I probably don't have to remind you of that history, but it bears repeating.

With so many candidates still in the race, we should look to these debates for indications about how each candidate compares to each other and to President Trump.

It could also be that more than a few voters at this point have stronger opinions on policies related to housing, climate change, and infrastructure than they have about any of these numerous candidates.

We've only got well over a year to sort it all out.


A Food & Climate Guide to the 2020 Democratic Candidates

Amy Klobuchar dives into 2021 policy with $1 trillion infrastructure plan

*As of March 5, 2020, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bloomberg, and Tom Steyer have dropped the presidential race.

The Democratic primary on March 3 is an opportunity to go beyond voting with your fork to voting for a vision for the future you want to see. Having weathered droughts and wildfires in recent years, California voters have named climate change their number one priority, while recent national surveys ranked climate number two, after health care.

From climate and health to jobs and immigration, food touches everything. We’ve compiled some highlights of the major candidates’ positions on food and climate, with a focus on some of their unique plans. Since this is just an overview, click on the links to dive into the candidates’ policy proposals. See you at the ballot box next Tuesday!

Democratic Ag Policies Address Climate Change

Without a doubt, candidates have spent more time addressing agriculture, specifically as it relates to climate, than in recent presidential elections. You can see roundups of candidates’ positions on climate and agriculture here and here.

Both Sanders and Warren have developed detailed policies for transforming the agricultural sector, including breaking up Big Ag monopolies by enforcing antitrust laws. They advocate for returning to New Deal-era policies to reduce overproduction and environmentally destructive farming practices resulting from agribusiness-friendly policies adopted by the Nixon administration. 

Other candidates’ plans, although less comprehensive, also show support for sustainable practices, particularly carbon sequestration on farmland. Biden, Klobuchar, and Buttigieg back biofuels, which help commodity crop farmers in the Midwest. Biofuels are less controversial in the 2020 race than in past elections, although skepticism remains about their environmental benefits.

Sanders Aims to Transform Agriculture 

Sanders has an ambitious plan to invest $410 billion to help all farmers transition to regenerative agriculture. His policies include investing $160 billion in food recovery and composting programs to reduce waste and address hunger. Sanders also proposes investing over $45 billion to create local food processing systems and support cooperatively and community-owned grocery stores.

His plan provides government funding for beginning farmers to purchase farmland, and agricultural easements to protect farmland from development. Sanders’s agricultural plans extend to suburban and urban land; his Victory Lawn and Garden initiative envisions transforming lawns into food-producing or reforested land.

Sanders advocates for strengthening organic standards so that large agribusinesses cannot circumvent rules to disadvantage smaller organic farms. Sanders was the only candidate to attend the Presidential Forum on Combating Climate Change with Organic and Regenerative Agriculture in Iowa. (Warren and Buttigieg provided written responses.)

Bernie Sanders is committed to enacting the Green New Deal and has a comprehensive climate platform that received an A+ from Greenpeace.

Warren Has a Blue New Deal and Equity Plan for Farmers of Color (Campaign Suspended on March 5)

Warren plans to increase funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program to $15 billion (15 times its current funding). This program pays farmers to adopt regenerative practices, such as reducing chemical use and tillage and planting cover crops.

Warren’s policies include expanding the Farm-to-School program a hundredfold, and investing $1 billion in a Farm-to-People program in which federally funded institutions, such as military bases and hospitals, buy fresh food from local farmers. She also supports a ten-fold increase in funding of the USDA’s Local Ag Market Program to fund food hubs, distribution centers, and points of sales in rural and small town communities.

Warren’s policy addresses discrimination against farmers of color including establishing a land trust to buy land from retiring farmers and sell it to new farmers interest-free, with specific benchmarks for sales to Black farmers. Her plans also will require the Farm Credit System to allocate 10% of its $5 billion profits to supporting farmers of color through expanded access to credit.

Warren is unique among the candidates in offering a detailed plan for promoting sustainable seafood and carbon sequestration projects in the ocean.

Her Blue New Deal plan includes investing $5 billion over 10 years to expand the USDA Local Agriculture Market Program to fund food hubs and distribution centers to make it easier for fishermen to sell seafood directly to consumers and also rebuild infrastructure for processing fish.

Her plan is to create a new USDA program to develop ocean-based farming, such as algae and seaweed that may be used in renewable fuel, and a blue carbon program. 

Elizabeth Warren supports the Green New Deal, with an in-depth climate action plan that includes investments in sustainable agriculture.

Biden Advocates for Biofuel Research 

Biden plans to invest $400 billion in clean energy research, innovation, and deployment with a top priority put on developing biofuels as part of his climate change plan.

the other candidates, Biden’s agricultural policies include carbon sequestration on farmland, with a promise to make the agricultural sector achieve net zero emissions. To this end, he supports dramatically expanding the Conservation Stewardship Program and allowing it to participate in carbon markets.

Corporations, individuals and foundations could offset their emissions by contributing to the program’s payments to farmers for sequestering carbon. 

Biden also wants to invest in agricultural research by land grant universities so that the public, not private companies, own patents to agricultural advances including new seeds. 

His plan includes support for regional food systems, where smaller farmers can sell directly to consumers, and beginning farmers by doubling the maximum amount of micro-loans to $100,000 and increasing funding for the USDA’s farm ownership and operating loans. He plans to increase funding for the Sustainable Agriculture and Education Program and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Bloomberg Proposed a Soda Ban (Campaign Suspended on March 4)

Although Mayor Bloomberg showed interest in healthy food issues by proposing a sugary beverages ban in New York (later blocked), presidential candidate Bloomberg has not proposed a farm policy. He has expressed support for expanding Farm Bill conservation programs to reduce carbon emissions and improve sequestration.  

His 2016 comments about farming have recently attracted criticism. In a talk to business school students, he said, “I could teach anybody—even people in this room so no offense intended—to be a farmer. It’s a process.

You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, up comes the corn.

” Bloomberg has donated millions to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign and, though he has been critical of the Green New Deal, has put forth his own climate and clean energy plan.

Buttigieg Supports Soil Carbon Sequestration (Campaign Suspended on March 1)

Buttigieg’s policies include doubling the USDA’s investment in soil carbon sequestration research and development to $50 billion over 10 years, with particular emphasis on research to reduce agriculture’s carbon emissions and increase farmland’s potential to sequester carbon. 

Buttigieg’s policy includes doubling funding for antitrust enforcement against Big Ag monopolies. He plans to launch an investigation of recent mergers in the seed market, and to protect the right of family farmers to replant seeds grown on their own farms. He also advocates for expanding labor and employment law protection to farm workers. 

In terms of climate change, Buttigieg supports a carbon fee and rebate, and has proposed other climate initiatives such as the American Clean Energy Bank, Climate Action Bonds, and U.S. Climate Corps.

Klobuchar Promotes Healthy Soil (Campaign Suspended on March 2)

In addition to support for biofuels, Klobuchar wants to protect native sod and improve soil health by expanding the Soil Health and Income Protection Pilot Program to provide farmers with an alternative to planting crops on less productive land. 

Klobuchar advocates for increased support for beginning farmers through a tax credit for retiring farmers who sell land or equipment to beginning farmers, and mandatory funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. Her policies also support small and family-owned farms including expanding access to capital and loans. 

She co-sponsored the Green New Deal resolution and has a climate plan that sets a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, but she is somewhat more moderate than other candidates in her climate positions.

Steyer’s Research on TomKat Ranch (Campaign Suspended on February 29)

Billionaire Steyer has shown strong personal commitment to sustainable agriculture; he owns TomKat Ranch in Pescadero, where he has invested $10 million to raise grass-fed, hormone-free beef and do scientific research on regenerative grazing.

He also has a climate justice plan, advocating for establishing low-carbon agriculture standards to reduce emissions and water pollution 40% by 2030, and achieve carbon neutrality by 2045.

He supports significant investments in small and mid-sized farmers and underrepresented communities.

Photos of Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer by Gage Skidmore.

Click here to find out how you can vote in the California Presidential Primary on March 3.


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