This is part 2 of a two-part series assessing America’s infrastructural integrity and the outlying factors impeding policy change.
Who is most directly to blame for the presently unsustainable, and pitiful, state of affairs?
Congress is not guiltless. Aside from kicking the proverbial can down the road for decades and feeding into public skepticism with legislative shenanigans, they also hold a vice grip on the transportation industry without equal in any other economic sector, which stymies the productivity of civil engineering and skews the public’s understanding of government priorities.
To this point, policy director of the Florida-based James Madison Institute, Robert Sanchez, explained to the HPR, “Infrastructure is entirely dependent on the government—from funding, to zoning requirements, to lengthy, drawn-out regulatory oversights like environmental impact assessments; the list goes on. During this long process, interest gradually wanes and myths spread about what the government finds to be the most pressing an issue.”
As a result, the average American citizen often receives mixed signals about the urgency of infrastructure investments and tends to hear about them infrequently or in staccato over a protracted period of time. Without singular focus, less-mainstream issues (not named the economy) tend to fall by the wayside of public scrutiny.
The onus is not only on government for our collective myopia, however. Instead, what the real common denominator comes down to is a lack of active and vociferous private interest groups in the transportation sector involved in the political process and lobbying for legislative action.*
In the aftermath of the Citizens United decision, Americans are understandably not compassionate to and downright suspicious of private special interest involvement in the political process for its role in purportedly perverting democratic ideals.
Nonetheless, these same pilloried groups play a critical role in holding Congress transparent and accountable to the public, and keeping Congressional staff knowledgeable about niche issues with factual and expert insight. One need look no further than specialized groups such as the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, which work to increase research funding for a rare blood cancer called multiple myeloma. In light of former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro’s admission to having the incurable disease, the group helped inform policymakers in Congress about the disease, the plight of patients, and lack of research programs at the federal level.
In their classic Harvard Business Review article on strategic corporate social responsibility (CSR), Michael Porter and Mark Kramer lay out three categories of corporate lobbying interventions: generic social issues, which are important to society but are not directly related to a company’s business; value chain social impacts, which are the footprints a company leaves behind through its regular operations; and social dimensions of competitive context, which are the conditions in a society that a company requires for success (e.g. reliable roadways).
Naturally, special interests groups tied to the transportation industry, like AAA, General Motors, and UPS, exist and engage in lobbying activities. However, the vast majority of these special interest activities straddle a grey area that exists between the latter two CSR categories highlighted by Porter and Kramer, and nary one group devotes itself explicitly and faithfully to infrastructural construction and maintenance.
“The motoring public (AAA, and other stakeholder groups) have the ability to leverage members for grassroots support of legislation and other efforts, but most of those groups have been focused on highway safety issues, distracted driving, etc., NOT [sic] on building roads,” by the assertion of UPS’s Kara Ross.
Unfortunately, it would appear that in lieu of serving as a bulwark to federal irresponsibility in the transportation sector, private corporations whose business models rely on infrastructural integrity have fallen prey to the same skepticism and lack of urgency that the American people have.
The government watchdog Open Secrets tracks this trend quantitatively. Though non-profit advocacy groups are notorious for their devotion to a cause while being poorly funded and of dubious efficacy, private special interest groups have the capacity to lobby in the name of CSR. Yet, the transportation sector has remained idle and comprises a meager 2.5 percent share of all special interest group spending in the United States.
Instead of serving as vehicles of accountability and transparency, private special interests have perpetuated the federal government’s tendency of lulling the American people into disillusionment. As Sheridan indicates, “Infrastructure is often taken for granted and is simply not a sexy issue.”
As Election Day draws near, ask yourself why infrastructure is almost always an invisible issue in federal elections and never ranks among the top 10 issues in election exit polls. Perhaps the real problem is that our infrastructure is like the bones in our body: they are so intrinsic to our support structure that we hardly ever think about them, yet they help us live the privileged lives we lead. We do not realize anything wrong until they crack. Will we just let them, though?
* For clarification, private interest groups and special interests allude to the monies and lobbyists employed by private industry, not trade associations or non-profit entities.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Figure credit: OpenSecrets.org