DeFazio is one of a small handful of lawmakers who will have an outsize influence on what Biden is able to accomplish economically. To call him a supporter of far-reaching economic legislation would be an understatement. He was one of the few members of Congress who voted against Obama’s stimulus package because he found it too timid, and last year he helped shepherd a $1.5 trillion bill through the House that included large pots of money for rail, broadband internet, zero-emission buses and charging stations. (It did not pass the Senate.) As big as that price tag was, he was not averse to increasing it. When I pointed out that Biden’s campaign proposal appeared to call for spending more on equipment like electric vehicles, he quickly proclaimed himself open to the amount. But powerful allies invariably have their own priorities too, and DeFazio is no exception. He rhapsodized to me about new bridges and tunnels and talked up the benefits of pedestrian-friendly streets. Then he added this pitch: For less than $10 billion, the U.S. Postal Service could convert its delivery vehicles to an all-electric fleet. “The fleet is decrepit, dirty, falling apart,” he said. “It’s over 30 years old.”
With Democrats in control of Congress, the problem for Biden may not be passing some version of his economic agenda so much as sorting through the sheer volume of asks suddenly pouring in from hundreds of members and industry groups. Representative Ro Khanna of California, for one, has introduced a bill that would spend $100 billion over five years to fund research in industries like quantum computing, robotics and biotechnology and to situate tech hubs in areas hit hard by deindustrialization. Most of “the top 20 universities in the world are American — places like the University of Wisconsin, University of Michigan, which are dispersed across the country,” says Khanna, who represents parts of Silicon Valley and was a co-chair of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. “There’s no reason we can’t see innovation and next-generation technology in these communities.”
Wind-turbine manufacturers, whose supply chain goes through Europe, Asia and Canada, are seeking tax breaks for domestic production. So is the solar industry, which currently imports most of its assembled panels from Malaysia and Vietnam. The semiconductor industry has lobbied for tens of billions of dollars to upgrade production facilities and build new ones, on the grounds that semiconductors are a foundational technology — sort of like mechanically engineered stem cells that power everything from 5G mobile networks to autonomous vehicles and the internet of things. John Neuffer, the chief executive of the Semiconductor Industry Association, says supply shortages during the pandemic have focused minds in Washington on the importance of domestic production.
Many of these proposals — and dozens more, like money to manufacture medical equipment, to buy e-scooters and other “micromobility” vehicles, to build “smart” pavement that can digitally connect cars to roads — made cameo appearances in Biden’s campaign, and the administration has expressed interest in pursuing them.
Deese, who has been overseeing Biden’s economic plans, told me that the priority when it comes to industrial support will be those areas where subsidies can encourage companies to spend money on factories and technology in the near term that they might not otherwise spend for years — “pulling forward” their investments, as he puts it.
Rodrik, the Harvard economist who is sympathetic to industrial policy, says the practice should really be seen as a way to ensure that American companies continue to innovate, more than as a means of vastly increasing employment. But Deese argues that the transition to a cleaner economy — installing solar panels, plugging abandoned oil wells, retrofitting buildings to make them more efficient — will generate lots of new jobs, even if manufacturing equipment doesn’t produce as many as desired. And he adds that we shouldn’t underestimate the job-creation potential of new equipment either.
As a rough model, he points to a Senate bill, based partly on the U.A.W. electric-vehicles paper, that would spend some $400 billion over a decade on cash rebates for consumers who buy U.S.-assembled electric or hybrid cars. The bill, proposed by Senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, would also spend close to $50 billion funding the construction of charging stations nationally and provide nearly $20 billion in subsidies to help manufacturers build new plants and upgrade existing ones. “It’s the basic theory of the case,” Deese says. “Significant consumer incentives coupled with retooling for factories and a build-out of infrastructure.” The deal for manufacturers would become still more compelling with regulations mandating lower vehicle emissions and a commitment by the government to buy clean energy and clean equipment — a process Biden initiated with an executive order he signed in late January.