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NEC Deputy Director Bharat Ramamurti

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President Biden’s proposed $2 trillion infrastructure plan would provide billions in funding for job creation, roads and bridges, clean energy, affordable housing, high-speed internet, the care economy and more. White House National Economic Council deputy director Bharat Ramamurti joins opinions writer Jonathan Capehart to discuss how the Biden administration plans to build infrastructure for the 21st century, pay for the ambitious eight-year plan, and pass it through Congress to ignite the post-pandemic economy. Join Washington Post Live on Thursday, April 8 at 10:00am ET.

Video Transcript

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JONATHAN CAPEHART: Good morning. I'm Jonathan Capehart. Opinion writer for the Washington Post. Welcome to Washington Post Live. President Biden is working to reignite the economy with his $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan. And one of the people who played a key role in crafting and promoting it, is with us this morning. Bharat Ramamurti sits on the National Economic Council where he is the Deputy Director for Financial Reform and Consumer Protection. And he joins us today. Mr. Ramamurti, thank you for being here this morning.

BHARAT RAMAMURTI: Thanks for having me.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: All right. So let's talk about the American Jobs Plan. Just about everyone has been calling it quote "The Infrastructure Bill." But it's much more than that. Right? Walk us through it.

BHARAT RAMAMURTI: Sure. I mean, the goal of this plan is to address long standing problems that both Democrats and Republicans have acknowledged exist with our economy. So let me just give you a few examples. 400,000 schools and child care centers still get water through lead pipes even though we know that lead exposure has a harmful effect on children. That's a problem that people have acknowledged for a long time. This plan actually aims to fix it.

35% of families in rural areas don't have access to high speed broadband internet. That's a problem that both Democrats and Republicans have talked about. This plan actually intends on solving that. And we've seen just in the last year already in places like Texas that our power grid is vulnerable. And that outages cost lives, they cost $70 billion a year in economic activity according to the Department of Energy. This plan makes serious investments in improving and upgrading our power grids so we avoid those kinds of outages in the future.

So really, this is a plan about solving real long standing problems in the American economy. Things that are hurting families. Things that are holding back our economy. And things that are undermining our competitive standing in the world.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: One of the things-- excuse me. One of the things that Republican critics point out is the focus on child care and care facilities. And raising the question, what does that have to do with infrastructure? What's your counter to that?

BHARAT RAMAMURTI: Well, I think it's kind of funny that this argument has gotten off on this track about defining infrastructure. I guess I would say that if we are dealing with a crippling cost of long term care, we are making it easier for families to care for elderly parents, we are making it easier for them to go to work to get child care so that they can return to the workforce, I fret don't think that the American people care whether some pundits describe that as infrastructure or not. The bottom line is that these are serious problems that are holding back families that are holding back our economy. Again, that are problems that both Democrats and Republicans have acknowledged over time need fixing.

I would encourage folks who are looking at this plan to tell us if these are problems that you think are worth solving, and if you have a different approach, we welcome that. Let's have that discussion. If you don't think that these are problems, tell us that too. But I think this debate about what is or isn't infrastructure is kind of beside the point.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: And that's one of the reasons why I made a point of saying what the name of the actual bill is-- The American Jobs Plan-- because when you look at it in terms of jobs, that's where child care and care facilities all comes into play. But let's keep talking more about sort of the infrastructure pieces of this plan, and talk about broadband access. It's one of the major points of bipartisan agreement in this bill is for expanded broadband access, especially in rural areas. What will this bill do to help provide reliable internet to those who need it? Because that's the linchpin of being a part of the 21st century economy.

BHARAT RAMAMURTI: Yeah. You're exactly right. And the President has made this analogy that in the 1930s, huge swaths of the country didn't have access to electricity. And that was holding them back from fully participating both in the economy and in society. And so the federal government back then made a historic investment in bringing electricity to every home and every farm in the country. And those families benefited, and our whole economy benefited. And in many ways, broadband is like the electricity of this century. You need it to participate fully in school, and work, to look for work, and to participate in society.

And so I think we believe that bringing broadband to every single home in the country is good for not only those families who lack it right now, but also good for the economy. So the President's plan is to make a historic investment of up to $100 billion to provide loans, grants, other forms of support both to nonprofit entities and for profit companies to build out broadband to those areas that don't have it now. And our projection is that with this kind of investment, we can bring high speed reliable, affordable broadband to every home in the country by 2030. But I want to talk about other parts of the problem too. Oh, sorry.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Yeah. No, no, no. Go ahead.

BHARAT RAMAMURTI: The other problem here is that there are a lot of areas in the country now where people have access to broadband. It exists in their neighborhood. But they can't access it because of the cost. The United States, Americans, pay among the highest prices for broadband internet across the world. Compared to Europe, for example, for the same speed internet Americans are paying $30, $40, $50 a month more. And so part of what the President is also committed to is bringing down the price of internet access for all Americans to make it easier for those folks who have access but can't afford it to actually afford it in the future.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: So the question I was about to ask you is that internet companies are saying that the government shouldn't quote unquote micromanage their broadband infrastructure, or prioritize creating their own. What's your reaction to that?

BHARAT RAMAMURTI: Well, look, I think that we all share a goal. I think Democrats, and Republicans, and the private sector on building out broadband, making sure that every American has access to it. You know, in our view, it's reasonable to prioritize those types of nonprofits like rural electrical co-ops, municipal governments, that want to build out broadband. And are not motivated by a profit motive. They are focused on making sure that people that they are serving have access, and that they can do it at an affordable price.

That said, that's not going to be the appropriate solution for every type of community. The private sector is going to play a very large role in providing broadband infrastructure. And we plan on working with them very closely. But again, to go back to the analogy about electricity, when we did rural electrification in the 1930s, the heart and soul of that was working with rural electrical co-ops across the country. Nonprofit entities. And we think that they will play a large role in this effort as well.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: I want to touch on race equity before we get into the larger political issues here. And this is one of the first major spending bills that explicitly addresses racial inequality, racial inequity not inequality. Inequity. What are some of the provisions designed to help further racial equity?

BHARAT RAMAMURTI: Well, I think honestly from both the President and the vice President it's been clear that promoting racial equity, that considering racial equity, has to be a part of every single aspect of what we do. And you can see it, I think, in nearly every single aspect of this plan. I think, unfortunately, if you look back at our history, a lot of the infrastructure investments that we have made in the past as a federal government have excluded communities of color. Or have even harmed communities of color when you look at, for example, how highways have been built through those communities.

And so when we look forward now to the types of investments that need to be made, I think a lot of that ends up going into those communities because that's where the need is. And so let me give you a few examples. There is a severe lack of affordable housing in the United States that is driving up the cost of rent for millions of families. It's making it harder for first time homebuyers to buy a home. What our plan proposes to do is make a historic investment in building affordable housing all across the country. And that will have a disproportionate effect on Black and Hispanic families because they are disproportionately likely to be renters.

The broadband issue that I talked about, there's this well-known digital divide where black and Hispanic families are significantly less likely to be able to have access to the internet in part because of the high cost of the internet. So our plan to expand access to broadband to bring down prices for families is going to help close that digital divide. And I think when it comes to worker training, it comes to some of the climate related investments in this plan, there are key racial equity components to all of them. And as I said, that is because it is a key priority of both the President and the vice President.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: So let's talk about the politics here. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, one of the President's closest friends and allies in the Senate, has said he believes that Congress should break the American jobs plan into several pieces. For instance, a hard infrastructure bill that would presumably achieve bipartisan support. Do you agree with this approach?

BHARAT RAMAMURTI: I think, number one, the President has been clear that these are problems that we need to solve and he's committed to solving them. Number two, he's also committed to the fact that no family who makes under $400,000 a year will see a tax increase under this plan. Beyond that, I think he's open to ideas and to different permutations of how we actually get this stuff accomplished. If there are things that the Senate, that the House, are able to do on a bipartisan basis even if it is not the entirety of his plan, I think we are supportive of that. And we look forward to working with both Democrats and Republicans to try and get as much of that accomplished as we can.

That said, the President has been clear that each and every one of these problems that he's addressing in this plan is worth solving. And he wants to figure out ways of solving them.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: OK. So Senator Coons also said a smaller price tag around say a trillion dollars might be more feasible. President Biden's plan wants to go all the way. $2.3 trillion. Is $1 trillion enough?

BHARAT RAMAMURTI: As I said, I think we are open to working on a bipartisan basis to addressing some of these issues that can get bipartisan support. And we think that every single aspect of this bill should get bipartisan support. As I've said, almost every single one of the problems that's identified here, whether it's a lack of worker training, broadband, removing lead pipes. These are issues that have gotten broad bipartisan support. And I should just add, beyond Congress, a poll that came out yesterday showed that 73% of the American people support this plan. Including nearly 60% of Republicans. So we think that there's broad bipartisan support for the entirety of the plan among the American people. And we hope that that translates to broad bipartisan support in Congress as well.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Unfortunately, Mr. Ramamurti, we already know that Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell from Kentucky has already said the GOP, the Republicans in the Senate, will likely oppose the bill. The President said yesterday that he is, and as you've been saying in this interview, that he wants to work with Republicans. What specifically is the President willing to negotiate on?

BHARAT RAMAMURTI: Look, I think this is the beginning of a discussion. The President would prefer to work through regular order. He would prefer to bring Republicans to the table. He's already had two meetings in the Oval Office with Republicans to talk about different aspects of infrastructure. As I've noted, there is long standing Republican support for many of these priorities, including broadband. And our hope is that we can work with Republicans, including Leader McConnell, to move as much of this as we can through regular order.

But I want to keep emphasizing the point that the President believes that we have been talking about these problems for far too long, and the cost of inaction is very high. We cannot continue to have a country, the richest country in the world, where 400,000 schools and child care centers are getting water through lead pipes. We can't have a country where 35% of the rural population doesn't have access to high speed internet. We have to solve these problems. We prefer to solve them with Republicans. If we can't do that, then we have to look at other options.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Right. And yesterday, Senator Coons again of Delaware said yesterday that Republicans have until May to offer compromises before Democrats move to pass the President's package on their own. Do you think the President will stick to that timeline?

BHARAT RAMAMURTI: Look, I think that different folks are going to have different timelines. That's not one specifically that I've heard from the President. I do think he believes that there is urgency here. And it's not just because every day that goes by these problems are getting worse and more people are getting harmed. I think one of the things that he's been focused on is that while we are sitting around, other countries-- including China-- are making quick, large, historic investments in many of these issues.

In China, as a percentage of their economy is blowing us out of the water when it comes to their investments in infrastructure. They're not sitting around and waiting. And I think the President believes that in order to maintain our standing as the biggest economy in the world, as the leading economy in the world, we need to make these investments to improve our competitive standing.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: So I want to hone in on-- you've used the word urgency. You, in a previous answer, used the word regular order. On today's op-ed page in the Post, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has declared his opposition to filibuster reform and to use of reconciliation to passing bills. He says that Congress should get back to-- here's that phrase again-- regular order and quote unquote do its job. Is Senator Manchin being naive? Is he even realistic? Is it possible to pass the President's plan, the American Jobs Plan, without reconciliation or without reforming the filibuster?

BHARAT RAMAMURTI: Look, I think that Senator Manchin also made the point that it's incumbent on Republicans to stop just saying, no. And to come to the table with real ideas. look, the President like I said, has already hosted Republicans to talk about infrastructure two times in the Oval Office. We are open to ideas about how to solve these problems. If Republicans agree that the number of lead pipes in this country is a travesty, we're open to their ideas on how to solve that. If they agree that the cost of housing, the cost of rent, is too high, we're open to their ideas on how to solve it. Like I said, we've incorporated a lot of good bipartisan ideas into this plan already. But if there are others, we are open to that.

Senator Manchin has made clear that he supports a large investment in infrastructure. I know that for his state of West Virginia broadband expansion is a big deal and a priority of his. There are plenty of areas where we anticipate being able to work with Senator Manchin, and to address issues that both Democrats and Republicans have identified as priorities for a long time. So look, we're at the beginning of this process. There's going to be some twists and turns. The President, like I said, would prefer to work through regular order, have Republicans come to the table, have a good strong debate of ideas, and try and solve as many of these problems as we can.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Let's talk about a twist and turn in all this that also involves Senator Manchin. And that involves corporate taxes. In the Trump Tax Plan, dropped corporate taxes from 35% to 21%. President Biden in the American Jobs Plan is proposing increasing those the tax rate to 28%. Senator Manchin has come out and says, not 28%. 25%. Do you think the President-- is that a worthy compromise for the President to come down from 28% to 25% if that means getting Senator Manchin on board?

BHARAT RAMAMURTI: Well, on the tax side as the same as on the investment side, we want there to be this kind of discussion about what the right answers are. And we're glad to see this kind of discussion. The President believes that 28% is the right number. I mean, to take a step back, our corporate tax system is broken. And it was made worse by the 2017 tax bill that was passed under the previous administration.

If you look at the data as a percentage of our economy, the amount of revenue we're getting from corporations is about 0.5%. US multinational corporations in 2018 paid a average tax rate of 8%. Way, way less than what your typical middle class family is going to be paying in taxes. And at the same time, our tax code actually encourages investment in jobs overseas relative to the United States. So what the President has proposed is a made in America tax plan that, yes, involves increasing the corporate tax rate. But also addressing some loopholes and other provisions that actually encourage shifting profits, shifting jobs, shifting investment overseas.

Again, if other folks have ideas on how to accomplish the President's goals here, which are to drive investment into the United States, and to generate additional revenue from corporations, we're open to them. Including from Senator Manchin. And like I said, I think we're at the beginning of this process. But the President believes that 28% is the right rate.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: And final question for you. And that is you say we are at the beginning of this process. How long is the President willing to let the process go before he says it's time to get this done?

BHARAT RAMAMURTI: Well, look. I think we are clear eyed about the fact that this is likely to be a little bit of a longer process than the one we just saw around the rescue bill that Congress passed. And we're fine with that. But the flip side of that is that for years and years, maybe even decades in some cases, we have been talking about these problems and failing to act on them. And the problems have gotten worse and worse in the meantime.

And I think that the President believes very strongly that the time for talking about this has passed. That the time for acting on it is now. That countries like China are moving quickly to address these kinds of issues while we sit on our hands. And so he expects and would hope that Congress will work with him to pass as many of these priorities as possible over the course of this year.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Bharat Ramamurti, Deputy Director for Financial Reform and Consumer Protection at the National Economic Council at the White House, thank you very much for coming to Washington Post Live.

BHARAT RAMAMURTI: Thank you.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: And as always, thank you for tuning in. Come back at noon Eastern today for another installment in our Race in America series. And a conversation on allyship with NAACP Legal Defense Fund President and Director Counsel, Sherrilyn Ifill and AAJC President, John C. Yang. Then at 3:00 PM Eastern today, my colleague, John Woodrow Cox, will discuss his new book Children Under Fire. An American Crisis with Peter Ambler, Gabby Giffords, and Greg Gregory. Once again, I'm Jonathan Capehart, Opinion Writer for the Washington Post. Thank you very much for tuning in to Washington Post Live.