Throwing Money at Infrastructure Projects Is Not Enough
It’s time to invest in the workforce we need to implement the bipartisan infrastructure law.
When Congress passed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in late 2021, the floor debate referenced “shovel-ready” projects that would promptly produce results. Unfortunately, the hope of shovel-ready projects isn’t realistic.
Even modest budget increases can be hard for the bureaucracy to digest, and when the increases are massive, delays can seem interminable. We need to invest in the workforce needed to effectively implement the infrastructure law.
The road from appropriations to project action is complex. Before congressionally appropriated funds are actually spent, the receiving agency must get an apportionment from the Office of Management and Budget and a warrant from the Treasury Department, a process that may take weeks. Only then is the money actually in the agency’s “bank account.”
Money is obligated by the agency when a federal employee signs off on the expenditure, typically through a grant, a contract, or when a newly hired agency employee comes to work—all of which can also take months, or sometimes even years.
While the appropriations process in Congress can be a political exercise, the reality is that an army of civil servants—budget analysts, HR specialists, grants specialists and contracting specialists—is absolutely essential to get appropriations out the door to produce results “on the ground.”
The complexity and challenges of this process can be understood through Congress’ attempts to address the growing crisis of wildfires in the United States. Wildfires are killing people and destroying property worth billions of dollars. Wildfires emit tremendous amounts of greenhouse gasses and are scorching our ecosystems on an unprecedented scale. May is Wildfire Awareness Month, but “fire season” has become a year-round occurrence.
Under the infrastructure law, Congress gave $1.6 billion to the U.S. Forest Service and another $400 million to the Interior Department, representing annualized budget increases of 20%-50% for these programs. Funding increases of that scale are very challenging to manage.
The same agency procurement, grants management, budget, and human resources staff who help obligate the new fire monies are responsible for addressing the regular fiscal 2022 appropriations that Congress provided for the hundreds of other programs in their agencies. As a result, there may be little progress on spending infrastructure law fire funding this fiscal year. So, what can be done to accelerate the process? Here are a few ideas:
- The Agriculture and Interior departments should develop and use enterprise-level indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (ID/IQ) contracts for staff augmentation in their contracting, human resources, and financial assistance functions. These contracts could allow agencies to be agile in flexing a contractor workforce to support their own employees in these support functions.
- Congress should give the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the same “good neighbor authority” that the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management enjoy. Good neighbor authority allows state and local government agencies to work on Forest Service and BLM lands with a tiny fraction of the paperwork and delays associated with federal contracting.
- The President’s Council on Environmental Quality should expand the categorical exclusions under the National Environmental Policy Act that are available to agencies for projects to reduce wildfire risk. Currently, NEPA-related delays can add months to years to the timeline for work to manage fuels, tempting wildfire to instead incinerate those lands on its own schedule.
- The Agriculture and Interior departments should help grow the pipeline of potential firefighters. All levels of government compete for the same firefighters. Government needs to grow the wildfire workforce by encouraging academic institutions to attract students to this area of public service. In particular, Interior should promote this career at tribal community and four-year colleges to create jobs for people whose communities endure high unemployment rates but are also culturally attuned to the land.
- Federal land management agencies should aggressively implement the 2015 Land Management Workforce Flexibility Act so that people who had previously worked as part-time firefighters for these agencies could apply for permanent firefighting jobs on an equal footing with the agency’s current employees.
Congress should be applauded for recognizing through funding in the infrastructure law the importance of more effectively addressing the nation’s multiple and growing wildfire challenges. However, granting the money is just the first step. The agencies need to have the necessary human infrastructure in place if they are to rise to this challenge and demonstrate much-needed results for the American people.
Scott Cameron, former acting assistant secretary for policy, management and budget at the Interior Department, is a senior advisor at Cornea Inc. and a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.