Editor’s Column: Tennessee’s GOP representatives blew infrastructure vote

All seven of the state’s Republican congressmen voted against the bill while our senators lobbed insults

November 10, 2021 5:03 am
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 21: Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) speaks during a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on September 21, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Ting Shen-Pool/Getty Images)

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-TN, (Photo by Ting Shen-Pool/Getty Images)

There’s no secret that Tennessee’s infrastructure is in woeful condition.  

The most notable recent example came in May, when a routine inspection of the Hernando de Soto Bridge in Memphis prompted frantic calls to 911: Inspectors found a crack in the bridge so large the waters of the Mississippi River below were visible through it. 

While a major conduit of commercial and private traffic, the de Soto, crossed by nearly 70,000 vehicles daily, isn’t the only bridge in the state that needs work. We have 881 bridges that need repair at an estimated cost of $3.8 billion and ample information to document our long-neglected roads, bridges, dams and energy systems. 

The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR,) a state agency made up of legislators, constitutional officers, local and county officials and a representative from Gov. Bill Lee’s office reported in January the state needs at least $58.6 billion of public infrastructure improvements during the five-year period that began in June 2019 and ends in June 2024. 

The 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure gives Tennessee a C-, noting that driving on roads in need of repair costs each Tennessean an average of $209 per year. 

To be fair, things could be worse. Tennessee ranks 20th in the nation in number of structurally unsound bridges and 41st in terms of percentage of structurally unsound bridges, according to a 2021 report prepared by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, an advocacy and trade group. 

 U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn called the infrastructure plan, which is set to give Tennessee billions of dollars to repair our shoddy roads and failing bridges, a “gateway to socialism.” Many were quick to point out that the late Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican, former president and World War II commander of the European Theater of Operations, was anything but a socialist and he’s the guy responsible for the U.S. interstate system

Former President Donald Trump recognized the issue and early in his first presidential campaign, said he planned to upgrade America’s failing infrastructure. In 2017, he proposed expenditures of $1 trillion to deliver the kind of infrastructure “our people deserve, and, frankly, our country, deserve.”

Trump couldn’t pull it off. Democratic lawmakers were suspicious of his plans and he couldn’t pull together the bipartisan coalition needed to pass a bill. 

President Joe Biden did manage to cobble together enough votes from both parties to pass his $1.2 million infrastructure package last week, a package larger than the one Trump proposed and while suffering from low approval ratings akin to Trump’s in 2017. But the package only includes $550 billion in new spending. The rest is reauthorization of existing infrastructure dollars.

While 13 Republicans crossed over to vote for the infrastructure bill—and a handful of Democrats voted against it— bipartisanship didn’t extend to Tennessee’s delegation.

Of Tennessee’s nine congressional representatives, only two, Democrats Jim Cooper and Steve Cohen, voted to approve the Biden infrastructure package. 

What about District 3 Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, in whose district a large chunk of concrete overpass railing collapsed into the middle of I-75 in 2019? He joined his fellow GOP congressmen in voting against the bill, which is slated to deliver $5.8 billion for federal-aid highway apportioned programs and $302 million for bridge replacement and repairs to Tennessee. 

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN), voted against infrastructure improvements despite a collapsing interstate in his district. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It’s only about 10% of what we need over the next few years. But it’s a good start.

At this point, I’m pretty sure we all expect politicians and lawmakers to be so dug into their partisan trenches that they will vote against projects that are actually good for their constituents, turn down money if it’s offered by someone they don’t like and then lie about why they voted against it with a little fear mongering a la mode. 

Tennessee’s GOP federal delegation did not disappoint, with both U.S. Senators playing the ‘socialism’ card. 

Senior U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn tweeted out on Saturday morning that “Joe Biden’s infrastructure package is a gateway to socialism and his ‘build back broke’ government takeover.” 

Many were quick to point out that the late Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican, former president and World War II commander of the European Theater of Operations, was anything but a socialist and he’s the guy responsible for the U.S. interstate system

Hagerty’s tweets were almost identical to Blackburn’s, invoking the same phrase about good roads being a ‘gateway to socialism.’

If being a Socialist will fix the potholes in Tennessee’s roads and keep our power on and our bridges from collapsing, I know plenty of people ready to sign up.

Unfortunately, many Tennesseans will pay attention to Blackburn’s and Hagerty’s hot takes. Too many of them live in rural areas that stand to greatly benefit from the safe roads, safe bridges, broadband internet access and weatherization to cut utility bills that will be paid for by the Biden infrastructure bill.

Blackburn, Hagerty and the rest of the congressional delegation should have leapt at the chance to deliver such improvements to their constituents. They could be heralded as heroes – but they know that by voting against much-needed help for Tennessee and continuing to blare falsehoods that fit the GOP narrative, they still will be. 


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J. Holly McCall
J. Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.