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The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in November, has been touted as a once-in-a-generation investment in our nation’s most critical infrastructure. Providing $1.2 trillion in total funding, including $500 billion in new spending, the bill seeks to address the nation’s failing infrastructure, including highways and bridges that have been in disrepair for decades, and provide broadband access for underserved communities across the country.

Despite the bipartisan effort to pass the bill into law, the president’s rhetoric surrounding the legislation has continually focused on its ability to provide “good-paying union jobs,” despite the lack of any included language within the bill that would seem to support union jobs over other construction industry positions. This speculative approach defies the congressional intent of the legislation and will affect the allocation of a significant portion of these funds that could also limit the ultimate success of the bipartisan infrastructure package.

This isn’t the only guidance from the Biden administration that stands in contrast to the congressional intent of the bipartisan bill. In February, more than half of the Senate Republican Conference urged U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg to rescind an official agency memo from the Federal Highway Administration titled “Policy on Using Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Resources to Build a Better America.” In their letter, Senate Republicans argued against the policies outlined in the memo that could infringe on states’ flexibility to address their specific infrastructure needs and push to advance certain surface transportation projects over others based on environmental review factors, while the bill’s language lacks any of these specific requirements for states to follow. 

Executive Order 14063 would direct all federal agencies to require PLAs on federal construction projects exceeding $35 million in total value to “promote the economy and efficiency in Federal procurement.” However, multiple studies of hundreds of taxpayer-funded school construction projects found that PLA mandates increase the cost of construction by 12% to 20% compared to similar non-PLA projects.

Project labor agreement mandates unfairly discourage competition from quality, qualified nonunion contractors and their employees, which make up 87.4% of the private U.S. construction industry workforce. PLA mandates also effectively prevent many small, women-, veteran- and minority-owned construction businesses and their workforces from participating in federally funded construction projects, because many of these are merit shop contractors. For many states with a limited union workforce, these mandates could lead to projects being awarded to contractors and employers outside of the state where the work is being performed and limit the ability to promote local jobs and the local economies of these communities. 

In addition, recent government-mandated PLAs on federal and federally assisted projects have resulted in litigation, among other complications. In many cases, hardworking taxpayers are getting less and paying more when PLAs are encouraged or mandated.

If the federal infrastructure package—to say nothing of other critical federal investments in construction—is to fulfill its intended purpose, Congress must ensure that the opportunity to build these projects is open to all Americans, regardless of labor affiliation. 

Members of Congress have already pushed back against the measure. In March, U.S. Senator Todd Young, R-Ind., led 42 of his Republican colleagues in a letter opposing President Biden’s executive order and calling for a fair and open bidding process for federal construction projects. A similar letter received support from 59 Republican members of the House. With strong opposition from Republicans in both chambers, should power shift after November’s election, the administration could face tougher questioning—and even legislative efforts to prevent the order from taking effect.

Americans deserve more efficient and effective policies that will encourage all qualified contractors and their skilled workforces to compete to build long-lasting projects at the best price. The Biden administration has a unique opportunity to uphold the bipartisan work included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and promoting PLA schemes does not fit that agenda.  


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