Joe Biden shifts his focus from agriculture to infrastructure in his visit to Wisconsin
LA CROSSE - President Joe Biden moved his Wisconsin visit from a family farm in the rolling bluffs of Iowa County to the concrete floor of a city bus garage in La Crosse to promote passage of a $973 billion infrastructure bill just days after a bipartisan deal nearly collapsed.
Biden was scheduled to visit Cates Family Farm in rural Spring Green with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to discuss issues facing farmers and boosting rural economies as Wisconsin's small family dairy farms face near extinction. But the president instead made a solo trip to La Crosse's Municipal Transit Utility to push for the passage of an eight-year plan to rebuild bridges and roads and expand public transit and broadband access.
"This will be a generational investment to modernize our infrastructure," Biden said in a makeshift stage at the center of the garage used to repair and house city trucks and buses.
"When I was sworn in five months ago, I pledged to put my whole soul into bringing America together. I said I was running for three reasons, the last one of which I said is unite America," he said. "I admit it's difficult, and I think some of my friends in the press thought it was impossible. I still don't think it is but — because I believe that there's nothing we cannot do."
Biden noted his visit to La Crosse fell on the 65th anniversary of President Dwight Eisenhower signing a bill that created the country's interstate system — the last infrastructure bill of the scope Biden is proposing.
"It's time for us to write a new chapter in that story," he said.
The new itinerary focusing on the infrastructure package came three days after the Democratic president walked back a threat to veto the bipartisan deal if it did not accompany a separate bill known as the American Families Plan that provided money for what Biden calls "human infrastructure," like child care and paid family leave.
Biden on Saturday clarified he would sign the infrastructure bill and remain committed to pursuing both pieces of legislation simultaneously.
Biden spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday the president was visiting Wisconsin "to keep actively making the case for this agreement and getting it over the finish line."
The president's trip to western Wisconsin brings him to one of the state’s key swing regions — and to a congressional district that will be among the most hotly contested in the nation in 2022.
The incumbent U.S. Rep. Ron Kind introduced the president at Tuesday's event, joining Wisconsin's top Democrats: Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Attorney General Josh Kaul.
Following the speech, Biden stopped at The Pearl Ice Cream Shop in downtown La Crosse for two scoops of cookies and cream and strawberry — telling Baldwin, Evers and Kind "I'm buying."
Biden is using his La Crosse trip to make the case for the infrastructure package, which needs a coalition of progressives, Democratic moderates and Republican centrists to turn into law.
Wisconsin's two U.S. senators are split on the bill. Baldwin, of Madison, supports it. Ron Johnson, a Republican from Oshkosh, opposes the deal.
“I’ve been saying for quite some time that we need to invest in infrastructure. Unfortunately, we’ve just spent 6 to 7 trillion that we don’t have and driven up our debt to unsustainable levels," Johnson told reporters in Milwaukee on Monday.
"There’s a real good solution that you could almost get unanimous consent on — take the 700 billion-plus of the ‘COVID relief’ package that isn’t even spent until 2022 to 2028, repurpose that money, and apply the 700 billion toward infrastructure," Johnson said.
Expanded broadband, billions for roads and bridges
The two plans Biden is pushing for would transform rural economies by expanding broadband internet access, which is a key hurdle in rural Wisconsin where about a quarter of rural homes lack access to high-speed internet service.
The infrastructure package — which is four times the size of the infrastructure spending made in response to the Great Recession under the Obama administration — would include $110 billion for roads and bridges that would help relieve traffic and congestion that costs the economy over $160 billion annually, according to a White House memo released this week.
Biden noted the bill would help Milwaukee replace their lead water service lines, which comprise nearly half of the city's 160,000 lines.
"We'll put American workers to work in good paying jobs. Not a minimum wage job, not a $15-an-hour job. A prevailing wage job, good-paying job preparing our roads and our bridges," Biden said. "Y'all know why that matters."
Biden also argued the infrastructure deal’s success would show politics in democracies isn't broken.
“This deal isn’t just the sum of its parts. It’s a signal to ourselves, and to the world, that American democracy can come through and deliver for all our people," Biden said.
The switched topics of Biden’s visit, from agriculture to infrastructure, was disappointing, said Jim Goodman with the group National Family Farm Coalition.
“I was really glad when I saw that the president was going to be here and talk about agriculture, because I thought maybe we could get a little traction on some legislation we’re interested in,” Goodman said.
“But, now, that’s not a message he’s going to hear from anybody in person.”
It was also disappointing that Vilsack didn’t come to Wisconsin, Goodman said.
“Farmers need a fair price for what they produce. We can’t look to the world to soak up all our excess production, and it would have been nice if he could have heard that from someone,” he said.
'Major letdown' focus shifted away from farms
It was a “major letdown” that the president switched topics, and that Vilsack canceled his trip to Wisconsin, said Kevin Hoyer, a grain farmer and agronomist from West Salem.
“Evidently, agriculture is taking a backseat in this administration,” said Hoyer, a Republican.
Monday, he was one of about a dozen farmers, elected officials and others who participated in a Republican roundtable discussion on agriculture at Morningstar Dairy farm in Onalaska.
Immigrant labor, environmental regulations, taxes and supply chain problems were among the issues addressed.
It’s reached the point, Hoyer said, where most small farms have at least one of the owners working an off-farm job in order to make ends meet. At the same time, the price they receive for their goods sometimes doesn’t even cover their costs.
“There’s such a disconnect between what it takes to produce a gallon of milk or a bushel of grains and what the ending cost is on the dinner table. It makes it difficult for smaller farms to be economically sustainable," Hoyer said.
After Biden’s speech, Darin Von Ruden, a dairy farmer from Westby and president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, got a minute to speak with the president.
He told him the Agriculture Department should consider some type of supply management system for the dairy industry so that farmers could cover their production costs and keep milk supplies in balance with the demand.
It was something Vilsack could look into, the president responded.
Von Ruden also asked Biden to add agriculture to the administration’s list of antitrust concerns.
Congress has spent more than a year investigating the vast reach of technology’s biggest names including Facebook and Amazon. Democrats have pledged to strengthen antitrust laws and break up monopolies in the seed, pesticide and meat industries as well.
Overall, Von Ruden said, he’s pleased with Biden’s infrastructure plan.
“There certainly could be more for agriculture in there, but we all use the roads and bridges, so anything that’s good for the majority of the country is certainly going to help agriculture, too,” he said.
Republicans raise money off of Biden trip
Republicans already started fundraising off Biden's trip, arguing he abandoned addressing issues facing the state's agriculture industry.
“Joe Biden’s bait and switch is a clear sign that Democrats know they have no chance in rural Wisconsin," Republican National Committee spokeswoman Preya Samsundar said in a statement.
Biden’s infrastructure plan calls for $65 billion to be spent on making broadband, also known as high-speed internet, available everywhere in the nation.
A significant portion of rural Wisconsin — if it has access to the internet at all — lacks access at broadband speeds, meaning a connection of at least 25 megabit-per second downloads and 3 Mbps uploads. For many people, ordinary tasks such as posting a video on a website are all but impossible.
Biden has said he wants to make it easier for municipalities and member-owned cooperatives to build and operate networks in competition with companies such as AT&T, Frontier Communications and CenturyLink. But the program would still probably pour billions of dollars into the private sector.
“We are hopeful,” Bill Esbeck, president of the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association, which represents broadband providers, said about the infrastructure plan.
“It certainly is encouraging that broadband continues to be a front-burner issue at the national, state and local levels,” he said.