Engineering Influence had the privilege to sit down with Representative Cheri Bustos, who represents Illinois' 17th Congressional District this week to discuss the newly announced House blueprint on Infrastructure, the importance of investing in rural America and her focus on workforce development and economic development.
Host: Welcome to another edition of Engineering Influence, a podcast from the American Council of Engineering Companies. Today we're very pleased to welcome to the show Representative Cheri Bustos, who represents the 17th congressional district in the House of Representatives. The 17th stretches west of Chicago from Dubuque in the North all the way down South to Peoria. Representative Bustos serves on the all-important Appropriations Committee and the House Ag Committee, and is also the Chairwoman of the DCCC, the political arm of the House Democrats. Representative Bustos, welcome to the show.
Rep. Bustos: Thanks for having me.
Host: Today is an exciting day. I think that we can kind of cover this a little bit in in our conversation that House leaders came out with a blueprint for an infrastructure bill. Of course, that's going to be focused a lot on economic development and workforce development. And I know those are two issues that you're extremely active on. And you actually do have two pieces of legislation that you have introduced on those two issues specifically. Can you tell us a little bit about those two bills? I believe it's the Investing in Tomorrow's Workforce Act and the Rebuild Rural America Act.
Rep. Bustos: Of course, I'm happy to. Have you laid out the framework at all for a what was announced today or do you want to -
Host: We can jump into that. We kind of looked at it and of course we took a more, you know, encouraging step that we're actually moving forward on infrastructure. But I think that, you know, from the engineering industry's perspective, the two things that are of course most pressing are reauthorization of the FAST Act, but then also getting a WRDA done, which is absolutely necessary.
Rep. Bustos: Well and, and you described my congressional district, but let me just offer a little more context to that. We have more locks and dams in the congressional district I represent than any congressional district in the country. And that's because the entire western border of my district is the Mississippi River and then the Illinois River runs through the southern part of our congressional district. So any kind of water infrastructure means a lot. And when you look at the depression era locks and dam system, now, you know, I'm 75-ish plus years old. You know, we've got to look at investing in that. But the reason I answered your question with a question is, you know, today's a pretty momentous day. And I was at our caucus meeting earlier where we had the Chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Peter DeFazio.
Rep. Bustos: We had the Chair of Energy and Commerce Frank Palone, and then we had the Chair of Ways and Means Richie, Neal all talk about the various components. And I think it's important that we look at, you know, it's going to take all of that coming together and it's not just it's not just horizontal construction. It's the vertical construction as well. And I think that we as at least as House Democrats want to take a look at this as being a very encompassing piece of legislation.
Rep. Bustos: Are the couple bills that you reference in particular Investing in Tomorrow’s Workforce Act - it's something that I introduced last October along with Senator Durbin, but that looks at really the future of America as it pertains not just to infrastructure, but as, as it pertains to how people work. We are going to be seeing increased automation and we want to make sure that as a nation that we are ready for that and that people aren't going to be losing their jobs and not having anything to go to.
Rep. Bustos: So it helps prepare workers for the jobs of tomorrow with a with a major investment in that. The other is the Rebuild Rural America Act also. We introduced that last October and that calls for a federal funding investment in rural and small town economic development projects. Again, further context. In my congressional district, 85% of the towns in the district I serve are 5,000 people or fewer and 60, about 60, 65% are a thousand people or fewer. So and we have to look at, you know, our while we have our coastal big cities like, you know, New York and LA, we have our Midwestern big cities like Chicago, but there are a whole lot of small towns in between and we've got to make sure we're investing in that. This new bill that we rolled out today calls from major investment in rural America and then the two bills that we just talked about that are out of our office address that as well.
Host: Absolutely. I mean, coming from my experience with former chairman Shuster and his district, middle of Pennsylvania, you know, you have Philadelphia you've got Pittsburgh and then you have the rest of the state.
Rep. Bustos: Yeah, very similar to Illinois.
Host: Yeah. So You really need an economic development. You need the workforce training. You need to be able to prepare those workers for, you know, the effects of the ripples and the economy that are coming from automation. But then also getting the training and understanding of opportunities that might come if you're able to get an infrastructure package done and actually build out some of these massive projects that need to happen that attracts economic development into the districts, attracts these new companies that might be high on automation, for example, Amazon and the like. And I guess the same from the engineering industry is that, you know, our member companies are going to be the ones who are going to be building a lot of those structures, whether it's going to be the roadways that lead you into the new opportunities or the vertical structures, the warehousing or the data centers or the social infrastructure, the schools, hospitals that are actually going to be in those areas.
Host: And everybody's going to benefit from so it was all tied together. It's in no way is it, is it, is it separate. And I think you've raised a good point because a lot of our members might not understand exactly how intricate it is to get something like an infrastructure package done because it's just not T& I, it's also a Ways and Means, it's also Energy and Commerce. Can you talk a little bit about the interplay in your experience in Congress about how a piece, a big bill like this comes together with all those different chairmen and the individual constituencies they have to serve?
Rep. Bustos: Yeah, I think that's a great question because in the end, if we don't figure that out, we don't pass anything, right? I mean, you might be able to pass something out of the House, but as we all know from our civics lessons that it takes more than just passing it out of the House. We need the Senate, we need the White House to all agree. Why don't we use an example that is very much also out of today. Today, the President signed the USMCA, the trade deal, the United States, Mexico, Canada Trade Agreement. And the way that came together, I think is a blueprint for how we ought to look at our transportation bill that we're going to pass. And think about this from a political perspective. And even from a governmental perspective, in the end, we had the House, the Senate get together on this.
Rep. Bustos: You had Democrats and Republicans, you had the White House, and even in the end you had your farmers and AFL-CIO, organized labor all say that this was a good deal. That let's use that model. And I will throw out trade ambassador Lighthizer who's in the Trump administration as really someone who was ready for this moment in that I can't think of any meeting that we asked for or anybody asked for that he wouldn't participate in. And so I think it's going to take that same view of bipartisanship and the House and the Senate working together. And then in the end we can't just pass this without having a pay for.
Host: Yeah. And if the White House comes in.
Rep. Bustos: That is where the White House comes in. And Richie Neal who's the Chair of Ways and Means this morning out of our caucus meeting said that we are not going to get into the specifics of how this will be paid for until we all come together and have an agreement.
Rep. Bustos: You know, anybody who wants to look at the political side of things knows that you know, you're not just going to have one side of the aisle say, you know, this is how we're going to pay for it without having the other side of the aisle have buy into that as well. I mean, things like the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund have, are brought up in pretty much every discussion because we have the money in there that we need, but the general fund keeps robbing from it. That can't keep happening. But this investment is absolutely critical. I know firsthand from looking at, for example, at the Chicago Rockford International airport, which is in the northern part of my congressional district. Okay, the economic impact of that airport. We'll close in to probably about $2 billion a year soon. Why? Because they have turned that into the fastest growing air cargo hub in the world.
Rep. Bustos: And so we need our engineers. I want to do a shout out to the how important the engineers are to making sure that we are looking at things like air cargo hubs and improving our airports. If anybody saw the 60 Minutes segment from a couple months ago we've gotta improve our airports to be competitive on the world stage. We are falling behind. You know, when in the Eisenhower era what made us this powerhouse is that we could move our goods to market more efficiently than anybody else. We could move our people more efficiently than any, anything else. We could move our information faster than anybody else. And we're falling behind on that. And that's what this is all about.
Host: Yeah. And that's a really good point. I think that there's a common theme in the House and I think for our listeners who are focused on what's happening on the major news channels to realize that behind the scenes, especially in the House, that there's always going to be some bipartisan agreement on infrastructure and there's always going to be that desire to move the ball forward and to really address things, I think that one of the issues that as a of increasing importance also, and I think, you know, I heard in the last Congress the same, which is the issue of resiliency of dealing with the environment that we have and what we're going to be inheriting on the next couple of years. And the fact that engineers have to deal with the world as it is and have to design for the future so that the bridges, the buildings, the roads are going to last there for 20, 30 years. And the issue of resiliency and dealing with sustainability and issues related to climate change and the changing environment was also a theme of what was rolled out today. From a rural district, from an agricultural district. That's also important. How important you see the issue of resiliency in terms of infrastructure and economic development in your district?
Rep. Bustos: Oh, I think it's critically important. And, and it was I would say of the one hour presentation that we had this morning that took up a good part of it. Everything from chairman DeFazio talked about an electric spine or an electric backbone to this project. And that is, you know, building out the infrastructure of if we're increasingly going to no emission vehicles or electric vehicles you can't just have this without having the infrastructure to support it. And it's even the materials that we're using and certainly your engineers who are in the practice of building roads and bridges and improving rail and all that, know a lot more about that than I do as we sit here. But that will be very important that we are, as you said, getting ready for the future. We're building things now or we'll build things next year, but you're right, they have to be resilient through the next, you know, 20, 30, 40, 50 years.
Rep. Bustos: I look outside of my front door when I'm at home and Moline, Illinois. I live on river drive. And by the way, that river that's just on the other side of that road is the Mississippi. But I see this one point $2 billion bridge that is under construction from Moline, Illinois to Bettendorf, Iowa. And I count the cranes every time I walk along our little bike path and walking path there. And you know, you count as many as 15 cranes that are up and you know, you realize how important what we're talking about right now, how important your engineers are to economic growth and economic sustainability for communities. And again, to your point of this bridge is being built right now and it's replacing a bridge that was built in the '50's and one span. And I think the other span was built in the '30's. So, you know, these things have to last a long time and they the engineering is, is very, very important to this. And, and I love seeing those cranes cause I know with every one of those cranes or jobs associated with that.
Host: Yeah, absolutely. It's, it's a big economic driver and it's truly amazing what our members are able to produce and the challenges that they're able to surmount with their talent. And then also just you know, good working relationships between local, federal and state governments and the industry at large. I know that we're a little bit tight on time and we want to respect your schedule. So, or any parting thoughts that you want to offer to our audience and of course, you know the members of the of the Illinois engineering community who will be listening to the podcast.
Rep. Bustos: Yeah. so my oldest son went to Iowa state and was an engineering major. So I'm mechanical though, not, not civil. Yeah. So I just have a great appreciation for actually the brain power that engineers have and your thought process that you put into everything and really the importance to all of our communities for the work that your members do. And let me just, I probably just echo what you just said, but those working relationships are very, very important. Our office has a very close relationship with ACEC. You've been great at keeping us informed. I hope that you see our office is one that wants to make sure that you're informed and we seek your counsel. And I think a good days are ahead and, and again from a political perspective, which, you know, it, it's good, good policy is good politics and vice versa.
Rep. Bustos: But infrastructure and rebuilding America is something that we as Democrats campaigned on going into 2018. It is what President Trump as candidate Trump campaigned on going into 2016. And my, our friends across the aisle also campaigned on this. So when you've got all of those elements saying, we've got to get this done, I think that is a, that I hope that's a telling sign that we're going to be able to make something big happen that we can pass the House, the Senate, and the President will sign it into law. And we have a lot of good work ahead of us.
Host: That's great. Well, there we have it, brighter days ahead and a hopeful message to end the podcast on. Representative Bustos thank you so much for being on and we hope to have you on in the future.
Rep. Bustos: Thank you.
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