Biden’s biggest challenge: How do you even spend $1.6 trillion?

Congress gave Biden a historic sum to green the economy, revive manufacturing and fix crumbling infrastructure. But most of it is unspent.

May 9, 2024 - 00:36
Biden’s biggest challenge: How do you even spend $1.6 trillion?

POLITICO spent months assessing the implementation of the four laws that make up the backbone of Biden’s legacy: the 2021 pandemic relief package, known as the American Rescue Plan; the bipartisan infrastructure law passed later that year; the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act; and the president’s premier climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act.

The review found:

— Less than 17 percent of the $1.1 trillion those laws provided for direct investments on climate, energy and infrastructure has been spent as of April, nearly two years after Biden signed the last of the statutes.

— Out of $145 billion in direct spending on energy and climate programs in the Inflation Reduction Act, the biggest climate law in U.S. history, the administration has announced roughly $60 billion in tentative funding decisions as of April 11.

— The government has awarded less than $700 million of the $54 billion that Congress had made available in the CHIPS and Science Act, a law aimed at boosting competition with China, though the Commerce Department has announced $29 billion in tentative awards to semiconductor manufacturers in recent months. Awarding money means the federal government has committed to pay out an agreed-upon sum. A tentative award is still under negotiation.

— And only $125 billion has been spent from the $884 billion provided by the infrastructure law and the pandemic law, both of which Biden signed in 2021. Roughly $300 billion of that won’t be legally available to spend until the next two fiscal years.

— For much of this money, the government does not provide a centralized, easily accessible way for the public to see how much has been formally awarded or spent.

— The IRA also unleashed a gusher of private company investments in clean energy and manufacturing by offering a series of tax breaks that, based on recent estimates, are worth at least $525 billion. Those initiatives are hitting turbulence, with some major electric vehicle, battery, solar and wind projects being delayed or canceled because of changing or uncertain markets.

Now time is running short for these efforts to show results before voters decide whether to bring back Trump, who has denounced the climate and infrastructure laws, mocked wind power and electric cars and inaccurately described the IRA as the “biggest tax hike in history.”

Trump has said he should have the power to refuse to spend congressionally appropriated money he considers wasteful, despite a 1974 law that says otherwise. This raises the prospect that he could attempt to pare Biden-era funding even if it’s at an advanced stage of distribution.

Seeking to Trump-proof his legacy, Biden and his Cabinet are crisscrossing the U.S. to promote their initiatives, adding to dozens of speeches, ribbon cuttings and other appearances they’ve made on the spending plans in the past two years. The conveyor belt of big-dollar announcements has cranked up in recent weeks, including $20 billion for grassroots climate financing, $1.52 billion to restart a shuttered nuclear plant, $3 billion to help states remove lead drinking water pipes and Biden’s announcement in late April of $6.1 billion for advanced semiconductor factories in New York and Idaho.

Spending announcements across three of the four laws have totaled more than $543 billion, according to the White House and the Department of Commerce — half of the administration’s overall planned investment. This includes both money the government has formally awarded and awards still under negotiation.

But there can be a big gap between announcing a spending decision and actually distributing the money.

A POLITICO analysis shows that hundreds of billions of dollars that Congress approved at Biden’s urging remain unspent heading into his November rematch with former President Donald Trump. If Trump wins, he could take a wrecking ball to Biden’s greatest legislative achievements: four laws containing $1.6 trillion in loans, grants and tax credits meant to green the economy, revive the country’s manufacturing base, repair its roads and bridges and challenge China for technological supremacy.

Even with most of the cash still unspent, the changes Biden envisions have started to take root in places like Bryan County, Georgia, where Hyundai is rushing to finish an electric vehicle and battery factory to qualify for the climate law’s federal tax credits, and in the Utah desert, where a federal loan guarantee is assisting an effort to turn excess wind and solar energy into clean hydrogen fuel. In Arizona, the Taiwanese chip-making giant TSMC says nearly 10,000 people are already at work building its new complex of semiconductor factories, a project it began before Biden took office but expanded after the CHIPS act passed.

The stakes for the initiatives’ future go well beyond whether they give Biden an electoral bounce in November. They also will determine whether the kind of activist domestic agenda that many Democrats have dreamed of for decades — one with big ambitions, and the money to match it — can survive long enough to get past the tricky implementation phase. And the fate of the spending plans could influence whether the U.S. reverses the erosion of its manufacturing base and blunts the worst effects of climate change.

White House officials say they know how crucial it is to get the money flowing.

At an April policy forum in Washington, former Obama administration climate chief Carol Browner rattled off a list of Biden’s accomplishments under the IRA before asking White House senior clean energy adviser John Podesta, “What’s left to do?”

“Well, there’s a lot left to do,” Podesta answered amid a ripple of polite laughter. “First of all, that money needs to be deployed.”

The legal deadlines for spending this money vary, and not all of it is legally available to spend in any one year. Many agencies have as much as five years to expend the funds from the infrastructure law, for example. About $300 billion of the infrastructure money can only be spent after this year.

But November’s electoral deadline is more unforgiving.

If Trump wins, “from day one” he could — and probably would — halt all pending grant approvals and applications until the new administration can scrutinize them, predicted Mandy Gunasekara, who was chief of staff at the Environmental Protection Agency during his presidency.

“Anything that has not yet left the door is going to be paused and then reviewed and then acted upon,” she said in an interview.

That could imperil a large pot of money for some agencies. The EPA, for example, says it has formally awarded less than $2 billion of its $42 billion in IRA-related funding.

A statement Monday from Trump campaign spokesperson Karoline Leavitt focused its attacks on the Inflation Reduction Act, including the tax breaks for electric cars. “President Trump will repeal Joe Biden’s radical EV mandates to save America’s auto industry and cut costs to reduce inflation and get our economy booming again,” the statement said.

The statement did not address how Trump would treat the hundreds of billions of dollars in funding for other parts of Biden’s agenda.

‘People don’t realize what is actually happening’

In an interview with POLITICO, Podesta said the Biden administration is acting “with deliberation, with haste” — and that Americans know positive changes are happening on the president’s watch.

“I don’t think people are paying attention to the names of bills or even that legislation’s passed,” he acknowledged. As for whether Trump can reverse it, Podesta added, “When those projects are built, they’re very hard to rip back.”

“So that’s a question for the American people,” he said. “They’ll get to vote on that in November.”

As evidence of the laws’ impact, current and former administration officials have pointed to a litany of metrics, including a jump in new manufacturing activity under Biden and more than two straight years of unemployment below 4 percent. They also noted that nearly 59,000 clean energy projects registered with the IRS for a program that will help new entities gain access to tax incentives.

Since Biden took office, companies have announced over $866 billion worth of investments in the industries the administration hopes to spur, including semiconductors, electric vehicles and clean energy manufacturing, according to data on the White House website

But some officials have acknowledged that many people seem unaware of the administration’s actions.

“It’s just huge how much is happening out there,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told a meeting of her advisory board in April, where she rattled off “billions and billions of dollars” in grant and loan decisions her department had announced in recent weeks.

And yet, Granholm said, “people don’t realize what is actually happening out there.”

Biden’s four signature laws provided $1.1 trillion in direct federal spending, largely for climate and infrastructure — a potentially transformative amount of money if allowed to reach fruition. In comparison, FDR’s New Deal cost $793 billion in 2021 dollars, according to an estimate published by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

The climate law also contains a raft of tax credits and other incentives whose full size won’t be clear for years, as both consumers and businesses decide how aggressively to use those subsidies for things such as purchasing electric vehicles and assembling solar panels. Those incentives combined with additional credits in CHIPS will likely amount to more than $551 billion, based on estimates by the Congressional Budget Office and a 2023 analysis by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Some private analysts have predicted their impact will be even higher. No one agency compiles all of the laws’ spending in detail, and no single database or website offers a comprehensive breakdown of who has received the money from each law and what they have used it for.

For the 2021 pandemic act, Congress created a Pandemic Response Accountability Committee to monitor the spending, similar to an office that kept tabs on the Obama administration’s stimulus. Another federal website,, tracks government spending as a whole, but does not always offer a way to search for awards based on the law that appropriated them.

The White House also created to track funding announcements and illustrate where many projects will take place. But that site does not track subsequent steps, such as when the government formally awards the money or when the recipient begins spending it.

The White House said individual agencies track the spending they obligate under the IRA. Most of the agencies that POLITICO asked for that information have not yet provided it.

The law also includes funding for agency inspectors general to track money appropriated to their respective departments.

“The agencies absolutely know whether the money’s been obligated,” Podesta said in the interview. “What we’re focused on at the White House is that the programs are being created, that fair competitions are being set up, they’re being done with high levels of integrity, that the money is being awarded appropriately.”

For some of the spending — such as much of the infrastructure law’s $838 billion — state governments have significant leeway within broad categories to decide where the money goes.

In most cases, the federal government awards money weeks or months after it announces the funding, said a White House official, who was granted anonymity to discuss internal processes. The actual spending can come much later.

In the interview, Podesta said: “What we want to know is that the money is being awarded and that it is moving out to the ground.” He added, “I hear from people all the time saying, ‘Thanks for getting this done so quickly.’”

Even so, the programs’ real-world progress has often been more limited so far than their enormous price tags might suggest.

In his State of the Union speech in March, for example, Biden boasted that his climate agenda was “creating tens of thousands of clean-energy jobs,” including union members “building and installing 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations.”

But $7.5 billion in EV charging money that the infrastructure law provided to aid that push has so far led to just eight charging plazas being installed, according to the EV data consultancy EVAdoption. One major reason is the months it has taken for states to craft plans for using the money and to begin doling it out. (The U.S. has about 69,000 publicly accessible EV charging locations, according to the Energy Department, largely driven by the private sector.)

Similarly, Biden flew to Kentucky last year to announce that his administration would spend $1.6 billion in infrastructure law money to help Ohio and Kentucky rebuild and replace the 60-year-old Brent Spence Bridge across the Ohio River. It was a huge win for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who called it “my top transportation project for decades.”

To date, though, most of the federal money announced for the Spence bridge has yet to be formally awarded, and just $15.7 million of it has been spent. That’s a not-uncommon lag, especially for large infrastructure efforts, in which recipients typically have to do pieces of the work before Washington reimburses them — a back-and-forth process that can take years.

At the Energy Department, the IRA has helped give a long-dormant loan office the authority to lend more than $200 billion — roughly equivalent to eight years of NASA’s annual spending — for an array of next-generation energy projects, including hydrogen production and processing of critical minerals. To date, it has given out or tentatively approved roughly $25.8 billion under Biden, as POLITICO reported in April.

Even an agency’s announcement that it has tentatively awarded millions of dollars to a project doesn’t mean the recipient will necessarily get it quickly — or at all.

In the fall of 2022, for instance, the Energy Department announced it had conditionally selected 20 battery-related projects for a total of $2.8 billion in infrastructure law money, including a $200 million grant for a Texas-based company called Microvast to help fund a factory in Clarksville, Tennessee. But DOE decided against the award to Microvast last spring, after the company had drawn fire from Republican lawmakers because it has a subsidiary in China.

Some recipients will go ahead and spend their own money first, anticipating the federal funding that will arrive later. The wait to see all the promised federal dollars can be a financial burden for some.

One person whose company received a DOE grant said their project’s required federal environmental review — a notoriously laborious and lengthy process — is behind schedule. So for now, the company can access only a fraction of the money it has been awarded.

The person, granted anonymity to discuss sensitive business information, called the federal money “a net positive” for domestic manufacturing, but said the process could be improved by providing “better certainty or timelines” surrounding regulatory reviews and the distribution of the money.

“When it comes to timeline, it seems like they are tone-deaf,” the person said of the DOE.

DOE spokesperson Samah Shaiq said the department is “committed to working closely” with grantees to deliver new manufacturing projects and complete the required environmental reviews.

“These large and complex projects must ensure they have an appropriate site and all the required permits,” Shaiq said.

In most cases, the pace of federal spending depends on states, businesses or other would-be recipients taking steps of their own, such as submitting detailed plans spelling out how they would use the money.

So while the infrastructure law gave $42.45 billion to the Commerce Department for state grants to expand broadband to under-served communities, until this year only Louisiana had submitted a plan that won federal approval. The department announced approvals of Kansas, Nevada and West Virginia’s plans in late April.

“With the exception of Louisiana, you have to say that it’s pretty difficult to figure out how there are shovels in the ground before the election,” Grant Spellmeyer, the CEO of a trade association of broadband providers known as ACA Connects, told POLITICO in March.

Tax and trade worries cloud the picture

Another crucial piece of the puzzle is the dozens of new Treasury Department rules and guidance documents governing the IRA’s hundreds of billions of dollars in clean-energy tax credits, including those for electric vehicles, hydrogen and sustainable aviation fuel.

Those decisions will help determine how quickly private companies follow through on their own multibillion-dollar energy, manufacturing and mining plans — or whether those projects go forward at all.

In Utah, for instance, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and its partners are waiting on final tax guidance from Treasury before deciding whether to accelerate plans for a power plant that would run on hydrogen.

Mitsubishi is already working with a local power company to develop a facility that can make and store hydrogen, a project that received a $504 million DOE loan guarantee and is slated to come online next year. In its first stage, a power plant will burn a blend of hydrogen and natural gas. Treasury’s tax guidance will influence their planned next step — expanding the facility and fueling the power plant entirely with carbon-free hydrogen.

Other companies are waiting to see how Biden’s trade enforcers respond to a flood of inexpensive Chinese imports that is driving down prices for goods such as solar panel components, threatening to drive U.S. manufacturers out of business.

While companies have announced a wave of planned solar factories since passage of the IRA, many have not even purchased land or begun to import the machinery needed to make solar components, said Elissa Pierce, an analyst who tracks the industry at the consulting firm Wood Mackenzie. She estimates that less than half of the announced module capacity will actually be built by 2027.

At least one company has already given up on its plans for a new factory. In February, the Massachusetts-based solar manufacturer CubicPV announced it was canceling its plans for a U.S. facility due to a “collapse” in the price of solar wafers.

“Some of our manufacturers are continuing to move forward, maybe at a slightly reduced pace, with the anticipation that the administration will get these things back on track,” said Mike Carr, from the Solar Energy Manufacturers for America Coalition, in late March. “But Cubic is a good example of a company that couldn’t wait any longer.”

In Georgia, the South Korean solar manufacturer Qcells is still proceeding with a $2.5 billion expansion plan, which saw it increase the size of an existing factory in the district of Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and begin construction of a new facility that will make components such as wafers outside Atlanta. But worries about the Chinese influx hover over the industry, said Scott Moskowitz, the company’s senior director of market strategy.

“The Inflation Reduction Act was the spark that enabled us to make the largest investments in the history of the United States solar industry,” said Moskowitz, who remains bullish on the overall thrust of Biden’s policies. But the flood of inexpensive Chinese imports threatens to blunt the IRA’s manufacturing impact, he said. “At the moment, only Qcells is building a wafer factory in the United States.”

‘Game changer’

Perhaps the biggest question hanging over the initiatives is what happens if Trump wins. Besides attacking Biden’s big-energy priorities, such as electric cars and wind, the presumptive GOP front-runner lambasted Republican lawmakers in 2021 for voting for the infrastructure law. Much of the former president’s ire lately has focused on the Inflation Reduction Act and subsidies under the law for electric vehicles — leaving his approach to the other laws an open question.

Trump’s ability to frustrate the aims of the Biden-era laws would be limited because congressionally created grant programs would be legally obligated to go forward, argued Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who heads the conservative American Action Forum and led the Congressional Budget Office during the George W. Bush administration.

“They can negotiate contracts slowly and obligate the money less rapidly, but they can’t simply not do it,” he said.

White House officials similarly maintain that it would be illegal for Trump to simply refuse to spend the money.

But Trump’s agencies would have more discretion to stall money under a DOE energy loan program that is backing projects such as an expansion of rooftop solar power, a lithium production plant in Nevada and batteries for electric vehicles. A Trump administration could also rewrite pending Treasury rules to make tax incentives less attractive, or steer money to projects more in line with his pro-fossil-fuel priorities.

And as Trump showed in office with his approaches to border wall funding and military aid for Ukraine, he’s been willing to stretch the president’s powers to wield the purse regardless of Congress’ commands.

Senate Republicans have already signaled some of their own intentions, filing a bill last week that would repeal Biden’s tax credits for electric vehicles and slash the tax break for charging stations.

Biden’s legacy may ultimately come down to communities like Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania, where almost 300 people working for Eos Energy Enterprises are making batteries that can store excess wind and solar energy for the power grid.

The company initially had manufacturing operations in China and shipped batteries to the U.S. for final assembly. But Eos shifted course and decided to set up shop on the campus of a shuttered Westinghouse factory complex outside Pittsburgh in 2019. Passage of the IRA has supercharged demand for Eos’ batteries, helping it scale up production, while DOE has helped the company with a nearly $400 million conditional loan guarantee, said CEO Joe Mastrangelo.

The battery maker has injected new hope into the community, reversing decades of industrial decline that began with the departure of Westinghouse in the late 1980s, Turtle Creek Mayor Adam Forgie said.

“It’s a game changer,” said Forgie, a Democrat. Biden’s policies, he added, have given his community the “opportunity to prove that we can be successful as other parts of the country.”

Eos, which counted just two employees at its Pennsylvania factory in 2019, recently shipped its 100th battery. Today, Mastrangelo hears talk on the factory floor of workers who recently bought their first house or first car.

Local support for the company is growing, he said, as more people in the area learn about job openings from Eos employees.

“They become your staunchest supporters,” Mastrangelo said.

Biden has until November to convince the rest of the country.

Samantha Latson, Steven Overly, Ry Rivard, John Hendel and Christine Mui contributed to this report.

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