Editor’s Note: Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
President Donald Trump is trying to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure on the cheap, asking Congress to trim $200 billion from other programs and commit it to new roads, bridges, ports, sewer systems and other infrastructure in partnership with state and local government.
That would be difficult in the best of times, but it’s doubly hard – and perhaps impossible – with the current Congress. After weeks of constant gridlock, partisan fighting and a government shutdown, Democrats and Republicans recently agreed to settle their differences by throwing money at every program under the sun and sticking the public with the bill.
That doesn’t bode well for the idea of trimming $200 billion to pay for infrastructure.
Unable to make difficult choices about how to contain military spending, provide money for disaster relief or fund health care needs, Congress has decided to pay for all of it. Or, to be specific, they decided that the deficit – in effect, the national government’s credit card tab – will be paid back by all of us, along with our children and grandchildren, over the next several decades.
Consider that the deal by congressional leaders to avoid a government shutdown adds $300 billion to the federal deficit – the latest boost in a soaring rate of spending that could increase the government’s deficit beyond $1 trillion as soon as next year. And an analyst at Investors Business Daily says that number could double to $2 trillion by 2027.
All that spending matters, and makes obvious why the President’s vision for infrastructure repairs relies heavily on leveraging local and state tax dollars and private investment to pay for it.
Over the past 40 years, the deficit has averaged about 4% of gross domestic product, the measure of the nation’s total economic output. The Congressional Budget Office recently projected that the recently passed tax-cut bill will move the deficit up to 5% of GDP.
But that was before this week’s deal, which slaps on another $300 billion and puts us on track to have deficits as high as 7% of gross domestic product.
That only delays the inevitable day of reckoning. House Speaker Paul Ryan has already publicly hinted that paying down the deficit will require shrinking or cutting basic benefits like Medicare and Medicaid. “We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” he said on a radio program.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida went even further, calling for “instituting structural changes to Social Security and Medicare for the future.”
More than one watchdog has noted that the Pentagon’s daily routine includes overpaying for parts — for instance, spending $264 for a helicopter part worth $8 — even when it already has a surplus of the supplies in military warehouses.
The financial head smacking just gets worse the bigger the purchase. The F-35, anybody? That stealth fighter jet has gone over budget by $200 billion.
The conversation we need to be having – about trimming military waste, finding revenue to pay for needs like health care and disaster recovery – seems to have eluded the current members of Congress, who are more concerned about getting re-elected in the fall than doing the job we already hired them to do.
So they are taking the easy way out – one that turns out to be very costly for the rest of us. And it will leave Trump fuming as Congress proves unable to find another $200 billion to rebuild America.