The last time President Donald Trump met with “Chuck and Nancy” in the Oval Office, he walked out. The time before that, they got into an argument as TV cameras carried the scene live.
Those meetings were about funding for the border wall Trump has promised to build, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer won’t give. Trump’s insistence and their disagreement led to the largest partial government shutdown in history.
Tuesday – when they meet to talk infrastructure – should be different, right? Pretty much every lawmaker in Washington thinks the country has an infrastructure problem.
It’s not like climate change, where the President sees a Chinese hoax and Democrats see an existential threat to the human race.
It’s not like immigration, where Trump sees an imminent crisis at the border and many Democrats see something else entirely.
It’s a lot harder to have a partisan view about bridges and roads, since Americans from both major political parties hit the same potholes driving on the same streets and drive over the same aging bridges.
If there’s a great bipartisan hope of the Trump administration so far, it’s that leaders from the parties could find a way to set aside their differences over every other little thing.
Don’t hold your breath.
Pelosi and Schumer set terms Trump won’t like
Democrats released a list of demands, essentially, although they call them “priorities for working together,” a day before the meeting in the form of a letter to Trump. It included these three main points:
1. America’s unmet infrastructure needs are massive, and a bipartisan infrastructure package must meet those needs with substantial, new and real revenue.
2. A big and bold infrastructure package must be comprehensive and include clean energy and resiliency priorities.
3. A big and bold infrastructure plan must have strong Buy America, labor, and women-, veteran- and minority-owned business protections in any package.
There’s something for Trump to hate in each of those priorities.
One key element of the first point is that they want “new and real revenue.” Trump’s 2019 budget proposal asked only for $200 billion to spend on infrastructure and his 2018 infrastructure plan argued that a relatively small government investment would entice $1.5 trillion in private money into the space. Democrats don’t seem to be buying that, since Pelosi and Schumer want “real” revenue and potentially a rollback of some of the tax cuts Republicans pushed into law without any support from Democrats in 2017.
On the second point, don’t forget that Trump has prioritized helping the coal industry, not pivoting to clean energy. He routinely mocks wind turbines, and he’s very proud that on his watch the US has become the largest worldwide producer of oil.
On the third, Republicans have spent decades working to mute the influence of labor unions.
How did this infrastructure situation happen?
It’s specifically a lack of tax revenue that’s gotten the country into this fix, with a backlog of infrastructure projects that runs into the trillions.
“We kind of, sort of, took a generation off from investing in our generation’s infrastructure and made some decisions. We went through a time where raising any sort of tax or fee was not an acceptable path forward,” said Brian Pallasch, the managing director for government relations at the American Society of Civil Engineers, which gives the country and individual states report cards on infrastructure spending. In 2017, the most recent report, it gave the US a “D+.”
Pallasch argued that infrastructure, which can mean different things to different people, is really anything that contributes to a person’s quality of life.
For instance, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who is running for president, breaks her infrastructure plan into seven areas that range from transportation to public schools and broadband capacity. Broadband is not an element graded by the civil engineers society, according to Pallasch.
“As engineers we do it in a specific way – we look at 16 different categories – but another way to look at it is it’s what allows us to have the quality of life we have,” he said. “You and I can wake up in the morning and turn on the tap and make ourselves a cup of coffee … we can get in a car and have a roadway network that allows us to get anyplace we need to go,” or to take public transportation instead.
Solid support for action
There is clearly public support to get something done on infrastructure. Early in his administration, in March 2017, Trump’s promise to increase infrastructure spending was among the most popular he was pushing, according to a CNN poll conducted by SSRS at the time, which found the idea had the backing of 79% of Americans. Perhaps illustrating the problem of spending that money, the only proposal that got more support was to enact tax cuts for middle-class Americans.
Most federal transportation spending is financed through the Highway Trust Fund, an account that gets money from the 18.3 cents per gallon tax on gasoline. But increased fuel efficiency has hurt the trust fund and the gas tax hasn’t been raised in 25 years. It would be 32 cents per gallon today if it had kept pace with inflation. In 2022, it’s scheduled to be reduced to 4.3 cents per gallon, so Congress will have to renew it or find money somewhere else. The trust fund has spent more money than it’s taken in every year since 2008, which means Congress has periodically had to transfer billions of dollars to keep it solvent.
The difficult question: How to pay
Klobuchar has made infrastructure a main thrust of her campaign so far. On the thorny issue of how to pay for her $1 trillion plan, she suggests rolling back some of the permanent corporate tax cuts and instituting a new fee on some banks.
Beto O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman also running for President as a Democrat, has taken a page from the proposed Green New Deal and pitched infrastructure spending as part of a $5 trillion plan to combat climate change. Not completely unlike Trump’s plan, O’Rourke’s assumes a smaller amount of direct federal funds – $1.5 trillion, compared with $200 billion for Trump – will spur other investment. He too would finance his plan by rolling back some of Trump’s corporate tax cuts.
States have stepped into the void. They spend most of the money on infrastructure in the US, according to a Congressional Research Service report, and every state has its own gas tax. California’s gas tax is the second-highest in the country, at more than 55 cents per gallon on top of the federal gas tax. Voters there rejected a proposal to repeal it, suggesting support for state-based infrastructure spending and an openness to taxes. That same year, however, Missourians, who have the second-lowest gas tax in the country, rejected a new gas tax increase, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Trump has expressed some openness to raising the gas tax even if most Republicans have not. A lot of Democrats want to raise taxes to fund new infrastructure investment, but there is skepticism in the party among people like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat running for president, who say raising the gas tax could hurt “working people.”
“I’m open to the conversation, but what worries me is it falls hardest on working people,” Warren told CNN’s Jake Tapper during a town hall in March. “When I talk about raising taxes, what I really want to see is I want to see an ultra-millionaire’s tax.”
Stephen Moore, Trump’s nominee to sit on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, made the argument in a CNN opinion piece in 2018 against raising the gas tax from a conservative point of view, arguing that states, local governments and the private sector should pick up more of the tab.
Pallash argues that the federal government has a responsibility in the Constitution to regulate interstate commerce, and he said the US infrastructure backlog is costing Americans money each day if they sit in traffic or a water main break floods their homes.
“Folks are paying right now,” Pallasch said. “They’re just paying a little bit at a time.”