Dear Commons Community,
Yesterday President Donald Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer met and agreed on a $2 trillion infrastructure plan. It was a great photo-op to see how the leaders of our two parties can come to together to solve the country’s problems. Below is a New York Times editorial reviewing this meeting. The last paragraph is critical in that while the three agreed on a plan, nobody has figured out how to pay for it yet.
It’s Infrastructure Week!
On Tuesday, a dozen Democratic lawmakers, including the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, headed to the White House for a frank talk with President Trump about the “I” word: infrastructure.
This was Democratic leaders’ first huddle with Mr. Trump since December, a testament to both sides’ desire to address the shabby state of America’s public works. Most everyone recognizes the critical need for an overhaul. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the system a dismal grade of D-plus, and there is broad public support for more federal investment. Since Mr. Trump’s election, Democrats have repeatedly cited infrastructure as one policy issue in which they see potential for working with him to get something done.
Lawmakers emerged from Tuesday’s talks in an atypically upbeat mood, full of praise for the president. Ms. Pelosi proclaimed her team “very excited about the conversation” and cheered Mr. Trump for agreeing that a “big and bold” plan was needed. Mr. Schumer called the meeting “constructive” and noted approvingly that the president had been “eager” to push funding up to $2 trillion. “This was a very, very good start,” Mr. Schumer told reporters.
Indeed, infrastructure is the rare issue where the public interest aligns with both the Democrats’ and the president’s political instincts. Better still, the prospect of rebuilding the nation appeals to the president’s fondness for constructing large, tangible monuments to his eminence.
All of which lays the foundation for progress on a sorely neglected issue. But only if Mr. Trump gets serious enough to buck members of his own party in both Congress and the White House — many of whom favor the Republican tradition of paying lip service to the need for public works projects while refusing to pay for them.
As part of branding himself an economic populist, Mr. Trump campaigned in 2016 with a vow to spend $1 trillion to make America’s roads, airports and transit systems the envy of the world. He blew into office with grand visions of launching development projects across the nation. “They say Eisenhower was the greatest infrastructure president. They named the highway system after him,” he told one of his billionaire real estate friends during a meeting in early 2017, according to Axios. “But we’re going to do double, triple, quadruple, what Eisenhower did.”
In March of last year, in a speech promoting his administration’s new $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, Mr. Trump boasted that building was in his blood. “That’s what I do,” he declared. “I build. I was always very good at building. It was always my best thing. I think better than being president, I was maybe good at building.”
But, thus far, Mr. Trump has proved very bad at building. Highways, bridges, pipelines, water systems, even beautiful steel border walls — all have turned out to be more complicated than he anticipated. Infrastructure policy was repeatedly pushed to the side during his first year in office, turning the phrase “Infrastructure Week” into a sad joke. And his administration’s 2018 plan fell flat. The $1.5 trillion package provided a paltry $200 billion in federal funding, relying heavily on public-private partnerships and state spending. No one in Congress was interested in championing it. Even the president publicly questioned its feasibility.
With Democrats now in charge of the House and the 2020 campaign well underway, Mr. Trump is looking to give it another try. But the odds for success remain long, and no one is looking to make this easy for him.
In addition to dealing with skeptics in his own party, the president is facing a Democratic Party emboldened by the midterms and looking to play hardball. Democrats went into Tuesday’s meeting with an aggressive set of “priorities” ranging from labor protections to green-energy investment — a bold bid guaranteed to prompt pushback.
While the details of any plan are open to negotiation, the basic issue of how to pay for one remains. Democrats want funding upfront, without the kind of private-public gimmickry that defined the previous plan. And, for now, they are demanding that a chunk of the money come from rolling back pieces of Republicans’ 2017 tax cuts. When this idea was floated last year, Republicans scoffed, and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, dismissed it as a “nonstarter.”
The president is facing resistance even from his own aides. Even as he was meeting with Democrats, his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney — a fierce budget hawk — was at a conference in Beverly Hills, talking down the prospects of a deal. As Mr. Mulvaney sees it, the cure for crumbling bridges is deregulation.
The next move is up to Mr. Trump. Tuesday’s group agreed to reconvene in three weeks, at which time the president will discuss how he intends to pay the $2 trillion bill. Then everyone will get a clearer sense of his commitment to this crucial issue, and how willing he is to take on his own party to make it happen.