Donald Trump has talked about the “necessity” of a massive infrastructure overhaul since he became a presidential candidate in 2015, but his latest budget plan offers Congress the kind of vague proposal that has left them confused and stymied before.
The administration is asking lawmakers for $200 billion as an initial payment toward the president’s goal — up to $1.5 trillion from $1 trillion — for a sweeping project to upgrade the country’s roads, airports, bridges, tunnels, seaports and broadband networks. But senior officials say they won’t lay out a plan for which projects in which states Trump would like to see receive any of those dollars.
“We will provide less specifics this year than we have in the past, in part because we really do want to work with Congress on this,” a senior administration official told reporters. “We are open to how they [would] construct a package that the president could sign.”
Acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought said administration officials are “totally ready and willing to talk with Congress about how to ensure that there’s additional dollars in the Federal [Highway] Trust Fund, and to put forward additional $200 billion in new investment.”
The administration’s $200 billion fiscal 2020 request is needed, Vought said, “to make sure that it’s not just a surface transportation bill — that when we need money for broadband or other infrastructure, that is also something that we can pursue.”
Trump campaigned on a $1 trillion infrastructure overhaul, again labeling it a top agenda item for 2019 last month during his first State of the Union address.
“Both parties should be able to unite for a great rebuilding of America's crumbling infrastructure,” he said during his State of the Union address on Feb. 5. “I know that the Congress is eager to pass an infrastructure bill, and I am eager to work with you on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting edge industries of the future. This is not an option. This is a necessity.”
Kent Smetters, an economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, said at first glance the fiscal 2020 plan “looks like a repeat” of a plan the White House sent lawmakers last year based on turning $200 billion in federal funds into $1.5 trillion with an infusion of state and private-sector funds. “My initial read is not much has changed,” he said, adding an analysis of the White House’s 2019 plan appears still accurate.
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“Based on past evidence, much of the new federal aid would lead to state and local governments increasing total infrastructure investment by less than the value of the aid itself,” according to that Wharton analysis. “We estimate that total new infrastructure investment would increase between $20 billion to $230 billion, including the $200 billion federal investment. There will be little to no impact on the economy.”
In its last report on the subject, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States a D+ score, writing that “deteriorating infrastructure is impeding our ability to compete in the thriving global economy, and improvements are necessary to ensure our country is built for the future.”
The $200 billion request and its lack of proposals for how to spend it is getting a chilly reception on Capitol Hill, and former officials doubt there is much chance the administration’s new approach will work.
“Nothing will happen with this approach, which has been tried already. The bottleneck is funding, and unless the administration takes the lead, few Republicans will go down this road,” said William Galston, a former Clinton White House aide now with the Brookings Institution.
“If the administration endorsed the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s gas tax proposal, Congress would have a place to start,” he added. “Right now, they’re stuck — and likely to remain so.”
Trump has been scant with details for lawmakers before: He and GOP lawmakers struggled to get on the same page when they — unsuccessfully — tried to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law.
He sent lawmakers an immigration overhaul plan that lacked the votes to pass, but never was clear about what kind of compromise version he might sign.
And during the recent 35-day government shutdown, even senior GOP leaders publicly said they did not fully understand what the president would sign to end it.
White House aides on Tuesday did not discount the notion that vague demands and proposals from the president have caused bipartisan confusion before. But they said there is agreement within the administration that this is the best approach at this time.
With Democrats now controlling the House committees that would be a part of negotiations about an infrastructure overhaul bill, White House officials must determine just what could pass those panels — and then a final vote on the floor.
“The president wants Congress to come together and craft a bipartisan infrastructure package that rebuilds crumbling infrastructure, invests in the projects and industries of tomorrow, and promotes permitting efficiency. The president looks forward to working with members of Congress in the weeks ahead to come to a solution for the American people,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere said in an email.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used his floor remarks Tuesday as the chamber came into session to tout the budget request for its “important goals like the continued rebuilding of our military, keeping up the fight against opioid abuse, and addressing the ongoing security and humanitarian crisis at our southern border.” He did not mention the infrastructure plan.
A key House Democratic chairman also raised concerns about the details-free infrastructure plan, saying it “falls short” of what’s needed. He also raised questions about whether the White House is poised to negotiate in a manner that can lead to an actual deal.
“I think the significance of it is as we enter into negotiations on spending levels for 2020 and 2021, we are so far apart on our priorities that it makes — we have to wonder whether the White House is going to be a serious negotiator. That’s disturbing,” House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth of Kentucky said during a meeting with reporters.
The White House did blast out a fact sheet during the Feb. 5 State of the Union address about Trump’s desire for a bill. But it, too, was vague, listing no specific priority projects, relying on statements like “repairing and building new infrastructure will reduce traffic congestion” and “mastering new technologies such as 5G wireless, advanced manufacturing, quantum computing, artificial intelligence [and] rural broadband.”
Still, Wharton’s Smetters said infrastructure is the one unattained Trump campaign promise that always has a glimmer of hope.
“If anything can have bipartisan support, it’s infrastructure,” he said. “Just look at the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, most of whom have an infrastructure plan. Now, the parties will disagree on approaches and numbers — but at least, unlike on something like health care, they’re in the same ballpark.”
Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.