If you want to plumb the noxious depths of political dysfunction in Washington, consider the urgent if unsexy matter of infrastructure.
By Will Marshall, President | Progressive Policy Institute
Unlike such polarizing issues as health care, immigration and climate change, repairing and updating our economic infrastructure is something both parties say they are for. Yet somehow our political leaders can’t get the job done.
President Trump often complains about the shabby state of America’s airports, highways and railways. “The only one to fix the infrastructure of our country is me — roads, airports, bridges,” he tweeted just before launching his 2016 presidential bid. “I know how to build, pols only know how to talk!”
Yet Trump’s lack of focus and discipline, along with his clownish political antics, keep sabotaging bipartisan progress on infrastructure. In a meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer in April, Trump proposed to spend $2 trillion on infrastructure. But the deal quickly unraveled as Republican Senators made clear they wouldn’t support gas or other tax increases to pay for it.
Then Trump upped the ante, demanding that Democrats pass his USMCA trade pact with Mexico and Canada (updating NAFTA) before taking up an infrastructure bill. A few days later, he summoned the leaders to the White House to continue the infrastructure talks, only to pitch a fit and boycott his own meeting after hearing that Pelosi had referred to his stonewalling of Congressional requests for testimony and documents as a “cover up.”
This farcical episode was Trump’s second swing and miss at an infrastructure bill. In 2018, he staged a series of “infrastructure weeks” and finally rolled out a $1.5 trillion spending package. On closer inspection, however, it contained only $200 billion in federal spending, leaving state and local governments and private investors to pick up the rest of the tab. Even that proved too much for GOP leaders in Congress, who instead persuaded Trump to give priority to a huge package of tax cuts tilted heavily toward the wealthy.
The roughly $2 trillion tax cut sucked up resources that otherwise could have paid for a big infrastructure push. It also caused the federal deficit to balloon to nearly $1 trillion a year.
Even if we had a less erratic president, getting to yes on infrastructure wouldn’t be easy. Everyone in Washington says they want a bold public works initiative, but no one is eager to pay for it.
In fact, as PPI has documented, both parties have been complicit in budget policies that have starved public investment. From 1965–1980, for example, federal spending on education, infrastructure and scientific research averaged about 2.5 percent of gross domestic product. Now that number has sunk to 1.5 percent (the equivalent of $170 billion a year less.)
Only a radical change in Washington’s present fiscal course can end America’s public investment drought. The key is a grand compromise in which Republicans agree to a substantial increase in federal revenues in return for Democratic support for constraining the growth of public health and retirement spending. Until that happens, there won’t be much fiscal space for the major infrastructure upgrade our economy urgently needs.
Finally, progress on modernizing America’s infrastructure is stalled by stale thinking and the inertia of legacy programs. The first question we should be debating isn’t how much to spend, but what to spend it on.
Washington pays for about 25 percent of the nation’s public infrastructure spending; most of the action is in state and local government. For decades, the federal role centered on building the interstate highway system. It was completed in 1992, and now Washington needs a new mission that galvanizes public support for big investments in infrastructure.
Here’s a mission that should appeal to both parties: Spreading economic opportunity across the U.S. landscape. Today economic investment and job creation are concentrated in a few large metropolitan regions on the coasts: Boston, New York, Washington, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles. Washington should set national infrastructure priorities with an eye toward spurring economic innovation and new job and business creation in the places left out of today’s prosperity — old industrial centers, small towns, rural communities. Across the vast middle of the country there are urgent needs for more and better airports, highways and rail transit; for safe bridges and drinking water; for locks, dams and levees to protect against flooding intensified by climate change; and for fast broadband access for all Americans.
With a concerted national effort to connect more Americans to greater opportunities, we can reduce economic inequality and start bridging the cultural divides — urban vs. rural, white vs. minority, college vs. high school diploma — that perpetuates today’s political and governing deadlock. A vigorous program of nation-building here at home also could extend our 10-year-old economic expansion and revive public confidence in government’s ability to promote the common interest rather than special interests.
That’s why Trump’s failure to keep his campaign promise to fix infrastructure may be Democrats biggest opportunity in 2020 — if they have the political imagination and courage to seize it.