Dems float $1T plan, boosting clean energy, water projects

Source: Nick Sobczyk, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, February 9, 2018

House Democrats today laid out their own $1 trillion infrastructure proposal ahead of the much-anticipated release of President Trump’s plan Monday.

At a press conference, Democrats proposed spending $1 trillion in federal money, five times more than the $200 billion investment the White House has floated in early talks.

Their plan pushes back on Republican proposals to reform environmental permitting laws like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act. Democrats’ ideas also include investments in wastewater infrastructure and renewable energy.

“We can do so much more in terms of energy efficiency, putting emphasis on renewables,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.). “This relates to the climate debate, obviously, but it also relates to jobs.”

The proposals come as part of the Democrats’ “Better Deal” messaging campaign and as a pre-emptive rebuttal to Trump’s vision for infrastructure. The White House says it will release its plan next week. One thing Democrats have in common with the president, however, is a lack of details, especially when it comes to the tricky issue of paying for such a big federal investment.

The Democratic outline mentions spending existing balances in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to prop up marine infrastructure and investing in energy efficiency measures that could ultimately save money. And House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) noted today that Congress has not hiked the gas tax since 1993, though a raise is unlikely to fly with congressional Republicans.

But for the most part, neither party has said much publicly about pay-fors, even if Democrats say their plan will not add to the deficit.

In the early stages, both parties have talked up bipartisanship, which has historically been a characteristic of big, popular infrastructure bills, even when it comes to politically contentious issues such as permitting reform.

“This has always been bipartisan,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said. “We’ve always worked in a bipartisan way about this.”

Still, the Democratic proposal illustrates the continuing political distance between the parties as infrastructure talks gear up.

The Trump administration has said it would be able to leverage as much as $1.7 trillion in total investment with public-private partnerships and state and local contributions, but Democrats today scoffed at that idea.

“The federal government is a necessary partner in this effort,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.). “It’s not enough to punt this to the private sector, as the president wants.”

And it’s clear that permitting reform will be a sticking point. Congressional Republicans have made it a central point nearly every time they talk about infrastructure, complaining that it can take a decade to secure permits for a project that can be constructed in under a year.

One of the draft White House plans leaked in recent weeks suggested limiting review time for NEPA permits to two years and reducing the role of states in Section 401 permitting under the Clean Water Act.

Some Senate Democrats have said they would be open to changing environmental permitting, pointing to provisions aimed at permit streamlining in the last two highway bills. But for House Democrats today, the emphasis was on protection and maintenance, rather than repeal.

“It’s about achieving all of these objectives while maintaining critical worker protections, safeguarding our air and water, and investing in stronger, more resilient infrastructure to withstand rising sea levels and the changing climate,” Cicilline said.