Trump’s ‘Great National Infrastructure Program’? Stalled

Source: By GLENN THRUSH, New York Times • Posted: Sunday, July 23, 2017

There is broad agreement that American infrastructure problems need to be addressed, but debate over how to pay for it. Construction crews worked on a section of an overpass that collapsed from a large fire on Interstate 85 in Atlanta. David Goldman/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — As a candidate, President Trump billed himself as a new breed of think-big Republican, pitching a $1 trillion campaign pledge to reconstruct the nation’s roadways, waterworks and bridges — along with a promise to revive the lost art of the bipartisan deal.

In the White House, Mr. Trump has continued to dangle the possibility of “a great national infrastructure program” that would create “millions” of new jobs as part of a public-private partnership to rival the public works achievements of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower. He chastises anyone who forgets to include it near the top of his to-do list, telling one recent visitor to the Oval Office, “Don’t forget about infrastructure!”

But an ambitious public works plan, arguably his best chance of rising above the partisan rancor of his first six months in office, is fast becoming an afterthought — at precisely the moment Mr. Trump needs a big, unifying issue to rewrite the narrative of his chaotic administration.

Infrastructure remains stuck near the rear of the legislative line, according to two dozen administration officials, legislators and labor leaders involved in coming up with a concrete proposal. It awaits the resolution of tough negotiations over the budget, the debt ceiling, a tax overhaul, a new push to toughen immigration laws — and the enervating slog to enact a replacement for the Affordable Care Act.

Mr. Trump’s team has yet to produce the detailed plan he has promised to deliver “very soon,” and the president has yet to even name any members to a new board he claimed would green-light big projects.

The collapse of his health care overhaul effort seemed to clear one item out of the way. But it also raised serious doubts about the ability of Republicans to pass anything other than regulatory rollbacks or routine spending bills.

“The president would have been better off beginning his agenda with a major infrastructure package,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, who has been working with the White House on the issue.

“It would give him a win on an important agenda item for him,” Ms. Collins said. “It would have been better received by Democrats, Congress and, frankly, citizens across the country.”

Senator John Thune, the South Dakota Republican leading infrastructure efforts in the Senate, said consideration of a proposal could slip into 2018. “They’re supposedly going to submit some sort of plan in the fall, so we’ll see,” Mr. Thune told reporters this month. “We’re sort of waiting on the administration to tell us what it is exactly they want to do.”

Unlike the transformative 20th-century efforts the president likes to cite at his rallies, any plan that eventually emerges will not rely exclusively on federal funds. Instead, it will try to use $200 billion in federal spending to attract an additional $800 billion in investment from private investors and local governments over the next 10 years.

President Trump met with business executives in April. Mr. Trump has spoken of “a great national infrastructure program” that would create “millions” of new jobs and rival the public works achievements of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eisenhower. Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Its hybrid nature is its greatest virtue. It’s also a drawback. Democrats and centrist Republicans remain skeptical of its limited scope. House conservatives remain hostile toward any big, new federal funding program. As a result, Mr. Trump’s top advisers and Republicans on the Hill are uncertain on how to proceed and unsure what is even possible given the party divisions exposed by the Obamacare repeal effort.

Gary D. Cohn, chairman of Mr. Trump’s National Economic Council, along with the president’s legislative affairs director, Marc Short, banked on one possible political workaround: linking the plan to the administration’s push for a tax overhaul. The approach appealed to Mr. Trump.

“Infrastructure is in my opinion very popular,” the president said in April. “It’s going to be bipartisan. And I’m going to use it in another bill. That’s an important bill.”

To get it done, Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohn, a lifelong Democrat and a political novice, are open to increasing the federal share well beyond $200 billion, according to officials.

Despite his public swagger, Mr. Cohn tends to tread gingerly on sensitive political matters and is reluctant to release details of the administration’s infrastructure proposal, or even a legislative strategy, for fear of having it shot down.

“Right now, it doesn’t appear that they have a plan,” said Richard L. Trumka, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., who is pushing for more federal spending. “The president doesn’t know what his own party wants, and he’s not sure what he wants. He can’t get his own party to pony up the money for infrastructure.”

A White House spokeswoman, Natalie Strom, said the timetable for releasing a proposal was the same as it had always been: late summer or early fall. Mr. Cohn’s team is carefully weighing options and seeking advice from dozens of financial experts, construction executives, legislators and local officials, she said.

“Our work on infrastructure is continuing to move as planned,” Ms. Strom wrote in an email this past week. “Rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure has always been a major priority for the president and his team remains on track to do that.”

Mr. Trump plans to name members of the infrastructure panel in the coming weeks. But contrary to what he told The Wall Street Journal this year, the committee won’t have the authority to approve or reject projects, according to an administration official. Instead it will serve in a broader advisory capacity.

“We are working with local governments, federal agencies and our partners on the Hill to finalize a common-sense plan that will receive overwhelming public support and bipartisan majorities in Congress,” Mr. Short said when asked about the status of the plan.

But time may be running out, and Mr. Short has privately expressed frustration that the president’s team hasn’t made infrastructure more of a priority, according to a Senate staff member who has spoken with him.

Installing high-speed internet cable in upstate New York. Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

Senate Democrats are increasingly unwilling to work with Mr. Trump on anything. Nor is there consensus among Republicans on how to proceed.

Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, is skeptical of wedding a tax overhaul and infrastructure — or of any deal that would require him to compromise with Democrats. He has suggested a more modest Republicans-only package. He has also discussed tacking something smaller onto a budget reconciliation bill that requires only 51 Republican votes, according to a person close to the talks.

The idea of an all-in-one bill combining tax reform and infrastructure also has internal skeptics. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin shot it down at a meeting with House members recently, arguing that a combined tax and infrastructure bill was “too big to pass,” according to notes taken by an attendee.

One senior administration aide said Mr. Mnuchin’s position had prompted Mr. Cohn to consider scrapping the idea of melding the two initiatives altogether.

There are other impediments.

Mick Mulvaney, Mr. Trump’s budget director, has told associates he opposes any significant expansion of funding in the plan, according to people close to him. Mr. Mulvaney, who led efforts to shut down the government as a congressman from South Carolina, included a 13 percent cut to the Department of Transportation and reductions to other infrastructure-related programs in his draft budget for the coming fiscal year.

Mr. Cohn, according to two people who have spoken with him recently, has dismissed Mr. Mulvaney’s budget as a “total nonstarter” that no one should take seriously. And while Mr. Mulvaney remains influential with Hill conservatives, Mr. Cohn has the president’s trust. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao recently called him “the big dog” on taxes and infrastructure.

So far he hasn’t growled. A White House official directly involved in the process said Mr. Cohn’s team was hashing out a “declaration of legislative principles” but would most likely leave much of the bill drafting to House and Senate Republicans.

Still, the broad outlines are slowly coming into focus. The plan would include “massive permit reform” to cut approval times on major projects to two years or less, from 10; loans and grants to improve rural infrastructure; and funding for “transformative projects,” like broadband and power grid improvements. In addition, the effort would include bolstering existing programs funded through the Finance and Innovation Act and new “incentives” to encourage states and localities to bankroll their own projects, officials said.

For his part, Mr. Trump is most concerned about being able to tell voters his plan hit the $1 trillion mark — raising concerns that the administration will simply include previously scheduled local projects in its overall tally to claim victory.

The president — echoing his ill-received remarks about repealing the Affordable Care Act — has told people around him that he did not expect the process to be this difficult, according to one longtime adviser.

The one thing that is not in dispute is the monumental need to do something. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that $4.6 trillion is needed to fix crumbling highways, bridges, transit systems and waterworks, and to build out the nation’s power grid and broadband networks.

At work in May on a bridge for Interstate 11 near Boulder City, Nev. John Locher/Associated Press

Tom Naratil, the Americas president for UBS and an advocate of public-private partnerships, said: “From our investor surveys, and in other places, you can see that infrastructure is a unifying, not a dividing, issue. The demand is there.”

But lawmakers from states with rural populations are concerned that local governments will have to collect tolls or raise fees to bankroll projects that are not profitable enough to attract big investors. “My concern is, that works very well for large urban states, but it’s not really feasible for rural states like Maine, where you simply can’t generate the same kind of revenue,” Senator Collins said.

Many members of Mr. McConnell’s conference, including conservative stalwarts like Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, have privately pushed for more federal money.

Sean McGarvey, president of the North America’s Building Trades Union, said he thought the administration needed to make “a very, very sizable public investment” for the plan to succeed. Mr. McGarvey, one of the few labor leaders close to the White House, said his union would like to see “a detailed proposal that can make it through committee, and be voted on through regular order by the end of the year.”

In the absence of a concrete proposal to sell, Mr. Trump’s staff has focused on what it can control — cutting regulations and harvesting “low-hanging fruit” to show some progress, in the words of one administration official.

But even that hasn’t gone according to plan. A big-splash proposal to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system, borrowed from House Republicans, has faced tougher-than-expected opposition.

During a White House “infrastructure week” in June that was overshadowed by the testimony of James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, on Capitol Hill, aides raided the Republican policy cupboard for news-release-ready projects. Mr. Trump ended the week with what seemed like a genuinely new, if modest, proposal: a plan to create a council to streamline federal permitting coupled with an online “dashboard” to track federal projects.

One problem. A similar law was passed in 2015. The two senators who introduced the legislation — Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, and Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican — felt blindsided.

“It’s hard when you work in a bipartisan way to accomplish something meaningful and then the president announces it as if it was new, like it was something he was creating,” Ms. McCaskill said.

But Mr. Trump needed something substantive to prove he was making progress, according to White House aides.

Someone simply forgot to give the two senators a heads-up — and the president veered off script to make the project seem as if it were his idea.