Trump's infrastructure order falls far short of his campaign promises
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The suffering of Texas and Louisiana under Hurricane Harvey, and the looming threat of Hurricane Irma, remind us how powerfully environmental forces can reshape our lives. President Trump has quite properly pledged the nation’s support to the stricken communities.

Yet just last month, he announced a new executive order on infrastructure that would reduce the precautions we take against flooding and weaken environmental reviews that could help reduce the number of people in harm’s way. The executive order was largely ignored because he released it in the same press conference where he insisted that “fine people” had marched with Nazis and Klansmen in Charlottesville. But it deserves our attention because it will do lasting harm without achieving its stated objectives.

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The executive order starts with the indisputable truth that this country’s public infrastructure has fallen into serious disrepair. The key reason for that is no mystery: the long-term, grinding effects of the underfunding of basic functions at all levels of government. The House of Representatives’ non-defense appropriations bills this summer would reduce spending 22 percent below 2010 levels after adjusting for inflation and population. State and local governments, too, imposed savage austerity when the Great Recession devastated their revenue bases.

The result is a large and growing backlog of deferred maintenance on what we have and postponing construction of what we need despite interest rates that would make financing these projects readily affordable.

During his campaign, the president called for a major building program to start to correct these problems. The design of his proposal — which included large doses of corporate welfare — left much to be desired, but at least he recognized the critical need was for investment.

Not anymore. With congressional Republicans allergic to finding new resources from anywhere except cutting programs for the poor and his own political influence flagging, the president has effectively abandoned his infrastructure plan without a fight.

Indeed, his proposed budget would further starve already underfunded domestic programs — necessitating still more deferred maintenance — to fund a defense build-up and a ludicrously expensive border wall. Among the big losers would be wastewater treatment programs, the highway trust fund, and maintenance in our national parks.

Rather than press Congress for the infrastructure funding he has admitted we need, President Trump has shifted to blaming environmental regulations such as the Establishing a Federal Flood Risk Management Standard that limits building in areas likely to become flooded. Wildly exaggerating the role environmental reviews play in delaying critical infrastructure projects, his executive order would short-circuit environmental reviews of projects that could leave communities excessively vulnerable to natural disasters, destroy cherished recreational opportunities, or expose children in nearby communities to toxic chemicals.

Like his proposals to slash the budgets of emergency response agencies, his executive order ignores what is required to have effective government. It demands faster turn-arounds on environmental reviews by the very agencies whose budgets and staffing he has cut the most. Accountability is indeed part of sound management — but so is ensuring that one’s subordinates have the resources to meet the demands being made on them.

By stripping agencies of staff and simultaneously demanding that they complete reviews ever-faster (with the threat of still-further cuts if they do not), the president is effectively pushing them to disregard their statutory obligations and rubber-stamp projects without any clear idea of what environmental harm might result or how that harm might be minimized consistent with achieving the project’s purposes. This executive order would leave key environmental statutes on the books while rendering them largely ineffectual.

The immediacy of the need after natural disasters brings out the best in people. We need to extend that compassion to preventing or minimizing predictable suffering during disasters. We cannot do that if we strip away the tools we need to anticipate and prevent human suffering.

The law does not guarantee primacy for environmental concerns. Nowhere does it require that we adopt the most environmentally protective alternative. It just requires that, when a project that would pave over a great deal of land would increase the risk of contaminated run-off and flooding that a nearby residents, we are warned before it is too late to re-design the project.  

The core principle that we look before we leap — or dynamite or pave or spray — has remained constant. Until now.

By depriving us of the basic knowledge we need to evaluate proposed projects, President Trump’s executive order prevents informed civic dialogue and debate. And that is something we need now more than ever.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.


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