One wrong move and Trump's infrastructure goals will come to a screeching halt

One wrong move and Trump's infrastructure goals will come to a screeching halt
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For an infrastructure bill to advance, it will need five things, each with the initial “T.”

First, it will need a text. On the president’s previous two major legislative initiatives, he offered only gauzy principles and left the legislative drafting to congressional Republicans. That worked, to a point, with congressional Republicans broadly united in wanting to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and cut taxes for corporations and the affluent. With far less congressional enthusiasm about moving infrastructure legislation, and with its specifics crucial to shaping the coalition supporting it, outsourcing the drafting of an infrastructure bill is unlikely to work.

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Second, it needs taxes. Spending $200 billion on infrastructure has some appeal in the abstract, but the money must come from somewhere. With a price-tag that large, only a handful of sources are possible.

We could borrow the money, i.e., add to the deficit. That is how state and local government finance much of their infrastructure spending, and with relatively low interest rates that might make sense for a well-designed program of building high-priority infrastructure. But Republicans who are willing to drive up the deficit for upper-income tax cuts will never agree to do so for domestic spending, and Democrats will not surrender their ability to criticize the tax law as a budget-buster by supporting an infrastructure bill that appears to do the same (albeit at only 14 percent of the cost).

Nobody is going to propose cutting the Pentagon, and repeated efforts to negotiate “sequester relief” packages show that both parties recognize that domestic discretionary spending is already unsustainably low. No Democrats will support cutting Medicare, Medicaid, disability benefits, or food stamps to pay for infrastructure, and Republicans who might like to cut those programs will want any savings to go to deficit reduction to ease their political vulnerability over the tax law.

That leaves revenues. Governments at all levels commonly fund infrastructure spending with targeted revenue streams such as gas taxes. New revenues will not enthuse Republicans, but in the wake of the huge tax cuts they just enacted, some could accept a proposal that does not touch marginal income tax rates. Democrats, in turn, dislike the regressivity of excise taxes but might go along if they believe the money will be well-spent. A key to determining the seriousness of the president’s infrastructure proposal is whether it proposes a plausible revenue stream sufficient to cover its cost.

Third, the bill depends on trust. If Democrats believe the infrastructure bill is a ruse to advance another agenda they dislike, they will oppose it overwhelmingly, and the criticism will further dampen Republicans’ enthusiasm.

The Trump campaign’s infrastructure proposal was skeletal, but it appeared to rely on spending large amounts of public funds to buy money-making assets for private business. It also could give private companies existing public infrastructure in exchange for promises to improve it. Democrats already incensed about corporate give-aways in the tax law will oppose legislation they believe does more of the same. Focusing on projects that can turn a profit for investors also may skew spending away from what is most needed.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight South Korea leader: North Korea agrees to take steps toward denuclearization Graham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' MORE’s recent executive order suggests that he sees demand for infrastructure as a vehicle for dismantling environmental protections. An infrastructure bill that becomes the vehicle for weakening environmental legislation will quickly become mired in controversy.

And then there is the question of discretion. Republicans killed an infrastructure bill in the first months of the Clinton administration, when unemployment was still quite high from the 1990-91 recession, because they suspected that President Clinton would use the money to reward political supporters. Few Democrats will work for a bill to provide the president with a slush fund to regain the favor of supporters alienated by his health care and tax efforts. The eagerness with which the administration and congressional Republicans responded to large donors’ requests for special favors in the tax bill won’t help their case.

Fourth, and related, the bill needs a truce. The tax law passed, and the health care repeal almost did, amidst great acrimony between the president and key congressional Republicans. Those efforts nonetheless survived because congressional Republicans wanted the underlying legislation even more than the president. The president agreed with “Chuck and Nancy” to postpone several fiscal deadlines and then rapidly returned to attacking them, but that was relatively simple legislation whose coalition did not need to stay together for long. With prospective support from both Republicans and Democrats likely to be cautious at best, a flare-up of partisanship could splinter any coalition for an infrastructure bill well before it reaches enactment.  

Finally, for an infrastructure bill to have any chance, it needs Trump. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTime for sunshine on Trump-Russia investigation Getting politics out of the pit To cure Congress, elect more former military members MORE won enactment of key priorities through sustained, focused, attention to the legislative process. President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonHypocrisy in Kavanaugh case enough to set off alarms in DC Getting politics out of the pit Kavanaugh and the 'boys will be boys' sentiment is a poor excuse for bad behavior MORE gave great speeches about health care reform but quickly became distracted, and the legislation foundered. Enactment of any infrastructure bill depends perhaps most on the president’s ability to lead.

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.