President Trump traveled to Ohio Thursday for a rally, hoping to revive interest in his plan to revamp America's roads, bridges, railways and ports.
Among the president's top economic plans for America — tax cuts, deregulation, infrastructure and renegotiated trade deals — infrastructure is the area where Trump has accomplished the least.
While Trump has vowed “the biggest and boldest infrastructure investment in American history,” congressional leaders have more modest aims. They plan to move a few small pieces of legislation before the midterm elections, though the bills they're looking at are mostly to reauthorize funding for existing initiatives and programs, not the massive new investment for which Trump is asking.
When Trump won the election, many saw infrastructure as a chance for a bipartisan victory: Both Democrats and Republicans have talked up the issue, and it has a lot of public support. But infrastructure has repeatedly slipped down the priority list. The White House hasn't made a major push for infrastructure, and Congress is stuck: They can't agree on a funding source, and they can't stomach adding more to the federal deficit.
On Thursday, Trump spent much of his speech in front of hard-hat-wearing workers talking about other subjects: trade, immigration, tax cuts, the media and the revival of TV show “Roseanne.” Senior administration officials insist a big push is coming to woo lawmakers on infrastructure, even beyond Trump's trip to Richfield, Ohio. Larry Kudlow, the new head of the National Economic Council, is expected to play a role in selling the plan to Congress.
But veteran lobbyists — on the left and right — say the White House's repeated declarations that this is “infrastructure week” have become a running joke. The weeks they pick almost always get derailed by controversy over unrelated issues. This latest week is happening while Congress is on recess, Trump faces high-profile allegations of marital infidelity, the Russia investigation continues to make headlines, and the administration grapples with staff turnover and contentious firings.
And some Republicans in Congress are clamoring for a vote on a balanced-budget amendment, a reminder that many in the GOP don't want to spend any more money after tax cuts and spending increases have already added at least $1.3 trillion to the national debt.
“I think some of the hold-up is pure politics. Congress may not want to do anything prior to the fall elections,” said Richard Geddes, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and director of the Cornell Program in Infrastructure Policy.
Trump blamed Democrats for holding up the infrastructure bill, telling the crowd in Ohio that “we have a very important election coming up, and they don’t like the wins we’ve been getting.”
Infrastructure has stalled in Congress over funding, but lobbyists say some of the blame also falls on the White House, which lacks a clear message on what Trump wants.
The president's plan calls for $200 billion in new federal spending with the rest of the money coming from the private sector and state and local governments to get to the $1.5 trillion. Trump's top advisers are pushing public-private partnerships, but Trump himself has expressed skepticism about whether those will work.
“It's not a priority for the Hill, and the White House doesn't have the apparatus or ability to drive a consistent message on this,” said one veteran GOP lobbyist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak openly about the situation.
Trump floated the idea of raising the gas tax to pay for his plan. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a business lobby, is pushing for a 25-cent increase in the gas tax, which hasn't been increased since 1993. The move would generate $394 billion in new revenue, but the conservative Koch network and many GOP leaders in Congress are against any tax increases.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) thinks the best solution for now is to “break it into pieces” instead of doing one massive bill, as Congress did on taxes.
Republican aides say the most likely bills to get done in the coming months are the reauthorization and funding of the Federal Aviation Administration for air travel and the Water Resources Development Act for water infrastructure. But it's a stretch for Trump to take credit for this, since these programs are long-standing and have been renewed every few years in Congress.
“We need a big visionary bill. And we need to find some way to pay for it,” said Marcia Hale, president of Building America's Future, a bipartisan coalition pushing for infrastructure funding. “The reason we’re breaking all of this up is because we don’t have the energy to put behind doing a large, replenishing, revitalizing infrastructure plan for America.”
The only money Trump has managed to secure for infrastructure came from the budget the president threatened to veto last week, in part because he didn't like money going toward a railway project in New York and New Jersey known as the Gateway tunnel.
The bill included $21.2 billion in new infrastructure-related funding, which the White House is calling a “down payment” on the president's goals. But several of the programs that received additional funding in the budget such as Amtrak and Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants were slated for cuts or elimination in Trump's budget proposal.
The White House insists it can get back on track on infrastructure, although senior administration officials are also dampening expectations of how quickly Trump can get what he wants.
“We hope to get a big chunk of the plan done this year. But whatever we're not able to get through this year, we'll take up again next year,” officials told reporters on a call Wednesday ahead of Trump's trip to Ohio.
Kudlow is likely to be key in selling the public and Congress on Trump's plans, replacing Gary Cohn, who had been meeting frequently with Republicans and Democrats in Congress on infrastructure. Kudlow is a TV personality and former Reagan administration staffer who is known as a champion of tax cuts and free trade.
But Kudlow told a conservative radio station in February that he “really liked” Trump's infrastructure plan, especially relying a lot on private funding instead of government dollars. He also slammed the idea of raising the gas tax, a potential break with Trump.
“I doubt very much there will be a federal gas tax. ... I don't think it will ever happen,” Kudlow said.
While there is consensus in Washington that America's infrastructure needs an upgrade, Republicans and Democrats remain far apart on how to pay for it and how much money the federal government should spend. Democrats recently released their plan, which called for $1 trillion in government funding, paid for largely by rolling back some tax cuts, a non-starter for the GOP.
“Democrats must now keep their commitment to achieve these [infrastructure] goals. It's time to work together in a bipartisan way for the American people,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Trump keeps talking up how good infrastructure investment would be for the economy. His Council of Economic Advisers predicts the $1.5 trillion plan would boost growth by 0.1 to 0.2 percentage points a year and generate more than 290,000 more jobs. But critics say what the president is really proposing is $200 billion in funding, and it's questionable how much additional money would really come from cash-strapped local governments.
Economists at the Penn Wharton Budget Model predict that Trump's plan would lead to $230 billion in new investment, meaning it would have little impact on the economy or jobs.
“Two-hundred billion will not get the job done. The Trump administration recognizes there is a need to have a lot more money in order to have a credible program. This is a starting point for negotiation with Congress,” said Martin Klepper, an Obama appointee who served most of last year as executive director of the Transportation Department's Build America Bureau. “The $1.5 trillion is totally fake news.”