Typically, U.S. presidents use the State of the Union address both to provide an update on the country (as the Constitution calls for) and to outline ambitious policy goals. Those ambitions are generally accompanied, at least privately, with strategies for building public support and introducing specific legislation to Congress. It is an unveiling.
President Trump, though, does not generally do the typical things a president does. In his iteration of the speech Tuesday, for example, he suddenly went off-script to declare that he wanted to see legal immigration hit a new high, something that runs contrary to nearly every legislative effort his administration has advanced.
Nonetheless, Trump pledged at the outset a speech that would present “the agenda of the American people.” That included addressing immigration, health-care costs and an issue that has been sitting at the top of the government’s to-do list for eons: infrastructure.
Trump’s delineation of that critical agenda item was not terribly robust.
“Both parties should be able to unite for a great rebuilding of America’s crumbling infrastructure,” Trump said. “I know that the Congress is eager to pass an infrastructure bill — and I am eager to work with you on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting-edge industries of the future. This is not an option. This is a necessity.”
That was it. There was no new presentation of a plan to make a massive boost in spending feasible, just a wan “let’s do this,” as though it hadn’t yet occurred to Congress to get it done.
As The Washington Post’s Tory Newmyer wrote shortly after last year’s midterm election, how to fund a new transportation bill is the central stumbling block for any new legislation. Republicans are averse to simply writing a check to cover the hundreds of billions of dollars that such a proposal would cost, forcing Congress at this point to consider other mechanisms, such as an increase in the gasoline tax that could generate revenue. Democrats oppose that move, given that it disproportionately affects lower-income Americans. (According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the poorest Americans spend 8.1 percent of their income on gas and motor oil while the wealthiest spend 1.6 percent.)
The last major transportation bill was passed in 2015, allocating about $300 billion for various projects and priorities. Trump has at times talked about a $1.5 trillion investment, although the bulk of that would have come from nonfederal sources, such as private investment or the states. It’s worth noting that in fiscal 2018, corporate tax receipts were down $92 billion from the year before, largely a function of the Republican tax cut bill. In fiscal 2019, which began in October, those receipts are down an additional $9 billion.
But there’s probably a broader problem for getting a new infrastructure deal during this Congress: politics.
It used to be that specific pieces of infrastructure could be funded through earmarks attached to spending bills to secure support from specific politicians. This was the infamous political pork, banned by former House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) when the Republicans retook control of the House in 2011. But those expenditures served an obvious purpose: allowing elected officials to have a specific, visible project in their district to which they could point and utter some version of the phrase “getting things done.”
A sweeping new transportation bill that resulted in new roads and bridges, new train stations and upgraded transit facilities would offer a lot of opportunities for elected officials to say they were being effective in Washington. But it would also mean, in theory, a lot of projects to which Trump could point and also make the same claim.
As he's seeking reelection.
The Democratic base isn’t broadly opposed to Democratic leaders working with Trump, exactly. A recent NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll found that 6 percent of Democrats thought the party’s leaders were doing too much to work with Trump. About half thought the current level of working with Trump was about right. That current level, though, is practically zero — as it demonstrably was when the poll was conducted during the recent government shutdown.
Will Democrats in Congress want to gain visible local spending projects in exchange for delivering a big policy win to the president who they and their base hope gets wiped out in 2020? Will Trump be able to pick off enough vulnerable Democrats to agree with the legislative package his party will put forward?
This comes back to our original point. Infrastructure is broadly popular, and Trump could have used his well-publicized State of the Union speech to make a pointed case for implementing specific proposals meant to make an infrastructure package a reality. He could have put behind him all of the jokes about his administration’s repeated “infrastructure weeks” and taken the point on legislation that his political opponents would be hard-pressed to stand against.
He didn’t. Instead, he said, “I am eager to work with you on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting edge industries of the future.” In his speech, he didn’t even force Democrats into a position opposing a popular proposal that he was advocating.
The idea that he and his party will now seize some political advantage against a Democratic-led House seems unlikely.