President Donald Trump is scheduled to meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer Wednesday to resume their discussions about how to invest $2 trillion more in U.S. public infrastructure. The odds of them negotiating a deal were always remote (bipartisanship in Washington being the rarity it is), but now it appears to be significantly worse. The standoff over congressional investigations has given Democrats pause: Would President Trump’s stonewalling seem reasonable, or at least forgivable, if it was ignored, even temporarily? And just as important, might developing a plan to upgrade the nation’s highways, water and sewer systems, airports, ports, electrical grid and so on help get him re-elected in 2020?
This kind of don’t-let-him-win at all costs mentality is, of course, exactly what Trump supporters believe has always motivated Democratic leaders. Thus, from a political standpoint, President Trump wins if they reach a deal and wins (to a lesser extent presumably) if they don’t. That’s why Speaker Pelosi and Senator Schumer would be far better off to move forward with a good faith effort to restore the nation’s failing infrastructure that is currently graded by the American Society of Civil Engineers as a D-plus and a long-term threat to economic prosperity. Infrastructure is too important to be ignored — or perhaps to be made the center of the political universe.
The poor condition of the nation’s public works systems is chiefly the result of a lack of adequate investment over the years, particularly the failure of Congress to raise the gas tax, the primary source of the federal government’s road and transit funding, beyond 1993 levels. Admittedly, there are alternatives to financing this unmet need. Lawmakers could trim other portions of the federal budget to free $2 trillion, but since the last Congress, which was entirely controlled by Republicans, couldn’t accomplish that feat to finance a costly tax cut, it’s highly unlikely a politically divided Congress will do it now. Mr. Trump is a fan of leveraging private investment through public-private partnerships, but there are limits on what P3s can accomplish because they have to guarantee profits to investors (generally from tolls and fees).
In reality, the best kind of public infrastructure investment puts the system on cruise control. Had the gas tax been assessed as a percentage of the price of motor fuel — if it simply rose with inflation as sales, income, capital gains or property taxes do — it would probably be perfectly adequate today instead of 36 years behind the times. Systems that automatically receive regular maintenance last much longer. That’s why, for example, one of the nation’s biggest infrastructure vulnerabilities is thought to be its 90,000-plus dams — 70 percent of which will be over five decades old by 2025, which is longer than what is usually judged to be the lifespan of a dam. Dams don’t have their own funding source nor are they automatically replaced or rebuilt (the majority are actually privately held). So much for the power of privatization.
Congress might close some tax loopholes or revoke certain tax cuts. Taxing capital gains at income tax rates would do the trick. So might Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to impose a 2 percent tax on ultra-high households worth $50 million or more. But one imagines the Republican-controlled Senate would never go for any of them. They would require a recorded vote, which is death for members of the GOP who don’t mind spending taxpayer dollars but clearly don’t like raising them beforehand. And that’s probably why some Democrats think there’s a certain Lucy-with-the-football quality to this negotiation anyway — as soon as they throw out a tax proposal, Mr. Trump will pull the ball away and march out of talks. Pleasing his base and ignoring the substance of an issue? Have we seen such behavior out of this White House? Have we seen any other?
Yet as much as Democrats seem overly worried about optics these days — whether their 2020 candidates are too liberal, whether the party as gone too rabidly anti-Trump, whether their voters are too nostalgic for the Barack Obama era and Joe Biden-style normalcy, etc. — they need to stop thinking tactically and start thinking policy. Americans want to see evidence of a Democratic vision. An infrastructure plan is not going to win the next election. It’s much too boring. But an unwillingness to pursue an infrastructure plan could lose one. It would represent the triumph of appearance over substance. Democrats need to stand for something. Let it be standing up for the best interests of the country including its bricks and mortar and asphalt.