President Trump’s address to Congress last Tuesday was predictably loaded with falsehoods and malice. Between dissembling on the economy and vilifying immigrants, however, Trump did make room for one conspicuous show of bipartisanship. “I am asking both parties to come together to give us the safe, fast, reliable and modern infrastructure our economy needs and our people deserve,” he said.
Trump has been promising to rebuild the nation’s dangerously outdated infrastructure for nearly three years now. “We’re becoming a Third World country,” he declared during his campaign announcement, “because of our infrastructure.” During his inaugural address, Trump bemoaned that “America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay,” pledging to “build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation.” As of last week’s State of the Union, the new infrastructure, like Trump’s name on the facade of a skyscraper, will be “gleaming.”
The problem is that Trump has failed to put forward anything that remotely resembles a credible plan. Instead, he’s attempting to pass off a privatization scheme as a public works project.
Despite calling for a $1.5 trillion boost in infrastructure spending, Trump is proposing just $200 billion in federal funding. The remaining $1.3 trillion is expected to come from a combination of state and local governments and the private sector. Yet in most places with the greatest need for new infrastructure, cash-strapped governments won’t be able to pay for it without raising taxes. Meanwhile, the private equity firms and foreign sovereign wealth funds that are likely fill the void will undoubtedly demand guaranteed returns in the form of, say, new tolls. The reliance on private investment also creates, as Paul Krugman writes, the potential for “an orgy of crony capitalism.”
As further evidence of Trump’s actual priorities, consider where the paltry sum of federal funding in his plan is likely to come from. The administration has indicated that the $200 billion will be offset by unspecified budget cuts — a standard that did not apply to Trump’s massive corporate tax giveaway — while the White House’s proposed budget calls for severe cuts to existing infrastructure and transportation programs. A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis found that the combined effect of Trump’s infrastructure and budget plans would actually be “large and growing annual cuts in infrastructure spending.”
Progressive leaders aren’t falling for Trump’s scam. “It’s kind of pathetic,” said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka. Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) called the proposal a “nothing burger.” Still, with the midterm elections looming, Trump’s infrastructure push could put some Democrats in a tricky position, especially swing-state senators on the ballot in November. Infrastructure programs continue to be extremely popular among voters across the political spectrum. After opposing Trump’s tax cuts, which shameless Republicans absurdly spin as a victory for the middle class, Democratic lawmakers are also eager to support initiatives that could create new projects — and jobs — in their states and districts.
Democrats cannot afford to look like obstructionists on an issue that millions of Americans rightfully consider a priority. It is therefore critical for the party to present an alternative infrastructure and jobs program. During an election cycle with such high stakes, it will not be enough to expose Trump’s bait-and-switch without also making a strong case for why a Democratic plan would better serve the interests of working Americans.
There are several versions of what a Democratic infrastructure program could look like. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has proposed $2 trillion in new infrastructure spending while identifying clean energy, safe water and 21st-century transportation — including public transit — as top priorities. The party leadership’s Better Deal agenda includes a $1 trillion federal investment to be paid for by closing tax loopholes that benefit big corporations and the rich. And the Millions of Jobs campaign — a coalition of more than 30 progressive, labor and environmental groups — has endorsed 10 key principles that are laid out in a House resolution with more than 150 co-sponsors. For example, the resolution states that any infrastructure bill should prioritize “public investment over corporate giveaways and selling off public goods” and “the needs of disadvantaged communities — both urban and rural.” Not surprisingly, zero Republicans have signed on.
On the day of Trump’s inauguration, Gallup released a poll finding that voters overwhelmingly considered the enactment of “a major spending program to strengthen infrastructure,” Trump’s most important campaign promise. A year later, the president has failed to deliver on the American people’s top priority. His latest proposal does nothing to change that fact. Now, Democrats need to convince voters that they’re committed to fulfilling his promise themselves.