Donald Trump’s oft-stated but rarely expounded-on desire for some kind of major infrastructure legislation has always faced two major hurdles. One is the simple reality that in general, it is hard to get laws passed in the United States. The other is that it’s long been clear that enacting a major infrastructure building law is not a high priority of the Republican Party leadership in Congress.
The way to get a big infrastructure bill done would have been for Trump to exercise his not-inconsiderable informal influence as president of the United States to try to make GOP leaders treat this as a priority. Tapping the Senate majority leader’s wife to serve as his secretary of transportation seemed like a promising start to that effort, with the fact that Elaine Chao is very well-qualified for the job independently working as a nice bonus.
But there’s been no evidence that the White House is making a big push for infrastructure, and there’s certainly no evidence that congressional Republicans are pushing for it.
Mike Allen and Jonathan Swan of Axios have some spin suggesting this is a bank-shot master strategy:
The plan: Push off until next year any consideration of the massive infrastructure plan Trump wants to push for roads, airports and other big projects, giving Republican lawmakers more breathing room amid a crowd of issues that'll require massive effort, time and political capital.
The politics: Republican strategists say that Democrats, who'll be reluctant to give Trump a win, will be in a jam as midterm elections close in: They'll be under huge pressure to support big projects that'll bring money and improvements to their districts. And blue-collar unions, including construction and building trades, can be expected to favor of the package, driving a wedge into the Democratic base.
As is often the case, it’s a little unclear who is spinning whom here. But either way, this is nonsense. The way to enact an infrastructure bill is to make enacting an infrastructure bill a priority. When the White House says it will do something after it finishes overhauling the American health care system and subsequently overhauling the tax code, it is politely telling you it’s not going to do it. Immigration reform activists got this kind of spin from the Obama White House in 2009, and they rightly regarded it as bad news for their cause.
The time for infrastructure is now
You can tell something is off with this strategy because the whole “politics” section acts as if the problem Trump needs to solve is how to find Democratic votes for an infrastructure bill. But that’s not the problem! As Allen and Swan write, key Democratic interest groups would like a giant federal infrastructure spending package. Democrats spent years during the Obama administration trying to pass a giant federal infrastructure package. When Trump unexpectedly won the election, Nancy Pelosi started talking about how she would like to work with him on a giant federal infrastructure package. Chuck Schumer and his Senate colleagues have released a plan for a giant federal infrastructure package.
The problem is that Republicans don’t want to do it.
What Republicans want to do is reduce taxes on the wealthy by repealing the Affordable Care Act and then pivot to a business tax reform package.
If they can get all that done — a big if — plus get through the basic legislative mechanics of lifting the debt ceiling, funding the government, filling judicial vacancies, etc., they might be willing to pivot to infrastructure. Except there are two problems. One is that whatever it is Republicans end up doing on taxes will likely exhaust their patience for increased budget deficits. The other is that the closer the GOP gets to Election Day, the less its leaders will want to give red-state Democrats an easy bipartisan bill to vote for.
A 2018 infrastructure package wouldn’t drive a wedge between Claire McCaskill and the Democratic base. It would let McCaskill join hands with Donald Trump to do something that labor unions and other Democratic interest groups also like. It’s win-win for her! So why would Senate Republicans want to give her a win?