President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday contained even fewer specifics on his plans for infrastructure than in previous appearances, an inauspicious start to a year that infrastructure boosters had hoped would reboot efforts at a major cash injection for roads and rails.
“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.”
Though lawmakers from both parties agree broadly that more infrastructure investment is desirable, Congress has been anything but eager to pass Trump’s previous infrastructure proposals.
And absent a new proposal from the White House or serious political capital spent by Trump and his lieutenants to push something forward, the lack of detail in his speech does not bode well for any infrastructure package. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the new House Transportation Committee chairman, seems eager to fill the gap. But in the past he has supported increasing the gasoline tax, and whether his own party, much less Trump, will support the proposal he’s putting together remains to be seen.
In his first address to Congress in 2017, Trump called on lawmakers “to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure of the United States — financed through both public and private capital” guided with a focus on American goods and labor.
But the White House didn’t follow up with a vision document until May, and a fuller treatment never emerged in 2017, with administration officials and lawmakers continuing to hype the upcoming plan even as it got pushed back repeatedly.
Last year, he used the State of the Union speech to ask Congress “to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need,” where “every federal dollar should be leveraged by partnering with State and local governments and, where appropriate, tapping into private sector investment — to permanently fix the infrastructure deficit.” The White House issued a blueprint in February, proposing to commit $200 billion in federal money (all offset by budget cuts) to spur larger investment.
But the plan — which Trump himself has reportedly said he’s not sure will work, expressing a distaste for public-private partnerships — never found a champion in the GOP-controlled Congress who was willing to turn it into legislation.
The closest anyone came was then-House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who put forward a more ambitious plan, including a gasoline tax increase, that largely did not resemble what Trump called for. That proposal never moved beyond a draft.
This year’s address did not even mention a dollar figure.
In this Congress, his administration’s efforts on infrastructure will be met by a Democratic House that is planning to approach the issue very differently, led by DeFazio, with sights set on a package with a heftier federal investment and a significant focus on adapting to climate change.
Responding to Trump’s speech Tuesday, DeFazio promised to work on a bipartisan infrastructure package, “but I can’t do it alone. This will require massive effort from the White House, stakeholders, and supporters in Congress to get something real across the finish line.”
He also noted that an infrastructure package would only be meaningful if it shored up the trust fund that pays for most highway and transit investment, which is fueled by gasoline taxes and which can no longer keep up with spending needs. “Any serious infrastructure proposal must provide sustainable, long-term Federal funding so we can make these necessary investments, create millions of living-wage American jobs, increase economic growth, and decrease congestion and emissions,” he said.
Some of the battle lines are already obvious — Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, issued a statement after the speech panning what he called “gimmicky names like a ‘Green New Deal,'” referring to Democrats’ insistence that provisions addressing climate change be included in any infrastructure package.
“We risk losing what we have already gained if [Democrats] instead choose to abandon this progress and cede to the far-left of their party by embracing costly policies with gimmicky names like a ‘Green New Deal’ and ‘Medicare for All,'” Thune said in a statement.