Despite Bipartisan Interest, Washington Falls Short on Infrastructure

Blog Post
Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Elected officials in both parties have expressed interest for years in boosting federal investment in the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. So, too, have business leaders and many economists who say that such a commitment would support stronger economic growth and is long overdue.

This should be a no-brainer, as some members of Congress have indicated. Yet year after year, Washington has failed to deliver.

Indeed, infrastructure investment seems to be a prime example of important federal work that, amid endless partisan bickering over short-term budget decisions, has not become a government priority.

In addition, even current levels of infrastructure spending could be jeopardized if much of the federal government’s “discretionary” spending is squeezed tighter and tighter by deficit-financed tax cuts, rising federal interest costs and the growth of large, automatic spending programs -- notably Social Security and Medicare.

Some lawmakers in both parties say strong presidential leadership on infrastructure investment will be essential. Such leadership, however, has been lacking in the Trump administration.

A year ago the White House, with great fanfare, released what it billed as a 10-year, $1.5 trillion infrastructure program. It turned out, however, that the president was only proposing $200 billion in federal money for the program, with the rest of the money supposed to come from state and local governments and the private sector.

The Concord Coalition found that the president had failed to present a credible plan to provide even the smaller amount without slicing into other transportation funding.

In his State of the Union address last week, Trump said an infrastructure package was “a necessity.” But he offered few details and didn’t even bother suggesting an appropriate figure for federal spending in the package.

While stronger presidential leadership would certainly be helpful, Republicans and Democrats in Congress should not let Trump’s disappointing performance on this issue stop them from moving forward on a substantial infrastructure package.

Such a package must include a credible funding plan. This means something other than simply increasing the federal deficit.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, last year presented an infrastructure plan that includes a reasonable increase in the gas tax. Despite inflation and greater fuel efficiency, that tax has not been raised in more than a quarter of a century.

The Concord Coalition has encouraged lawmakers to consider such an increase. Alternatively, lawmakers could look at a new mechanism to replace the gas tas, such as a suggested nationwide mileage-based user fee.

Two events last week put a helpful spotlight on the need for infrastructure improvements, their connection to long-term economic growth, and financing possibilities.

Last Tuesday the Chamber of Commerce convened business leaders, policymakers and others for a summit entitled “America’s Infrastructure: Time to Invest.”

“America’s infrastructure is more than just a network of roads, bridges, tunnels, railroads, airports, and waterways connecting our towns, cities and states,” a Chamber statement said. “It serves as a backbone of economic growth and preserves our quality of life, safety, communities and prosperity. America has long been a global leader in innovation, transportation and smart fiscal policies, yet the infrastructure that keeps our country open for business is out of date.”

Two days later, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee heard from 10 public officials, business leaders and other experts in a hearing entitled “The Cost of Doing Nothing: Why Investing in Our Nation’s Infrastructure Cannot Wait.”

Committee Chairman Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had given him a “short timeline” to develop legislation to increase infrastructure spending. Several Republicans described themselves as optimistic that Congress would be able to pass an infrastructure bill.

Let’s hope such optimism proves to be justified -- providing such legislation includes a responsible, long-term financing plan.