Before Tuesday’s meeting on infrastructure between the president and congressional Democrats, one thing was certain: Finding a bipartisan path to update the country’s roads would likely be the last opportunity for meaningful legislative action before the 2020 elections.
Health care has proven too divisive, with Republicans declining to release a detailed plan until after the election. Immigration reform is in a stalemate.
So it’s positive that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer reportedly negotiated a deal with President Donald Trump to update the nation’s aging infrastructure.
“There was goodwill in this meeting and that was different than some of the other meetings that we’ve had,” Schumer told the media after leaving the White House. The New York senator may be politely referring to the disastrous talk over border security earlier this year, a meeting from which Trump walked out and called “a total waste of time.”
Tuesday’s meeting seemed more pleasant. But getting the two parties to agree on updating bridges was the easy part. Finding the money is where the real work starts.
The attendees agreed to shoot for an astounding $2 trillion package, which seems more than enough to cover the estimated $836 billion backlog of highway and bridge needs, a figure courtesy of an assessment by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Congressional leaders now have three weeks to coalesce around a funding plan before they return to the White House to hash out the details with Trump.
One idea among Democrats is to raise the federal gas tax if the president agrees to roll back some of the 2017 Republican tax cuts. That should be a nonstarter, not only for political reasons, but because the gas tax is a poor way to fund national projects. At 18 cents per gallon of gasoline and 24 cents per gallon of diesel, the federal fuel tax is high enough. Raising it hurts lower-income families the most. Economically disadvantaged drivers tend to own older, less fuel-efficient cars, and their share of the tax will increase as the number of electric and hybrid vehicles increases.
A better approach is to lower the federal fuel tax burden, which would free up states to fund the rest in a way that makes sense to them. In 2018, the Trump administration crafted a formula in which the national government would pay 20% of infrastructure needs while states and cities would cover their remaining 80%. While it needn't be those exact amounts, the principle is right. States know their infrastructure needs better than Washington and have better partnerships with local contractors. States likely could do more work with less money in a shorter amount of time.25 comments on this story
Still, the $2 trillion figure feels steep. It would certainly add to the national debt and increase spending deficits. Even though both parties have abandoned the pretense of reining in deficit spending, that amount of money is unlikely to get the votes of some key congressional players.
The best path to success is for Congress to play to its strengths in the coming months. All sides would appreciate infrastructure investments — job generation and economic development appeal to both parties. Focusing on the positives should lead to a prudent funding plan that places the American people — and their wallets — front and center.