Trump and Clinton Are Both Ready to Build. Will Congress Play Along?

There are big promises for an infrastructure package, but nobody’s sure how to get there.

Traffic moves slowly across the Tappan Zee Bridge while construction continues on the new bridge as seen from Nyack, N.Y., on July 20, 2016.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
Aug. 3, 2016, 8 p.m.

If you believe campaign talking points, then there will be one clear winner no matter who takes the White House next year: the nation’s infrastructure.

Hillary Clinton has repeatedly talked up a $275 billion, five-year infrastructure package as an early priority. In her speech at the Democratic National Convention last week, Clinton said that in her first 100 days she would “work with both parties to pass the biggest investment in new, good-paying jobs since World War II,” adding that investing in infrastructure now would “not only create jobs today, but lay the foundation for the jobs of the future.”

On Tuesday, Trump sought to outdo her, telling Fox Business Channel that he would “at least double her numbers” on infrastructure spending. “I don’t know if you’ve seen the warning charts, but we have many, many bridges that are in danger of falling,” he said.

“We’re really happy to hear this at the top or near the top of our candidates’ priorities; now we hope that Congress takes note,” said Brad Markell, executive director of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council. “This can help focus on what we need to be competitive, to lay out a bigger vision for what America can be.”

Of course, if all the nation needed was talking points to repair its infrastructure, we’d be zipping around on bullet trains while logging onto the national broadband-internet network. The problem remains how to find the cash to pay for the much-needed upgrades.

Congress was forced to cobble together a quilt of pay-fors to cover a five-year transportation bill—the FAST Act—last year, largely by li­quid­at­ing a Fed­er­al Re­serve sur­plus ac­count. But it did not secure a long-term fix for the dwindling gas-tax receipts that have left the Highway Trust Fund on the brink of insolvency. To get the kind of bipartisan agreement necessary to pass a 12-figure infrastructure package (and use it as a chance for legislative comity), it would have to be fully paid for, without hefty taxes that might alienate conservatives.

“The goal is to keep that coalition together and not pick a strategy that’s going to alienate anyone that helped get the FAST Act passed,” said Robyn Boerstling, vice president of infrastructure policy for the National Association of Manufacturers. “It’s going to take building a relationship and trust to come up with ways to make it happen.”

Clinton has said that her plan would be paid for through adjustments to the business-tax code. The idea of linking tax reform to infrastructure has been kicked about for years; one proposal would lower the tax rates for corporations’ offshore earnings, but impose a one-time transition tax as a cash influx.

The general idea has support from the White House and high-ranking members on both sides of the aisle, but analysts have cautioned that it would not be a suitable long-term funding solution. Clinton has also proposed using $25 billion to kick-start an infrastructure bank, to create revolving loans that would back major projects.

Trump on Tuesday said he’d set up a fund and would “make a phenomenal deal with the low interest rates” to cover the half-trillion dollars that he was promising for infrastructure. The money would be sold as bonds, he added.

As to who would cover the fund: “People, investors. People would put money into the fund. The citizens would put money into the fund.”

It may be light on details, but a borrowing plan would allow the country to take advantage of a weak economy to support job-creating projects. Markell said that while any paid-for plan would be ideal, “money is as cheap as it’s ever been; we don’t think you necessarily need to line up pay-fors.”

The conservative Heritage Action for America decried the plans as “another Obama-style stimulus.” In a statement Monday, spokesman Dan Holler said both parties “must reject this notion that the federal government can continue borrowing money to spend our way to economic opportunity for all.”

“The response to the slowest economic recovery in six decades should not be doubling down on Hillary Clinton’s proposal that simply repeats the same failed policies of the Obama administration,” Holler added in response to Trump’s interview.

Democrats have said that low gas prices make this an ideal time to raise the gas tax as a long-term fix. At a forum hosted by the law firm Dentons on Tuesday, Trump ally and former House speaker Newt Gingrich even suggested using the oil and gas reserves on the nation’s public lands as a honey pot, suggesting “packaging infrastructure for cities paid for by development of federal land.” Gingrich confessed that the idea would be “an anathema to environmentalists,” but thought it could draw the support of unions and mayors.

An aide for the Senate Environment and Public Works Community cautioned that “there’s a huge difference between what is being said now and what happens when you have to find a new revenue source.” A realistic infrastructure plan, the aide said, would likely have to be coupled with an effort like tax reform, a tough lift but one that could pay off for White House-Congress relations.

“To actually have an administration in lock step with House and Senate on infrastructure would be a huge deal,” the aide said, saying that the White House hasn’t driven a major infrastructure bill in more than a decade.

Another open question is how the candidates and Congress define “infrastructure.” Some Republicans still gripe that the $105 billion infrastructure title of the 2009 stimulus bill included government buildings, cybersecurity and the electric grid, but only $48 billion for transportation. Environmentalists are looking to Clinton to use her infrastructure push to build out clean energy, a possible tough sell for Congressional Republicans.

With Congress also having passed a 5-year transportation bill and FAA reauthorization, and hoping to pass a water resources development bill before the end of the year, there may not be an obvious legislative hook for infrastructure. Boerstling said that, with the right details, political will should not be an issue to fix a long-simmering problem.

“What’s important is to have the president declare a need and put an emphasis on it, then let’s figure out how to make it happen,” she said. “There’s no magic number, it’s just whether we’ve delivered a better outcome, whether that’s reducing congestion or building out new systems or building up manufacturing. How we get there is the interesting debate.”

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