Funding Elusive as Democrats Launch Infrastructure Effort

Dems are taking another shot at an infrastructure package, but old problems remain, and conflicts with the White House could derail the effort at any time.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer
AP Photo/Steve Dykes
March 6, 2019, 8 p.m.

Lawmakers for years have teased one infrastructure plan after another, but they never seem to get off the ground.

Democrats are again launching an effort to write legislation overhauling the nation’s road, airport, seaport, and waterway infrastructure, but divisions on how to fund it and oversight battles with the White House could make it difficult to get a bill through Congress.

House Democrats began to turn the wheels on an infrastructure package this week, holding a Ways and Means Committee hearing on financing a bill and offering broad timelines for House action.

“I think the time frame is the next 100 days,” committee member Earl Blumenauer told reporters Tuesday. “I think that’s the time to move out and have these conversations around the country—as I say, hear what America wants.”

Blumenauer and other lawmakers said conversations between tax writers, infrastructure committee members, and House leadership are ongoing, and that there is tentative time reserved in late spring for floor action on a bill.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, suggested the effort may be split into two bills: one short-term measure and another, more ambitious six-year bill later this year.

DeFazio told reporters he doesn’t know the scope of the short-term bill leadership is considering, but he would like it to consider airports, harbors, and surface transportation.

“I’d love it to also include wastewater, but we’re having a discussion with the leadership about what the breadth of the infrastructure package may be, and Ways and Means will have to figure out a way to pay for it,” DeFazio said Tuesday. “I can provide the policy in a very short period of time, but I need to know that there is a commitment to add real funding.”

That funding mechanism will be a major roadblock for either piece of legislation.

“The president said he’s for infrastructure; Republicans have said they are for infrastructure; we’ve said we’re for infrastructure. We can therefore conclude that we can get this done, right?” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Wednesday. “Well, that would be, of course, not the case, because getting infrastructure done means paying for it, and while everybody wants to invest in infrastructure, it is more problematic from many perspectives on how you pay for that.”

Early comments from lawmakers like DeFazio and Blumenauer suggest a proposal to raise the 18.4-cent-per-gallon gas tax for about a decade and then transition that revenue stream to a tax on vehicle miles traveled could be in the works. Ideas for a vehicle-miles-traveled tax are as old as the calls for an infrastructure package, and lawmakers haven’t been able to address concerns about how the IRS would collect mileage data from each taxpayer’s vehicle, be it an installed GPS unit or some other method.

DeFazio offered past legislation indexing the federal gas tax—which hasn’t been raised since 1993—to inflation and issuing $35 billion per year in construction bonds for 13 years.

Blumenauer has suggested taking up a proposal from Senate Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden and Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal to reinstate Build America Bonds, taxable bonds originally created as part of the Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

In his State of the Union speech in February, President Trump called for a renewed push for an infrastructure deal. During his 2016 campaign, Trump pitched a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package.

But his February 2018 infrastructure plan failed to get traction in Congress. That proposal relied heavily on private investment as well as state and local governments to shoulder the financial burden. The federal government would have paid for $200 billion in projects while attempting to draw about $1.5 trillion in investment from other groups.

“We need the president to be committed to real revenues," DeFazio said. "His last plan actually cut transportation funding and pretended that [through] private investment, asset recycling, and tolling we could make a trillion-dollar investment.”

Outside groups have their own wish lists that could divide Congress as well.

Many conservative groups stand by their opposition to a gas-tax increase and instead point toward the incentives for private investment found in the Trump administration’s past proposal.

“Indeed, increasing the gas tax by 25 cents per gallon, as some testifying at the hearing have suggested, would claw back more than a quarter of the benefits of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act—a reform that has put more money back into the pockets of Americans across the country," Russ Latino, vice president of the economic-freedom portfolio at Americans for Prosperity, said in a statement following the Wednesday Ways and Means hearing.

The progressive Center for American Progress has outlined a multipoint infrastructure plan. The $1 trillion proposal includes comprehensive investments in traditional infrastructure projects like roads, ports, waterways, and airports, but also investments in low-income housing, school construction, and rehabilitation and inner-city passenger rail, ideas that may put off some Republicans.

More so, the CAP plan takes aim at climate change, with investment in transitioning to clean energy and mitigating rising sea levels.

“We want to see a timeline of 15 to 20 years for states to make substantial progress in reducing emissions,” said Kevin DeGood, CAP director of infrastructure policy.

Hiking the gas tax would pay for only a portion of the plan, DeGood said. To pay for the rest, he calls for lawmakers to roll back parts of the sweeping 2017 GOP tax-code overhaul.

Blumenauer, however, isn’t warm to that idea, saying involving infrastructure financing in broader tax policy is a “rabbit hole.”

“I think that is fraught with peril,” he said. “It has been tried by Republicans and Democrats alike. It makes it more complex. You’re stepping on toes. You have little land mines. You have conflicting priorities. And you don’t need to do it, because there are paths forward that do not involve a food fight.”

To successfully move a bill through Congress, DeFazio, Blumenauer, and others need the White House to give Republicans political cover by coming out in favor of a revenue component.

“We need a real commitment from the White House to support real revenues for a substantial plan,” DeFazio said. “If the president won’t support it and Mitch McConnell opposes, then it’s dead on arrival.”

Though the president called for cooperation on an infrastructure package, other forces on the Hill could intervene. The House Judiciary Committee requested documents from dozens of Trump allies Monday, marking the most aggressive push yet in an investigation of the president’s administration and businesses, and calling for an investigation into how Trump’s son-in-law, White House adviser Jared Kushner, obtained his security clearance.

DeFazio said he hopes lawmakers and the White House can “compartmentalize” the infrastructure issue. When asked about the investigations, Trump suggested the moves could delay legislative goals.

“It’s too bad because I’d rather see them do legislation,” Trump said Tuesday, according to a pool report. “We negotiated out legislation with so many things that we agreed on, like infrastructure, but they want to focus on nonsense."

Daniel Newhauser contributed to this article.
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