Infrastructure was essential to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. His enthusiasm for a $1 trillion building plan to overhaul America’s roads, bridges, and other vital facilities set him apart from his spending-shy Republican opponents, and the idea was also popular with voters. Last November, just after his electoral victory, he promised to have an infrastructure bill before Congress in his first 100 days in office. In a February speech to Congress, he reaffirmed his commitment to fast action on infrastructure.
But 100 days in, Trump had yet to release even a rough draft of his infrastructure plan. In May, the White House slipped a vague six-page sketch of a plan into its 2018 budget proposal, with little fanfare, and promised there'd be a full plan ready to go sometime in the fall. There’s been little visible action since, even as that deadline has come and gone. Just this Thursday, the White House promised that it would release a 70-page plan—still not a full bill, but a template Congress could use to create legislation—before Trump’s first State of the Union speech on January 30, 2018.
By now, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Trump would hype up plans that don’t exist or propose timelines he can’t keep. “The administration has eliminated our ability to give them the benefit of the doubt” on timing, said Adie Tomer, an infrastructure expert at the Brookings Institute, by using “really bombastic language” but failing to act on it. Trump has taken some action on most of his other key priorities and 100-day promises, even if that action has been largely delayed, dysfunctional, or doomed. So where’s his infrastructure plan?
The common narrative is that infrastructure just got lost in the scrum of the failed effort to kill the Affordable Care Act and the ongoing slog to pass tax cuts. “As often happens, this long-term problem that requires a huge allocation of funding to make a difference takes a back seat to more politically immediate priorities,” said infrastructure policy wonk Joel Moser.
That, the narrative goes, was a hugely consequential decision. “Had they started with infrastructure,” said Marcia Hale of the bipartisan infrastructure advocacy group Building America’s Future, “we might be in a very different place with our politics.” Theoretically at least, it would have been a much easier legislative lift that might have drawn in Democratic support, proving that Trump could cut deals on Capitol Hill and get things done.
But, said Jacob Leibenluft of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “to say that this is an issue of being distracted by health and tax reform lets them off the hook a bit.”
It’s unlikely the administration had enough of a solid plan to move on infrastructure earlier this year. Trump tapped a couple of Manhattan real estate developers in January to form a council to help his team figure out where to direct infrastructure spending. But he didn’t actually form the council until mid-July, and dissolved it a month later during his post-Charlottesville meltdown. Steve Bannon, the person in the White House who was most publicly supportive of infrastructure spending, was fired in August.
The six-page sketch his team released in May focused on using $200 billion, from an unspecified source, to spur the development of $800 billion in private-public partnerships (PPPs), although it gave little detail on how that would be done. But in September, Trump bashed PPPs as impractical for funding many types of infrastructure projects on the same day that the White House’s key infrastructure guy, D.J. Gribbin, was touting them as the backbone of the administration’s plan at another event. Observers were not sure if Trump’s comments reflected a policy change or were just an offhand and unofficial rant. But it added to a months-long aura of uncertainty.
“The fact that there’s no indication, almost a year into this presidency, that there’s been even a serious attempt at an infrastructure plan, I think, is telling,” said Leibenluft.
Republican leaders in Congress also made it clear at the top of 2017 that infrastructure wasn’t one of their priorities. Congress fields regular infrastructure bills, pointed out Tomer, and the GOP is never hot on the large spending they entail. So there was no incentive for the Republican-led legislature to push more infrastructure unless the administration was pushing them to do so. Even that pressure could only go so far. But if the Trump administration started the year with no clear ideas, said Tomer: “It’s like someone being at a dinner party and saying, ‘So what does everyone think about this thing? But I’m not going to tell you what I think.’ So it got dismissed.”
In recent weeks, the White House has tried to project more certainty on infrastructure, teasing elements of its 70-page plan. As of this week, officials have explained it focuses on using $200 billion to incentivize states and localities to come up with new funding sources, including deals with private entities. The $200 billion will also be used to provide block grants for projects in rural areas that might have trouble generating revenue, federal lending, and funding for innovative projects. Ideally this would lead to a total of $1 billion in infrastructure spending. This plan is more fleshed out than May’s plan, and quite different. “The administration’s done a lot more work on this than they’re getting credit for,” argued Hale. “They know what they want now.”
But few outside of the administration know the full details of this plan, leaving the public and many legislators with a slew of questions: How will those incentives work? What will the balance between these elements be? And where will that $200 billion in baseline federal funding come from? “Until you see it,” noted Tomer, “it’s easy to make changes. So until I see it, I really don’t know what you’re going to propose.”
Simultaneously, it’s become clear how little effort the administration has made to harmonize its other priorities with any potential infrastructure plan. Trump’s proposed budget would have cut, by some estimates, $55 billion more in funding for infrastructure than the $200 billion boost he’s proposed. Congress largely ignored that budget plan, but the disconnect was a bad sign.
Trump could have used his tax bill to carve out infrastructure funding; he backed a longstanding plan to use a tax on repatriated corporate funds, now idling abroad, for it as late as October. This would have smoothed over conservative concerns about spending and could have been a selling point for the tax bill, noted Leibenluft. But the White House apparently didn’t even try to marry the two bills. Instead the House tax bill contains a provision that would start taxing a type of bond that’s vital to many private-public partnerships. Both chambers’ bills, by reducing or eliminating state and local tax deductions, could lead states to decrease their taxes, shrinking a key source of revenue the current infrastructure plan wants to see increase.
“You want to do infrastructure and you want states and localities to take on a larger amount of responsibility,” said Hale. “But then you’re taking some of the tools away from them that they use to be able to do what they do presently, let alone what is going to be asked of them.”
The administration may insist it will start working on infrastructure as soon as it’s done with taxes, but don’t hold your breath. Trump has also said he wants to work on healthcare and welfare reform early next year, and Congress will likely be dealing with a funding battle in January. “There are probably 1 million things that could dislodge any proposed legislative vehicle,” or scuttle any timeline, said Hale.
Even if the White House does release a full plan in January and puts real pressure on Congress to act on it, there’s no reason to think a “switch is going to flip,” as Leibenluft put it, that would result in serious legislative action. After passing disaster relief bills and a tax plan that add massively to the national deficit, and with no clear source of funding in sight, Republicans will have even less incentive to move on infrastructure than they did in early 2017.
Trump could lean on the Democrats for a bipartisan bill. But there’s not much in his sketches, said Leibenluft, that would appeal to them “They haven’t put out ideas that are going to appeal to Republicans, who might resist putting in the resources necessary,” he told me. “And they’ve resisted proposals by Democrats.”
Even if, somehow, a bipartisan congressional coalition does form (and it’s unclear why one would), there’s no reason to think it’d pick up on whatever Trump’s final plan is. This means whatever Trump has in the works may be moot.
So will we ever get a Trump infrastructure plan? Perhaps in January. Or not. But even if we do, infrastructure is hardly as easy and unifying a cause as people made it out to be in the aftermath of Trump’s shocking win. At this point, says Leibenluft, it’s unclear if it “will ever become anything but a talking point.”
“My personal feeling,” said Tomer, “is that the clock runs out on this Congress to do something.”
Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.