The president's plan does little to improve America's connective tissue. It does raise questions about who would really benefit.
Everyone says that President Trump’s so-called infrastructure plan will be dead on arrival.
Let’s hope so, not least for the damage his budget would cause to critical transit projects in the Puget Sound area, while providing no relief through the so-called infrastructure plan.
But whatever happens when Congress disposes of both, they offer some disquieting insights.
Budgets, especially, are guides to the philosophy and thinking behind any administration. And even if the finished product little resembles what the White House proposed, a president often propels policy in his direction, with big consequences for our economy and society.
Whether he realizes it or not, Trump and his Republican supporters in Congress are continuing an argument over government’s role in infrastructure that goes back to the early days of the nation.
Most early presidents did not believe the Constitution allowed for the federal government to spend for many “internal improvements.” This was especially true of the Democratic Party of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.
Thus, the Erie Canal, which created a transportation revolution by connecting the Hudson River with Lake Erie, was financed by New York state. It opened in 1825 and led several other states, mostly northern, to undertake ambitious infrastructure projects.
The Whig Party, especially its leader Henry Clay, advanced the American System. Looking to Alexander Hamilton, not Jefferson, for inspiration, this plan consisted of protective tariffs, a central bank and federal funding for internal improvements.
Unfortunately, the Whigs never gained enough of a foothold to implement it. But the American System influenced the economic policies of the new Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln, unencumbered by the opposition of Democratic slave-holding states that seceded in 1861, saw Congress enact legislation to build the first transcontinental railroad. It provided large subsidies, especially in land, and marked a complete change in the philosophy of Washington, D.C.’s role in infrastructure.
The Union Pacific met the Central Pacific in 1869, opening the first railroad route across the continent. More followed, including the Northern Pacific to Tacoma. The nation was knitted together and the federal role played a major part in America’s rise as an industrial power.
The federal government again stepped in with reclamation projects from the Newlands Act of 1902, signed by an enthusiastic President Theodore Roosevelt. The law (named after Rep. Francis Newlands of Nevada, despite its apt title) helped subsidize irrigation projects in the West.
From reclamation to the Panama Canal, TR was big on infrastructure as a projection of national and economic power. The first major Newlands project, which turned little Phoenix, Arizona, into an agricultural empire and now the nation’s fifth-largest city, bears the name Theodore Roosevelt Dam.
Herbert Hoover, who began as a Roosevelt Progressive and was an engineer by trade, naturally advocated infrastructure, including dams. As president, he was overwhelmed by the Great Depression but pushed for federal projects that would ease unemployment. Tragically, he was a conventional budget-balancer so Washington, D.C., was constrained in its relief.
TR’s cousin Franklin campaigned as a budget-balancer, too, but was eager to experiment once in office. The New Deal rolled out enormous funds for public-works projects, with FDR unafraid of deficit spending if it got results. Although he and British economist John Maynard Keynes didn’t like each other, Roosevelt implemented Keynesianism: Big federal spending when the economy is weak. It lowered unemployment and increased output, even if the economy didn’t fully heal until World War II. We still use many of the New Deal’s projects.
Despite misgivings by some conservatives, American governance never looked back. “We are all Keynesians now,” Milton Friedman said. D.C. goosed the economy even in good times (which Lord Keynes didn’t advocate). Cold War defense spending. The Interstate Highway System. The space program. The Internet. Federal subsidies for transit and Amtrak. And since the end of the Cold War what critics call “military Keynesianism,” spending more on defense than the next seven countries combined.
Even if some funding has been inadequate, especially for Amtrak, no major political leader has seriously questioned an outsized role for the federal government in infrastructure for decades.
The “$1.5 trillion infrastructure plan” is, at best, highly misleading. It would cap federal matching funds at 20 percent and use $100 billion over a decade to supposedly prime the pump of private capital. For context, his total budget is $4.4 trillion. The Republican tax cuts total $1.5 trillion.
Again, this infrastructure proposal is likely to be highly modified in Congress. It might die altogether. Or it might be a signal of a direction to come, because many Republicans today oppose infrastructure spending (except for roads in their districts).
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The American Society of Civil Engineers already gives U.S. infrastructure a D-plus grade. Even without a radical withdrawal of federal support, we’ve been underspending for years.
And this is not only on “roads and bridges,” but the 21st century connective tissue for a populous, heavily urbanized nation such as high-speed rail. It’s also rebuilding the Ballard Locks, which were state of the art a century ago but are part of a long list of projects badly needing fixes.
These are enterprises that can only come from substantial federal investment — and from an ethic that some things we do together, as a society with vision, especially the tasks that can’t be done by the private sector alone.
Trump isn’t going back to early 19th century constitutionalism. Instead, his so-called plan reads suspiciously like a giveaway to politically connected oligarchs. Desperate infrastructure needs are shorted. America falls further behind in competitiveness.
Consider his proposal to sell Dulles and Reagan National airports, plus the transmission assets of the Tennessee Valley Authority and Bonneville Power Administration. This isn’t building internal improvements but looting them, taking projects built for the common good and selling them off for parts. The only vision here is a fast buck for buddies at Mar-a-Lago and even some members of the richest Cabinet in history who have been, er, casual about separating their private interests from public duty.
If even a smidgen of it is enacted — or its dangerous guiding philosophy takes hold — prepare for worse than disappointment.
For more than 150 years, federal infrastructure has underpinned the U.S. economy, helped build a future of continuous advancement. The future envisioned by Trump and some Republicans is a destructive leap backward.