Omnibus Politics: Building an Infrastructure Program

January 31, 2017

Special TipSheet: Omnibus Politics — Building an Infrastructure Program


As part of our Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment 2017 special report, TipSheet has prepared a series of look-aheads for key issues to watch in the coming year.

TipSheet graphicWhat’s one thing both Democrats and Republicans can agree on in this year of bitter division? Infrastructure. Even President Donald Trump is pushing it. January is barely over, and the action has already started.

In many conversations, “infrastructure” refers to roads, bridges, sewers, water pipes, power lines, ports, airports, waterways and railroads, etc. — the shared, built foundations of our modern industrial economy. The engineers have been telling us our national infrastructure is run down — and slowing us down — from years of neglect.

Trump promised during the campaign that he would create jobs with a trillion dollars worth of infrastructure programs, and not-so-surprisingly, Democrats agreed with him. They had unsuccessfully tried to push infrastructure jobs during the Obama administration. But Republicans balked, mostly because of the spending. Once Trump was elected, Congressional Republicans fell in line to back the idea.

That was the easy part. The hard part will be doing it. And even harder will be coming to agreement on what we actually mean by an infrastructure program. But current signs suggest that Congress may actually do something.

Congress has done this many times before — back in the days when politicians called it “public works” and journalists called it “pork.” The political formula is simple: everybody gets something, and everybody votes for the package. Most Congress members love cutting the ribbon on a project they have brought home to their district — and most voters applaud them for it.

There are really only four problems: deciding what gets built, paying for it, divvying up the spoils and counting the votes.

Water pipes
Image: ©

Deciding what to build

Infrastructure matters to environmental journalists and their audiences because some of it has environmental consequences.

For instance, the Clean Water Act’s sewage system “construction grants” program of the 1970s and ‘80s was one of the largest federal public works programs in U.S. history — and it cleaned up a lot of lakes, rivers and estuaries.

Today, the federal funding has largely dried up — or rather changed to federal “revolving funds” that finance local projects and get paid back from local water bills.

As the Flint crisis proved, however, many of the drinking water treatment and distribution systems in the United States have aged and decayed so severely as to pose public health dangers.

Although too few media have noted it, Flint is just an example of a much wider problem across the country. Some cities, like the District of Columbia, have already embarked on the slow, expensive process of replacing their pipes. The U.S. Environmental Protection agency runs a modest revolving fund for drinking water systems — but the question remains whether Republicans will shrink or enlarge it.

A lot of other infrastructure has environmental consequences. Public transit, for example, is seen as environmentally beneficial.  In some cases (e.g., roads and pipelines), the consequences are not all environmentally positive.

But the lobbies for roads, electric grids, ports, airports, etc., are very strong, and legislators may fill up an infrastructure bill with those projects, leaving less for water pipes.

Paying for it

Trump’s infrastructure proposals are pretty vague and not well documented, but he has suggested several ways to pay for the infrastructure.

Trump expects to accomplish his trillion-dollar plan with almost no federal spending. Instead, he hopes to attract private capital to do the job. He proposes doing this by giving tax credits to private lenders and by setting up public-private partnerships. Trump also expects to fund it using the vast public wealth that he says he believes his pedal-to-the-metal coal, oil and gas extraction policies will bring in.

One problem: This probably won’t happen. Tax credits can’t pry from banks and investors the hundreds of billions Trump hopes for. And all-out drilling and mining can’t bring in enough revenue, much less bring it in fast enough, to pay for the infrastructure. As one reporter put it, “Trump thinks the plan would pay for itself.”

One reason traditional establishment conservative Republicans haven’t liked infrastructure much in the past eight years is that they don’t like paying for it, or rather, they don’t like the deficit spending that has often paid for it. And they don’t like increasing taxes to pay for it.

Royalties, user fees and the like aren’t enough. Cash-strapped states and municipalities don’t have much to contribute, as they sometimes had in the past.

Democrats (if we are to believe Republicans) don’t mind taxes quite so much, especially if they are not called taxes and are imposed on the people, businesses and governments who benefit. They are happier when they are called user fees, tolls, cost-sharing, etc. In any case, they seem unlikely to support Trump’s proposed financing mechanisms.

Divvying up the spoils, counting the votes

The problems of divvying the spoils and counting the votes may, at bottom, be the same thing.

In omnibus pork bills, geographic distribution matters. What matters even more is making sure chunks of pork go to key committee leaders and members whose votes are wavering. The power (and generosity with campaign dollars) of different lobbies matters also.

Some Congressional reporters were surprised Jan. 24, when a team of Senate Democrats beat the Republicans out of the gate — they proposed their own infrastructure program and invited Republicans to support it.

The Democrats’ plan amounted to roughly a trillion dollars, and it wasn’t clear where the money would come from. But they claimed it would create 15 million jobs. It was heavy on roads, bridges and transportation. It did include some water and sewer funding ($110 billion). It also included things like rural broadband, perhaps a nod to the rural voters who swayed the 2016 election.

And some journalists were envious the same week when the Kansas City Star and the McClatchy Washington Bureau scooped everyone with a list of the projects that were supposed to be in the Trump plan. It included names of some 300 individual projects, but it was, in the end, way less than $1 trillion and only a draft.

Congressional Republicans did not race forward to embrace either plan. And neither House Speaker Paul Ryan nor Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell listed infrastructure among their fast-action priorities.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 5. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here.  And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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