When President Donald Trump addresses the nation in his first official State of the Union on Tuesday night, he should urge Congress to deliver a substantial investment in our nation’s infrastructure. On this issue, Democrats agree with the president: America’s physical infrastructure is the backbone of our economy, and we have fallen behind. If we do not quickly repair and modernize our infrastructure, we risk ceding the next century of global economic leadership to China or India.
But the big question is: How do we do it?
The president promised a trillion-dollar investment in our infrastructure on the campaign trail. But since he took the oath of office, Congress hasn’t heard much about his plan, and what we have heard isn’t promising. The president’s budget proposal slashed infrastructure investments, and, more recently, the proposals we’ve seen from the administration rely on private companies or states and localities to put up the lion’s share of the money. In turn, those entities would have to either charge local taxpayers new tolls or raise taxes and other fees to pay for the infrastructure.
That would end up leaving out large parts of the country and most major, urgent projects.
So Democrats will watch the State of the Union hoping that President Trump will change course — by emphasizing the need for a major, direct federal investment in infrastructure.
Since the days of Henry Clay (who was a Whig, the predecessor of the modern Republican Party), the federal government has always put direct dollars into infrastructure. Clay proposed a program of “internal improvements” such as roads and canals to link together a growing America. The greatest expansion of the federal highway system occurred under Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Even President Ronald Reagan sought to keep federal investment in highways from decreasing.
These Republicans understood that direct investment of federal resources was the best way to maintain and build our nation’s infrastructure. The same is true today. Only a plan with direct investments can properly address the scale of the challenge we face. Direct investment provides support for both new projects and ongoing ones. It helps all parts of America. And it allows for new construction without the need for profit sources such as tolls, or higher taxes and fees.
Unfortunately, initial indications are that the president’s proposal will rely on capital from private companies or states and localities in lieu of real investment.
Such a plan would have several flaws.
It would leave out large parts of America, particularly rural America, where local governments don’t have the money or the traffic to attract private-sector investment. Small towns and cities throughout the heartland have waited too long for upgrades to their municipal water systems and schools and roads, as well as access to high-speed internet. Just as Franklin D. Roosevelt said that every rural house should have electricity in the 1930s, Democrats today believe every rural house should have access to high-speed internet. A private-sector-driven infrastructure plan wouldn’t get the job done.
Even in the most populous areas, many projects would not move forward if they hinged on private-sector investment.
A plan based on private-sector gimmicks and giveaways would also result in tolls - Trump tolls - across the United States. Hedge funds and wealthy investors will want projects that generate a profit by charging middle-class Americans hundreds of dollars a year in tolls, taxes and fees. Our nation’s roads, bridges and tunnels would become tools for wealthy investors to profit off the middle class rather than the job-creating public assets they ought to be.
What would lead the president toward a plan like this instead of one consisting of real investments?
The reason is that hard-right special interests, which have dictated much of the policy in the Trump administration, have the president in a vice. They hate spending any government money, even on something as time-honored as infrastructure, and they apply pressure not to increase the deficit - even though just a few months ago, the president and Republicans in Congress gave away $1.5 trillion to provide tax breaks for mammoth corporations and a handful of wealthy people. Imagine how much more productive it would be to put those resources into infrastructure instead.
That’s why the president faces a choice: The hard right doesn’t want him to expend federal resources, but to effectively rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, he must.
On Tuesday, if President Trump chooses a real, direct, federal investment in infrastructure, he will have a chance to pass an effective, bipartisan bill. We Democrats will gladly work with him on it. But if he caves to the hard right once again and proposes a scheme driven by private developers - a scheme that leaves out rural America and asks middle-class families to shoulder the costs - he’ll have squandered an immense opportunity.
Democrats want to work with President Trump to rebuild America’s infrastructure. And we hope we can. But we shouldn’t ask the middle class to pay $1 trillion in new tolls and local tax increases to get there.
Chuck Schumer, D-New York, is minority leader of the U.S. Senate.