“Where it becomes problematic is what do we need to do, and how are we going to pay for it?” Hale said. “Is it difficult? Yes. Is it possible? I think so.”
Details of what Trump has in mind are scarce, and his presidential transition website includes just two paragraphs on transportation and infrastructure. It is mostly platitudes except for a number: $550 billion. The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s advisers want the money to come largely from private financing backed by tax credits. Hale said private financing could be part of a successful package but that public investment was also needed. Clinton’s plan combined about $250 billion in direct spending with another $25 billion devoted to creating a national infrastructure bank that could leverage up to $250 billion more in investment through loan guarantees.
Conservatives outside of Congress are watching the talks warily, but in a sign of just how much Trump’s election has shaken up the political dynamic, they have not dismissed the idea of a big infrastructure bill out of hand. They are even resuscitating what was once a dirty word on the right.
“My guess is you will see a massive stimulus package from the Trump administration,” said Adam Brandon, chief executive of FreedomWorks. “However, it’s going to be 180 degrees different from what we saw before. I believe it’s going to be more tax-based stimulus. It’ll be more regulatory-relief based stimulus.”
Brandon said he was open to an idea both Democrats and Republicans have discussed in recent years known as repatriation: encouraging corporations to bring back cash they have parked overseas by offering a one-time lower tax rate. The immediate boost in tax revenue would then go to creating an infrastructure bank. “If you can use this repatriation cash for this purpose, I think you’d see that would sit well with conservatives,” Brandon said. “If it’s just straight debt for projects, I think that would sit poorly with folks.”
That kind of proposal also won support from Representative Dave Brat, the Virginia conservative who ousted then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014 and has since been a critic of Paul Ryan. Like Brandon, he said he could support an infrastructure bill if the decisions about which projects to fund were made outside of D.C. “Bring back $2 trillion from abroad. Use some of that for infrastructure,” Brat told me before the election. “Try not to run it through the federal government so that actually something happens. If we can do that, that’s great.”
Repatriation alone is not likely to bring in the $550 billion that Trump wants to spend, and whether he accepts the conservative version of an infrastructure program might not be known for several months. But advocates like Hale are convinced he is serious about the problem if for no other reason that, unlike so many others he will inherit, it is what he knows.
“He’s a builder. He’s a developer. This is an issue he really, really understands,” Hale said. “And he’s about to, as any president is, be confronted with an enormous amount of issues, and this is his comfort zone.”
“I do think the president-elect wants to do this,” she added, “and I would suggest he’s probably going to get his way on some things.”