Though the details remain scarce, what the administration is proposing is that the federal government would help states and cities fund projects with matching funds or loan guarantees, but that the burden would largely fall to them or private entities. “What I heard was more leverage,” Esty told me in a phone interview. One of the groups in which she’s working on infrastructure policy is the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition, which has made the issue a priority.
Trump’s emerging proposal has exposed a divide between more moderate Democrats on one end who believe a public-private partnership model could work with more direct federal spending, and progressives who have denounced the approach as a bid to privatize infrastructure and fund it with tolls rather than public money. “What they want to do is sell off public resources to Wall Street, to the president’s cronies, to investors,” said Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, a co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “And that would be a terrible way to have infrastructure built.”
Liberals also flagged Trump’s call to streamline the permitting process as a way of completing big projects faster. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, speaking along with Pocan to reporters on a conference call hosted by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said that “seemed like it was code for rolling over environmental protections, and that is simply unacceptable.”
Moderates like Esty were more open to Trump’s approach overall, but they chastised the White House for its lack of engagement and for what they said was an unrealistic expectation for how far Trump could stretch federal dollars. “Engaging the private sector is great where appropriate,” she said, “but it’s not going to deal with chronic underfunding, the chronic shortchanging, the chronic under-maintenance that has been going on for decades now. We have been living off the investments of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, and the bill is going to come due.”
Esty said Republicans have told her they’ve asked the administration to have Trump make a stronger public case for a pricey bill. “To date,” she said, “he has not shown a willingness to take the political lumps for that, or to take on his own party for the case that needs to be made.” The White House has been happy to let lawmakers take the lead, but absent a big presidential push, infrastructure has stalled. At the heart of the challenge is figuring out how to pay for a major public expenditure. Republican leaders have squashed the idea of raising the gas tax for the first time in nearly a quarter century, and the $1.5 trillion tax cut they enacted last year will exacerbate a short-term revenue crunch.
With Congress stuck on immigration and budget fights, the window for tackling major bipartisan legislation before the 2018 midterm campaign consumes the Capitol will close quickly. Republicans remain lukewarm to the issue altogether, and Democrats may see an advantage in waiting to fully engage Trump until 2019, when they hope to be in a stronger negotiating position to demand more federal spending. Progressives are already talking about paying for an infrastructure bill by rolling back some of the GOP tax cuts, which would be a nonstarter without a Democratic majority in one or both chambers of Congress.
As a result, if and when Trump finally releases a detailed infrastructure plan, it may be too late to matter.