The words are “big” and “bold.” At a White House meeting Tuesday the president and congressional leaders reached a deal to fund $2 trillion worth of infrastructure projects. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described it as a “big and bold initiative to build the infrastructure of America.”
Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer released a joint statement that promised another meeting in three weeks. At that point, they said, President Donald J. Trump agreed to produce a plan for the spending as well as how to pay for it. The White House meeting included Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao, Ivanka Trump, and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow as well as other agency officials.
“Building America’s infrastructure is about creating jobs immediately, and also bolstering the commerce it facilitates, advancing public health with clean air and clean water, and improving the safety of our transportation system, and addressing climate change with clean energy, clean transportation and resilient infrastructure,” Pelosi and Schumer said. “We are pleased the President agreed to include a major investment in expanding broadband to rural, urban and other underserved areas to deliver broadband’s benefits for education, health care and commerce.”
Adie Tomer, a fellow with the Brookings, Metropolitan Policy Program, in Washington, said there remain significant obstacles that must be resolved before there is an actual deal for a major federal infrastructure investment.
“Let’s start with the money because two trillion is a really, really big figure. Simply put it dwarfs the amount of spending we have in those infrastructure categories we have today,” he said.
He said to put that number into context it would require new spending that has not been seen since the New Deal in the 1930s.
The size of that ask is so huge that it immediately raises the question about how will Congress fund such a large investment? And, if that’s not enough, how will Congress resolve at the same time deep disputes about trade policy or federal spending in general?
The Trump administration's trade policies make infrastructure spending more expensive because of tariffs, or taxes, on steel and other construction materials.
Congress is already facing a number of difficult deadlines ranging from the next federal budget and required spending caps to increasing the amount of money the federal government is authorized to borrow.
Yet as Pelosi said: “Every congressional district in America has urgent needs, which any big and bold initiative must address.”
And that includes projects in Indian Country.
“There is growing support across the political spectrum at the federal, state, tribal, and local governmental levels about the glaring need for a bold national plan to repair and revitalize this country’s rapidly decaying infrastructure,” said a policy report two years ago by the National Congress of American Indians. “Crumbling roads. Deteriorating water and sewer systems. Unsafe bridges that remain in use long past their expiration dates. Antiquated, under‐resourced public transit systems that fail to keep up with the needs of our growing population. And the list goes on.”
That reported cited a Senate figure from 2009 reporting $50 billion in the unmet need for infrastructure in Indian Country. “The number of ‘shovel ready’ infrastructure projects in Indian Country remains too many to count, and many of those have been that way for years if not decades. This chronic underinvestment and the growing backlog of critical infrastructure projects not only negatively impacts the social, physical, and mental wellbeing of tribal and neighboring communities, it hampers the ability of Tribal Nations to fully leverage their economic potential and the ability of their citizens to fully participate in the American economy.”
Investing in infrastructure has been a major theme in Trump’s candidacy but there has not yet been a plan delivered to Congress. And even then the votes for such a plan will be difficult when many members are opposed to new federal spending, especially one that is so expensive.
Of course there are no details for any of this spending plan, let alone the projects that will be designed for Indian Country. That remains to be debated. And already there is push back: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said there will be no changes to the tax reform legislation in order to pay for infrastructure spending.
White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who was not at the meeting because of an illness, told The New York Times that any deal would require Democrats to back off from environmental regulations. Under current rules, he said, a trillion dollars’ worth of spending might not lead to new roads or bridges being built for 10 years. “I want to change the environmental laws, how do you feel about that as a Democrat?” he told the Times. “It’s going to be a very difficult place for them to go. I think that may be the place where the discussions break down.”
And just as appalling to Republicans, a number of Democrats, including presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke, have called for new infrastructure spending on climate-related programs. He told CNBC: “The greatest threat we face — which will test our country, our democracy, every single one of us — is climate change. We have one last chance to unleash the ingenuity and political will of hundreds of millions of Americans to meet this moment before it’s too late.”
Thus it's likely that gridlock, not infrastructure spending, is still on the agenda.
Or as Adie Tomer and Laura Fishbane wrote for Brookings: "Unnecessary gridlock eventually drags us all down."
Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports
(Indian Country Today, LLC., is a non-profit news organization owned by the non-profit arm of the The National Congress of American Indians. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently.)
Photo: Bureau of Indian Affairs Roads, Division of Transportation.