Last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hung a huge banner outside its Lafayette Square headquarters directly facing the White House, listing the names of three Republican presidents and their infrastructure accomplishments—past and, the Chamber hoped, future. It was Infrastructure Week, which the Chamber, the AFL-CIO, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and others use every year to stress the importance of infrastructure to their fellow Americans. Eisenhower got a nod for the interstate highway system; Reagan kudos for raising the gas tax that fuels the Highway Trust Fund, the lockbox for highway and mass transit dollars.
Donald Trump was on the list, too. But his inclusion had a troll-like “your name here” quality—reminding him that he had a “historic opportunity” to come up with a 21st-century infrastructure program. Of course, this diverse and bipartisan coalition had every reason to be concerned: On Wednesday, the president showed how well prepared he was to squander the moment.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dutifully showed up at the White House for their sit-down with Trump. No one who has been following this drama since the 2016 presidential campaign was surprised by what came next. Or as Renee Graham, a Boston Globe columnist put it:
Infrastructure Week is the new Red Wedding.
— Renee Graham (@reneeygraham) May 22, 2019
Trump’s premediated decision to walk out on congressional Democratic leaders, tossing accusations in his wake, should put a stake through the fiction of his interest in building anything of lasting import. Before Wednesday, Trump’s rhetorical flourishes had pumped up expectations, especially in the transportation and water sectors, which are heavily dependent on public funding.
The president has enjoyed mouthing infrastructure baby talk—“big, bold, beautiful”—since he began his campaign in 2015. He has never had any intention of putting serious dollars to the service of the country’s derelict highways, tunnels, bridges, and waterways, however. With a feint to the injustice of the Mueller investigation, he proclaimed his intention to ignore infrastructure until congressional Democrats cease multiple investigations. (Ironically, had Trump come up with even a somewhat feasible infrastructure plan, that remarkable fact alone would have probably diverted attention for a little while at least from the investigations he fears so much.)
Pelosi was unsurprised. “For some reason, maybe it was lack of confidence on his part that he really couldn’t match the greatness of the challenge that we have, [he] wasn’t really respectful of the Congress and the White House working together,” she told a press conference following her short encounter with Trump. “He just took a pass and it makes me wonder why he did that.”
Most news outlets reported that that episode was the end of the $2 trillion “deal.” In reality, there had never been any deal, just some vague notion that an outline of a complex program could be sketched out in a few weeks, no problem. But the 2017 tax cuts had already vacuumed up the dollars that might have gone into an infrastructure program, transferring still more wealth to people who can buy their way out of the daily indignities of stressful commutes.
There’s another scene that has yet to play out. In his May 21 letter to Pelosi and Schumer, the president noted that “the best vehicle to achieve our goals” is the upcoming reauthorization of the functionally insolvent Highway Trust Fund, scheduled to expire by September 2020. That discussion necessarily involves a debate about raising the gas tax.
Taxpayers might be persuaded to support a gas tax if Trump stooped to explain why such a hike is necessary. However, since his 2020 re-election campaign has been under way since his inauguration, Trump is unlikely to discover any Reaganesque instincts and will likely settle for a second, unsatisfying duel with the Democrats.
The descent of Infrastructure Week into farce obscures the real-life catastrophes waiting to happen—again. The irresponsibility and willful negligence that sums up the American way of infrastructure—which invariably leads to such calamities as the Minneapolis I-35 bridge collapse in 2007, the ongoing water crisis in Flint, and the unfunded levee construction in often deluged Cedar Rapids—begins at the top of the governmental food chain. Unfortunately, the country is tethered to a man who will never provide presidential-grade leadership of the kind provided by various past occupants of the house across the park from the Chamber.