By Ian Childs, CNN
Legislation is being floated in Congress to create an $8 trillion infrastructure plan over 10 years, which includes billions in spending on roads, bridges, tunnels, railways and power lines.
It’s a proposal that will likely be hailed by economists as both an overall boon for the economy and a sign of the seriousness with which lawmakers are considering how to boost U.S. growth, which has lagged global peers for years.
Those ideas are in large part thanks to the thought that this year’s presidential election will finally grant Congress an opportunity to introduce sweeping immigration reform that would grant citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants who have been living and working in the United States for decades.
The highway bill proposal is something that a bill will have to get through committees before it can get a vote in the full House and Senate. It has already received some tepid criticism from outside analysts.
One economist, Tim Bartik, of the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, doesn’t think the anti-immigration drive really has much to do with infrastructure funding, but will focus on something else entirely.
Bartik explained that this sort of plan typically “generates further political interest in this part of the package as well as all the special concerns that it leaves out: labor and/or environmental rights for U.S. citizens, H1-B guest worker visas for domestic workers, etc.”
“The real issue here, for infrastructure funding, is that policymakers appear to have decided that Republicans (like President Trump) and Democrats (like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) are going to find compromise in a significant immigration bill that does not include a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants currently in the U.S., so they will prioritize other funding priorities like infrastructure (state/local projects, etc),” Bartik wrote in an email.
Bartik noted that while Democrats like him like to “preach social and environmental justice while criticizing politicians’ views on how they spend federal resources,” states and cities are also critical to infrastructure efforts.
He added that there are some changes that could be made to the highway bill proposal.
“With construction jobs on the decline, Congress should look at the ways to ‘look more expensive,’ like requiring maximum salaries for contractors and capping the time a contractor can set aside for time spent on research and design, and dedicate more time to specifying legislative changes for specific projects,” Bartik concluded.
Still, the bigger question here is not just whether an infrastructure plan will get approved but whether the Trump administration actually has the backing of Congress to actually enact anything.
Another $1.5 trillion bill is likely to increase the debt load of a deeply divided Congress even further in the short term, while increasing the odds of a government shutdown when government funding expires next week.
That’s not a route that will be welcomed by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has already warned Congress that we need to start paying down the massive national debt before it gets out of control.
“The time has come to quit grandstanding and talk about how we can pay down the deficit. The sooner we can get on that track, the better,” Mnuchin said in an interview with Financial Times.
Whether President Trump will eventually be able to sell a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan to enough congressmen to get it passed as tax cuts and spending increases are unlikely to change the reality that a tax bill is the key driver for infrastructure funding.
And regardless of any roadblocks with Congress, that means Trump will likely have the political power to convince more Republican lawmakers to play along with a major tax overhaul to create a new level of bipartisanship.