Here’s a pretty good idea from the Trump administration: Privatize the air-traffic control system, with a nonprofit corporation taking over the complex technology and the Federal Aviation Administration remaining in charge of safety. New technology would arrive faster, with the nation’s skyways (in theory) becoming more efficient.
This is the kickoff to what White House officials are calling “infrastructure week”—a series of proposals for investing in transportation and revitalizing the nation’s network of roads, bridges, ports and other byways. This comes the same week that fired FBI Director James Comey is due to testify before Congress, perhaps embarrassing President Donald Trump. So the White House, not surprisingly, is trying to change the subject to something less controversial that Republicans and Democrats might generally agree on.
Trump’s infrastructure outline will also include new ideas for building and improving inland waterways, easing the permitting process for big projects and improving cooperation on transportation deals among various levels of government. Mayors, governors and airline executives will arrive for photo ops at the White House. Trump himself will probably start tweeting about infrastructure.
Trump’s agenda is an indecorous yard sale
Many analysts think Trump should have started this way when he first arrived in Washington in January. But instead, Trump swept into town ordering travel bans that courts have systematically shot down, while pushing Congress into a dead-end alley on healthcare reform, with a bill to repeal Obamacare that can’t possibly pass. A “tax plan” came in late April, right before Trump’s 100th day in office, although there really isn’t a plan yet. White House adviser Gary Cohn says there might be one by September.
The Trump legislative agenda is now an indecorous yard sale with agenda items strewn everywhere, and no single one of them quite worth carrying home. Congress’s most pressing business right now is passing a budget by Sept. 30, which will be contentious enough to roil both chambers, even without Trump tweets egging on the opposition. Congress will then dig into a bill to undo the Affordable Care Act, because Republicans need to roll back taxes associated with that to help offset the tax cuts they plan in a different bill by year-end. But even Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority leader, says repealing the ACA may be impossible, which makes the whole Trump legislative agenda dependent on implausible developments, in an impossibly compressed period of time.
So wouldn’t an infrastructure bill that might attract bipartisan support establish some positive momentum for Trump? If he were serious about it, sure, it might. But in the current environment, that’s wishful thinking, if not outright shysterism. The understaffed administration has no actual infrastructure plan it can submit to Congress, other than a couple of memos. White House staffers point out there’s already a House bill that would privatize the air-traffic control system, as Trump wants to do. The House passed that bill last year, but the Senate ignored it, and the final bill that funded the FAA contained nothing on privatization. That was in a Republican-controlled Congress similar to the current one.
Trump aide DJ Gribbin told reporters recently that Trump envisions new infrastructure spending of $200 billion or so, which, paired with private investment, could bring as much as $1 trillion in new transportation money. But hold on—Trump’s budget, unveiled just a couple weeks ago, would cut, not increase, transportation spending, along with just about every other type of funding except national security. Huh? “This would be over and above whatever Congress ends up appropriating for normal infrastructure spending,” Gribbin explained, leaving reporters confused.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with Trump’s ideas on infrastructure. If he were passionate about the issues and committed to getting them through Congress, he might have some innovative new programs to crow about in a year or so.
But it’s more likely Trump is paying lip service to the issue, and will soon lose interest, if he ever had any in the first place. Will we still be hearing about Trump’s infrastructure plan in a month? Six months? Or is this merely a cynical distraction from less flattering news? And if a Trump tax plan—a top priority—won’t be ready until September, then how many more months will it take to get a real infrastructure plan that Congress can legislate? Maybe Trump will tell us if the Comey hearing goes worse than expected.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman