With this month's elections handing control of the U.S. House of Representatives into Democratic hands, while keeping Republicans in control of the Senate, it would be easy to think that Congress will be unable to do little of substance for at least the next two years.
And that's how it could turn out by the time the next Congress wraps up its session; in fact, that might be where the smart money places its bets.
But the stage is set for a possible breakthrough deal that could pump money into the nation's aging infrastructure. And, frankly, the need here is so great that it would count as a major accomplishment if everyone, including President Donald Trump, were to get on board.
With Democrats earning a majority in the House, that likely will elevate U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, who represents Oregon's 4th Congressional District, into the chairmanship of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
DeFazio, who long has championed additional federal spending on infrastructure, wasted no time after the Nov. 6 election to start pounding the drum for a new deal: On Nov. 7, the representative told reporters that he wanted to produce a major infrastructure bill providing $500 billion for highways and transit, plus additional funding for airports and water projects.
"Infrastructure has been delayed too long," said DeFazio, who won his 17th term in the House in November's election and has served on the infrastructure committee for more than three decades. "We've got to get it done. We've got to maintain it. We've got to modernize it and we've got to move people and goods more efficiently."
In the hours after the election, DeFazio wasn't the only one talking about the possibility of striking a deal on infrastructure: Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who is expected to be the next speaker of the House, and President Trump both signaled their willingness to work together on infrastructure.
That's a promising start. But, as DeFazio well knows, it will take more than that to push an infrastructure bill through Congress and to convince Trump to sign it.
There's little doubt about the need to reinvest heavily in the nation's crumbling infrastructure: The U.S. Department of Transportation estimated in 2015 that the nation faces an $836 billion backlog of work on highways and bridges. That number hasn't dropped since then.
The catch is figuring out ways to pay for that work. DeFazio has floated a variety of approaches over the years to do that, most recently in March 2017, when he pitched a proposal called "Pennies for Progress," which he said would raise $500 billion for surface transportation over 13 years. Under the plan, the Treasury would issue 30-year bonds that would be repaid by increasing the federal gasoline and diesel taxes. Congress hasn't raised the gas tax since 1993. That proposal hasn't gotten any traction in this Congress.
Neither has Trump's proposal from earlier this year, in which the administration asked Congress to authorize $200 billion to encourage spending on infrastructure by local governments and private investors.
DeFazio says he's not wedded to any particular funding idea, but insists that any infrastructure package use what he called "real money" — that is to say, federal spending, not a reliance on private or local dollars. Trump on occasion has seemed amenable to increasing the gas tax, but DeFazio noted any infrastructure deal will require consistent leadership from the president to help the bill get through the Republican Senate, "consistent" being the key word there.
DeFazio also said he'd like to get a bill through the House in the first six months of next year. That makes sense: If the package is delayed any longer than that, it risks being held hostage by the 2020 election cycle. And every delay just makes it that much harder — and that much more expensive — to repair and modernize our vital infrastructure. (mm)