President Obama on Wednesday called on Congress to act swiftly to approve billions of dollars in funding for the nation's aging roads, bridges and rail systems, warning that a failure to do so may cost the economy 700,000 jobs. Speaking on the banks of the Hudson River, Obama said no sector suffered more in the recession than the construction industry, arguing that new public works projects would help put many back to work and attract businesses deciding whether to locate in the United States or overseas.
It was just last weekend when Republican officials took a break from talking about Benghazi to demand to know why Democrats aren't talking about job creation. In theory, then, GOP lawmakers should have been delighted by President Obama's event in New York yesterday.
For those who missed the speech, it's worth watching because the president had a pretty compelling pitch.
"Building a world-class transportation system is one of the reasons America became an economic superpower in the first place," Obama said. "But over the past 50 years, as a share of our economy, our investment in transportation has shrunk by 50 percent. Think about that. Our investment in transportation has been cut by half.
"You know what other countries are doing? European countries now invest twice as much as we do. China invests four times as much as we do in transportation. One study recently found that over time, we've fallen to 19th place when it comes to the quality of our infrastructure -- 19th place. I don't know about you, but I don't like America being 19th. I don't like America being second. I want us to be first when it comes to infrastructure around the world."
If our political process was sane, the White House stepping up on this area would be welcome news. Construction jobs clearly need a boost; ailing U.S. infrastructure is in desperate need of attention; and investing in transportation would help the economy and lower unemployment. It's a no-brainer.
So, what's the problem?
There are really two parallel elements to the administration's pitch. The first is a fairly new White House transportation plan, which would invest $302 billion over four years in infrastructure. The second is the nation's Highway Trust Fund, which finances nearly all federally-supported transportation infrastructure in the United States, and which will run out of money entirely this summer unless Congress acts.
"It's a crisis, it is," Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.), a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, recently said. "The Highway Trust Fund goes insolvent in July or sometime around there, and so we've got to figure out how we're going to fund it."
As Obama noted yesterday, some states are already scaling back infrastructure projects, fearful that Congress will fail to complete this basic task.
For the White House, yesterday was an opportunity to challenge lawmakers on both fronts: keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent and take the next step of making additional investments in this key area of the domestic economy.
The trouble, of course, is that infrastructure investments, once a bipartisan priority, have been added to the list of divisive issues in Washington: Republicans aren't interested. GOP leaders haven't made the Highway Trust Fund a priority, at least not yet, despite the pressing deadline, and Republicans are even more resistant to an expansive effort to rebuild bridges, rail, runways, etc.
Part of this has to do with finances -- Obama would pay for his infrastructure agenda through closed tax loopholes, which Republicans oppose because they hope to apply the savings from tax loopholes to (you guessed it) more tax cuts. Both sides could just agree to deficit financing, but Republicans oppose that, too.
Note, the political press doesn't seem to care. The New York Times ran one story on Obama's push, but it ran on page 24. Politico, which generally covers the White House pretty closely, ignored the president's speech altogether.
My suspicion is that the Beltway has internalized low expectations -- even when Obama is presenting a good idea that would create a lot of jobs, there's an understanding that congressional Republicans simply will not act, so there's no point in thinking too much about it.
I think that's backwards -- policymakers who feel pressure are more inclined to govern.