A massive infrastructure package is high on the administration’s list of priorities, but as we’ve emphasized before, actually bringing this idea to fruition will be harder than it looks. Even if Congress authorizes the spending—which can’t be done on a party line, and will therefore require the administration to show a little bit more bipartisan savvy than it has exhibited to date—new infrastructure projects are likely to be held up for years by lawsuits, convoluted procurement processes, antiquated labor rules, and bureaucratic red tape. The Wall Street Journal reports:
Many lawmakers and economists agree with President Donald Trump that America needs to fix a backlog of infrastructure needs, which the Transportation Department pegs at $926 billion. There’s a similar agreement that conservation and preservation laws have helped mitigate damage on neighborhoods and the environment.
A tour through of the nation’s thorniest infrastructure struggles shows how these two goals are often in conflict. As a result, long, costly reviews and legal battles will likely confront Mr. Trump’s efforts, just as they delayed much of President Barack Obama’s 2009 economic-stimulus efforts.
“You would have to fix some of these issues” said McKinsey & Co. partner Tyler Duvall, a DOT assistant secretary for policy in the George W. Bush administration, “in order to get the money into the system in a productive way.”
Francis Fukuyama argued before the election that there has been a “de facto conspiracy on the part of the two main political parties to block a push on infrastructure” in recent years. Republicans have opposed any further expenditures while Democrats have insisted on costly union contracts and environmental reviews that would turn any new projects into boondoggles. Trump’s particular brand of populism might be suited to cutting through this stalemate if he could persuade enough conservatives to vote for new spending in exchange for liberals dropping some gratuitous regulatory requirements.
If Trump can win money for infrastructure, then, the big question is whether his administration can also do the harder work of streamlining the project development and review and procurement processes so that the price tag and time to completion no longer dwarfs those of other industrialized countries. That would be a feat of governance. But even if it can be achieved, we can expect the hostile bureaucracy that tried to shoot down Trump’s EPA chief to keep throwing hurdles at the administration along the way.