This Infrastructure Deal Is A Bad Idea

Senate Democrats are about to unveil a big infrastructure plan that they would like to pass and send to Donald Trump to sign. Jonathan Chait reviews why this is a bad idea politically. Basically, any fruitful cooperation between Democrats and Trump will make Trump look good, which raises his popularity and, since he is the avatar of the Republican Party, also the popularity of the Republican Party. Democrats will get no points for participation.

But it’s also bad policy, considering that any infrastructure plan will be run by the White House, which means run by Donald Trump. Republicans will say, “well, the ARRA was run by Obama!” Yes, it was — and extremely efficiently and openly, as detailed by Michael Grunwald in his book on the ARRA. In many ways, Obama did not live up to his promises during the 2008 campaign to run “the most transparent White House in history.” But in the administration of the ARRA, he did. The Recovery.gov website allowed citizens to track every project funded. Occasionally you’ll see lists of supposedly idiotic projects that the ARRA funded. But if you allow that these projects were idiotic, they’ll usually add up to only a very small percentage of the total amount spent by the bill. And the reason you can find them is that they were all listed on Recovery.gov.

There’s virtually no hope of the Trump administration running a huge stimulus package with that amount of transparency and integrity. Not only because Trump has shown little interest in transparency and integrity in the past, but also because his background is in construction, exactly the industry that stands to gain the most from infrastructure spending. This spending will almost certainly be a vehicle for Trump to enrich himself and his friends and — perhaps more importantly — purchase political loyalty.

This is why any infrastructure package must be coupled with a demand that Trump release his tax returns. It isn’t just a good political move, both ensuring that Trump will not get credit for getting a deal done with Democrats and also saddling him with the responsibility of holding the infrastructure hostage to his own unpopular refusal to release his tax return. It’s also a good policy move. You can’t send Trump on a $1 trillion dollar spending spree without even the most basic assurances against self-enrichment.

I still think the chances of this getting passed are fairly low. Republicans in Congress seem to be more focused on repealing Obamacare. Trump will surely want to turn the Democrats’ proposals into a slew of public-private partnerships, which would give the Democrats an opportunity to back out. But even so, it’s a terrible idea for the Democrats to make this proposal. Their best strategy was probably to propose nothing and let Republicans continue to squabble amongst themselves about how to repeal and replace Obamacare, which both divides Republicans and is unpopular with the country as a whole. Failing that, they could have used the proposal of an infrastructure deal as a way to sustain focus on Trump’s tax returns, which virtually the entire country agrees he should release. Instead, they have extended a hand to the last person in the entire world they should be moving anywhere near.

Donald Trump has immiserated every person who has ever collaborated with him in any way. That includes banks who have loaned him money, contractors who have sold him goods and services, women who have married him, investors who have bought his stocks, and politicians who have endorsed him. Since Election Day, some of Trump’s own voters have begun to add themselves to this group. Democrats should not add themselves to this list.