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How a robust infrastructure plan can reboot the Trump agenda

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If the president wants to revivify his agenda for American renewal, he must oust congressional GOP budget hawks and Democratic naysayers from the driver's seat and retake the political initiative. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The cliché about presidential budgets sent to Congress is that they are "dead on arrival." In the case of the budget crafted by Trump's Office of Management and Budget (OMB), one might say that it was dead even before it was written, and it was none other than candidate Donald Trump who killed it.

The administration's budget that was sent to lawmakers on the Hill in mid-May seems to reflect the priorities of Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, a founding member of the Congressional Freedom Caucus, much more closely than it reflects the priorities of candidate Trump. While on the trail, Trump argued that the fiscally austere approach of budget proposals emanating from the House that went after entitlement spending were politically suicidal. He hinted that the GOP should wait on Obamacare repeal until the ACA collapsed under its own unsustainable structure, and that the federal government should take advantage of low interest rates to invest massively in much-needed infrastructure renewal that will pay off in spades by spurring job creation and economic growth.

All of this went directly against the Republican Party orthodoxy of an austerity-based approach of balancing the budget through controversial cuts in popular programs in the short term and skimping on national investments that would pay off in the medium to long term with higher rates of economic growth and increased revenue to the Treasury.

Trump's agenda also deftly avoided the disastrous "takers vs. givers" narrative reflected in Mitt Romney's notorious characterization of half of the American electorate as leaches who would never vote Republican because they pay no federal income tax. For many working Americans with stagnant or declining wages and an increasing payroll tax burden, the notion that they were the problem was received as a slap in the face from an out-of-touch GOP elite—and rightly so. Those very same disaffected voters supported Donald Trump in droves, precisely because of his message of Making American Great Again with a return of jobs and economic dynamism.

That may explain why the president himself has not weighed in on the details of the budget sent to the Hill. The budget is full of items certain to embroil the administration in needless high-profile battles with Congress such as cuts to public broadcasting, the USDA, the National Institutes of Health, and cuts in Medicaid spending that go farther than the already-contentious cuts in the House-passed American Health Care Act (which candidate Trump included in the off-limits category of entitlement spending). These measures represent an effort to get to a balanced budget within a ten-year window.

And although the budget does incorporate $200 billion over 10 years for infrastructure, it lacks specifics about how this can be leveraged into the $1 trillion amount Trump proposed during the campaign. More significantly, it slashes the budget for existing vital infrastructure programs at the Department of Transportation and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Regardless of the priorities reflected in the formal budget, the administration's reset of both staff and priorities presents an opportunity for the president to pivot away from the Republican Party "Austerity First" narrative and toward the America First agenda he articulated during the campaign. Infrastructure is the key issue where he can turn the tables on his opponents, both across the aisle and within his own party.

The establishment had its chance to take the policy lead with healthcare, and it fumbled badly before barely getting over the goal line in the House (with prospects of passage looking dimmer by the day in the Senate). Now the time is ripe to build a bipartisan coalition in Congress committed to doing the things that really would make America great again.

Facilitating "interstate commerce" through the renewal of our nation's crumbling infrastructure with major new investments would call out both the "Constitutionalist" faction of the GOP that has been so remiss in fulfilling that undeniably Constitutional mandate, as well as a Democratic caucus that has no excuse for opposing a bold infrastructure plan, save that of having to oppose Trump for the sake of a rabid base of activists. This would allow the president to get back to the themes that produced his historic victory while putting his opponents on the political defensive.

A credible infrastructure initiative would put vulnerable Democrats in the Senate on the hotseat and build a platform for an economic renewal that can really bring jobs home with Republicans in the driver's seat.

Reflexive GOP opposition to infrastructure spending is a relatively new historical phenomenon—after all, Eisenhower built the interstate highway system, and the party was built on a robust commitment to infrastructure and public works as the keystone of sustainable economic development. Only with the rise of green-eyeshade Freedom Caucus types has a post-Reagan GOP resisted the long-understood constitutional obligation to promote interstate commerce.

The president, in signature fashion, has a chance to bring the resources of the private sector to the issue of infrastructure with new and innovative ways to finance airports, roads, bridges, ports, tunnels, and waterways to truly enhance our economic progress.

One innovative proposal that has received some attention entails repurposing the Export-Import Bank to help insure financing for infrastructure projects tied to exports, which could help develop new markets for our products and grow the American economy. That makes it all the more perplexing that erstwhile EXIM opponent and Freedom Caucus alum Scott Garrett was proposed as the next chairman of the Bank in April, although there is talk that the ill-considered nomination may now be withdrawn.

If the president wants to revivify his agenda for American renewal, he must oust congressional GOP budget hawks and Democratic naysayers from the driver's seat and retake the political initiative. Infrastructure is the place to start.

Robert Wasinger served in senior advisory and liaison roles in President Trump's campaign and transition team, after extensive experience on Capitol Hill.

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