Obama Includes Infra Bank in His Jobs Push; Mica Rejects It Out of Hand

Last night, President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress to present his new jobs plan, a bill he’s calling the American Jobs Act. He relied on the well-worn appeal to people’s patriotic competitiveness by pointing out that China is improving its infrastructure while the U.S. is sitting idly by. Without mentioning the dollar figure (psst… it’s $50 billion) he said he’d get construction workers back on the job rebuilding transportation infrastructure and schools:

And to make sure the money is properly spent, we’re building on reforms we’ve already put in place. No more earmarks. No more boondoggles. No more Bridges to Nowhere. We’re cutting the red tape that prevents some of these projects from getting started as quickly as possible. And we’ll set up an independent fund to attract private dollars and issue loans based on two criteria: how badly a construction project is needed and how much good it will do for the economy.

And without ever saying the words “infrastructure bank,” he made his push for one:

This idea came from a bill written by a Texas Republican [Kay Bailey Hutchison] and a Massachusetts Democrat [John Kerry]. The idea for a big boost in construction is supported by America’s largest business organization and America’s largest labor organization. It’s the kind of proposal that’s been supported in the past by Democrats and Republicans alike. You should pass it right away.

He would capitalize the bank with an initial $10 billion, just as Sens. Kerry and Hutchison had proposed. Obama’s own earlier proposal called for a $30 billion investment.

Obama’s written plan also pledges investments in TIGER and TIFIA – good news, since the 2012 transportation budget passed by a House subcommittee yesterday zeroed out TIGER entirely. It also builds on his instruction to agency heads to identify projects that deserve federal help – if not funds – for streamlining the process.

Transportation reform advocates praised the bill, with James Corless of Transportation for America calling it “both ambitious and pragmatic.”

House Transportation Committee ranking Democrat Nick Rahall sat next to Chair John Mica during the speech, and afterward, Rahall said, “We may have walked out of the chamber with different views on the President’s proposals, but I remain committed to working together in a bipartisan fashion.”

We’ll see if they can find anything they both agree to work on. The statement Mica issued after the speech was a quick repudiation of everything the president had asked for:

While the President reconfirmed that our highways are clogged and our skies are congested, his well delivered address provided only one specific recommendation for building our nation’s infrastructure.

Unfortunately, a National Infrastructure Bank run by Washington bureaucrats requiring Washington approval and Washington red tape is moving in the wrong direction. A better plan to improve infrastructure is to empower our states, 33 of which already have state infrastructure banks.

Key interests who have supported the general notion of infrastructure investment in the past won’t necessarily fight for Obama’s specific proposal. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a statement saying that infrastructure spending – even paired with all the tax cuts Obama proposed – wasn’t enough if it didn’t include de-regulation or a commitment to free enterprise instead of bigger government.

Democrats lined up in Obama’s defense. EPW Committee Chair Barbara Boxer called the president’s plan “both inspirational and specific” and pledged to work “on a bipartisan basis to pass the American Jobs Act.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, called on all House Committee ranking members to urge their chairmen to schedule immediate hearings and action on the legislation proposed by the president.

One of the first things Obama said in his speech is that “everything in this bill will be paid for; everything.” But again he’s leaving the details to Congress.

When the President unveiled his ambitious $556 billion transportation agenda last February, he let his Transportation Secretary twist in the wind as Congress demanded to know how the thing was going to be paid for. All LaHood would say, for months, was that he looked forward to working with Congress on it.

This time, Obama’s leaving the funding question to the bipartisan “super committee” formed as part of the debt ceiling/deficit reduction deal this summer, which just started work and is already beginning to fracture. That committee is already tasked with finding $1.5 trillion in cuts, which was a tall order for a group that can’t seem to agree on what to order for lunch. Now Obama’s asking them to find more.

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