Democrats Can’t Fight Trump and Make a Deal on Infrastructure at the Same Time

Chuck Schumer
Senator Chuck Schumer has a choice to make: Defend core democratic values or score some money for infrastructure. Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he will “claw, scrap, and fight with every fiber of my being” to overturn Donald Trump’s executive order preventing refugees and residents of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country. If that’s the case, Schumer should abandon his strategy of dealmaking with Trump on a big infrastructure bill.

While Trump and Steve Bannon assault the Constitution, religious freedom, and basic humanitarian decency, Schumer and other Democrats have been searching for common ground on infrastructure. At the Transportist, David Levinson, a civil engineering professor at the University of Minnesota, says Democrats are making a big blunder, both in terms of politics and policy:

The Democrats under Chuck Schumer are proposing a big federal infrastructure bill. The Pretender in Chief is also proposing a big infrastructure program funded by tax credits. Both are quite different, aside from the word “infrastructure”, but they are similar in that they are both big programs and both bad policy and both will raise the national debt.

  1. Democrats are making a strategic error in trying to work with the administration. As the Republicans showed in the previous administration, the path to victory in divided America is through resistance to the administration, not cooperation. It is becoming more Parliamentary in that respect.
  2. If a Bill is somehow made law, and it is popular, the Pretender in Chief will get all the credit. Sure Schumer will get to attend the signing ceremony, and have one more photo with him and the least liked politician in America, but aside from his constituents, everyone else will say who is that old white man in the background. They will get no credit from the public.
  3. Massive investment in Infrastructure at this point in history is not only bad politics for the Democrats as a whole, it is bad policy.
    • We are moving to an era where maintenance outweighs new construction, politicians are all about new builds, not maintenance. Politically driven construction lists will not be those projects with the highest benefit/cost ratios, but simply new projects that grab ribbon-cutting headlines while old infrastructure continues it’s long path of deterioration.
    • We are moving to an era where we can use infrastructure more efficiently with autonomous vehicles.
    • The benefits are all local, the funding should be local as well to align interests.
    • It provides the federal government one more lever to use against New York if it doesn’t like some local policy (Sanctuary Cities anyone?). New York City should understand why it wants as much financial and political autonomy as it can get.

More recommended reading today: The Urbanist condemns Trump’s Muslim ban and the temporary disruption of transit service to the Seattle airport during protests this weekend. And Straight Outta Suburbia makes the case for full representation of DC in Congress.

40 thoughts on Democrats Can’t Fight Trump and Make a Deal on Infrastructure at the Same Time

  1. I only half agree on the part that maintenance outweighs new construction. That only applies where adequate infrastructure already exists. This is the case primarily for roads and airports. If anything, we should probably NOT maintain some roads which serve relatively few people and let them return to nature. Ditto for some airports given that air travel will be increasingly obsolete if we’re serious about a carbon neutral future.

    On the flip side, we’ve seriously underinvested in rail transport in this country for the last 75 years. The high-speed rail revolution seen elsewhere in the world totally bypassed the US. So yes, let’s build new infrastructure, but it should be nearly 100% rail in all forms-high-speed, commuter rail, and especially local subways/light rail.

    Finally and quite frankly, I find it really hard to understand some of the opposition to Trump’s stance on immigration. Yes, I agree the local police can’t serve as immigration officers and start looking for illegal aliens. That’s not really their job. Yes, I agree those from Muslim countries who put their lives at risk helping the US shouldn’t be detained at airports or otherwise denied sanctuary. They’ve proven through their actions that they’re on our side. However, the fact remains large numbers of people skirted our laws and crossed into our country illegally. Sure, most aren’t criminals and most just are looking to do better. Nevertheless, these people and their children cost our schools and social safety net systems a huge amount of money. They tend to drive down wages of unskilled jobs and also create unfair competition for those seeking to do things above board. For example, a friend of mine who owns a taximeter shop has to compete with other shops who hire illegal aliens at $2 or $3 an hour. Often he can’t and his business has suffered as a result. The bottom line is the US needs secure borders, and anyone wishing to get in the country must do so by legal means. Sorry, but here I have to support Trump. Of course, it’s still incumbent on the federal government, not the local police, to hunt down and deport anyone here illegally. I’m not alone here. I thought it very telling last week when NY1 discussed the issue that the opinion seemed to favor enforcing our immigration laws.

  2. The way the opposed Richard Nixon’s national health insurance plan because it came from Richard Nixon?

    Or the Republicans opposed their own health insurance proposal, via the Heritage Foundation, because Obama adopted it as his own?

    Please. As I’ve said here, I’m in favor of getting rid of all federal infrastructure investment, and having the state and local funding rule in health care cut back, to simplify the structure of government and allow more accountability. But opposing for the sake of opposing — because of unrelated issues — is not right.

  3. The debate in immigration is driven by two types of people. Racists, and those in favor of unlimited immigration to the point where the average standard of living is no higher in the U.S. than in the developing world.

    Neither admits it.

  4. Those of us who favour unlimited immigration do so on the basis of morality, because we consider freedom of movement to be a basic human right.

    Restrictions on immigration are unacceptable from a humanitarian standpoint.

  5. However, if 300 million poorer people showed up you couldn’t exactly expect the same level of welfare benefits you probably support, TWU pension benefits you probably support, wages you probably support here in the U.S. You would be in favor of equalizing standard of living in the U.S. and the developing world immediately.
    In the past, a response could have been 300 million won’t show up at once. But things have changed thanks to advances in communications and transportation.
    I’m reading a some more recent travel books by Paul Theroux

  6. Expecting people to enter via legal channels requires the existence of said legal channels. The single largest problem right now, in my judgment, is that in the absence of immigration reform there is no legal way for immigrants to meet the needs of American businesses. Were all undocumented immigrants to suddenly go away, we would find ourselves facing a major economic crisis and would in all likelihood quite rapidly find the political will to rationalize our immigration system. However, that is not a simple matter and ripping families apart is a terrible way to implement reform. Obviously there is a need to legalize and regulate immigrant labour so it can be made safer, with better pay, etc, but instead all we get are reactionary calls to deport everyone. Where are the calls for creating work permits?

  7. I get the feeling that the perfect compromise between those in favor of unlimited immigration (though not admitting it) and those who want to go back to pre-1965 rules (very little immigration allowed, northern European whites favored, though also not admitting it) is to ban LEGAL immigration but have lax enforcement. So there would be many immigrants, but they would be exploited with no rights.

    My sympathies are with the suckers waiting their turn. For Trump to claim to be in favor of legal but not illegal immigrants, in contrast, goes against his underlying view. Trying to be fair and following the rules is for losers.

    I think most Americans realize that most immigrants are a benefit to the country, as long as their numbers doesn’t overwhelm the job market and social welfare system. So they are in favor each individual immigrant, but want the number limited.

  8. … a friend of mine who owns a taximeter shop has to compete with other shops who hire illegal aliens at $2 or $3 an hour.

    If we had a reasonable immigration policy that didn’t result in a bunch of shadow people living outside any legal protection out of fear of deportation, your friend’s competitors would be forced to pay minimum wage like everybody else.

    It’s possible to support reasonable immigration policy that would make things better for everybody, but we’d rather throw money at the issue by pretending that, one, a $10-billion wall is going to change anything or be effective in any way, or two, that any wall we build is going to only cost $10 billion when the 700 miles of fence we’ve already built has cost $7 billion.

    And don’t get me started on the whole “Mexico will pay for it” crap.

  9. No, I think most Americans think exactly that. But they aren’t the ones making the noise. Those making the noise want to con them.

    Which is why those on the right say they are only against “illegal immigrants.” But when the welfare reform act of 1996 passed, after a long debate about benefits for illegal immigrants, legal immigrants were stripped of the right to benefits as well.

    And which is why those on the left only say they aren’t in favor of unlimited immigration, only a one time amnesty for those already here. But of course we already had the one-time amnesty.

  10. Since the Dems and Trump disagree on method of funding is to say they are NOT cooperating.

    The maintenance argument is also lame. If we assume Trump will get his wish (at least partly) the expedited approval process will be wonderful. Assuming new construction with the Trump Bill then the FAST Act which increased funding by 20% per year will mean lots more money for maintenance.

    Ideological arguments as opposed to common sense are not productive.

  11. All very true BUT keep in mind automation is going to make a lot of these functions illegal immigrants do nowadays pretty much obsolete within a decade or two. Indeed, a lot of jobs American citizens do will become obsolete as well. That still doesn’t mean we don’t need immigrants, but rather that we need ones with a higher skill set, and overall we probably need a lot fewer immigrants.

    Another thing worth a mention is other countries might be more in need of immigrants who eventually assimilate than the US just for the simple reason their native populations are reproducing at less than replacement level. Japan is probably the best example of this. The downside obviously is that with enough immigrants Japan will cease to be Japan as we know it. The same can be said of much of Europe. The US on the other hand, at least after the first European settlers arrived, has always been a land of ever changing cultural and ethnic makeup.

    The calls to deport everyone are part of a natural reaction to people looking for scapegoats in a world where they’re increasingly irrelevant. Nobody running for office is allowed to say this, but the hard fact is some large percentage of the population is already close to becoming economically worthless in that they have no skills anyone considers worth paying for. I’m still not sure exactly how to deal with this. It may take the form of giving these people some subsistence amount of what is produced by automated labor combined with tight restrictions on their ability to procreate. Or maybe the new paradigm of automation will usher in an era of plenty and we’ll all live like they do in Star Trek where you basically do whatever you enjoy while the machines do all the dirty work. A lot of the answer has to do with whether or not we get the means of production out of the hands of the wealthy few.

  12. What’s interesting though is the numbers who want to come here from countries which rapidly increased their standards of living, like China, have gone down. That also points us towards an eventual answer—bring the standards of living up in places where it’s low and a lot fewer people will want to come here. It will also tend to reduce the conflict which is rampant in these areas. As we develop automation of all sorts, a great idea will be to give it away to third world countries on the theory that it can improve the standard of living there without simultaneously continuing the destruction of the planet. Suppose we could recycle old, obsolete consumer goods into new ones using just sustainable energy as an input, and without requiring much human labor? We’ll probably be able to do that within a generation. When we do, we spread the technology everywhere. In essence, we give other countries the means to have a high standard of living without continued wars over limited resources. We also make human labor increasingly obsolete, which in turn will reduce much of the reason for illegal immigration in the first place.

  13. Indeed the population bomb is careening along. That said, the utterly corrupt and little hope for a decent job scenario in much of sub-Saharan Africa, most of the Muslim heartland (with the bonus of political chaos/violence), and parts of Latin America, is driving migrants. Really not a surprise if one thinks back to the huge influx from Central/Eastern Europe which arrived in the US a century ago.
    Yes, I am for unlimited immigration, no, I am not for destroying our standard of living, but I am for improving prospects for a decent life worldwide. Pretending the US can get along w/o immigrants is silly given the realities.

  14. “What’s interesting though is the numbers who want to come here from countries which rapidly increased their standards of living, like China, have gone down.”

    Maybe, maybe not. There is lots of inequality in China and India. And lots of violence in other places that are not as poor. I wouldn’t be comfortable being comfortable in a place with so much abject poverty. I imagine there are still many people, now better off, who would like to live in the U.S. And they can afford airline tickets.

  15. There are also plenty of immigrants who come to the U.S. based on bad information. Many people around the world form their impressions of life in the the U.S. solely from entertainment shows. Some of them wind up essentially selling themselves into slavery in order to get here, only to find once they arrive that their material conditions here are no better than back home.

    And their overall situation is even worse than it had been, on account of linguistic and cultural barriers which leave them isolated and with no idea of how to access health care and social services. Add to that a strong aversion to interaction with authorities, which results in these immigrants not being willing to report crimes committed against them, making them vulnerable to robbery and assault and other crimes.

    If potential immigrants knew the truth about the suffering that they should expect while trying to get by in the U.S., a lot fewer of them would expend so much effort and take so many risks in order to come here.

  16. “There are also plenty of immigrants who come to the U.S. based on bad information. Many people around the world form their impressions of life in the the U.S. solely from entertainment shows.”

    It isn’t only immigrants who get bad information about the life they can afford in the U.S. from entertainment shows. Or about politics. Bad decisions certainly result.

    “Some of them wind up essentially selling themselves into slavery in order to get here, only to find once they arrive that their material conditions here are no better than back home.”

    There are things we take for granted — safe water, heat, hot water, enough food (or too much), an working emergency room — that many people elsewhere in the world don’t have. That’s been changing, but the world is a few billion people away from everyone having those things.

  17. Last year, I let go the first piece that advocated the Democrats give no quarter, but this is too much. As a reliable Democratic voter, refusing to cooperate on an infrastructure package because Trump is in the WH and because it will contain some elements we might not like would be the height of hypocrisy. Early concepts from the administration aren’t all necessarily bad. For example, if we allow concessionaires to operate and toll existing pieces of the Interstate system, then more of the highway network will have a direct user fee, incentivizing less driving. Moreover, a list of priority projects

    includes several rail projects. Are we supposed to preemptively leave all of them on the table? The left needs something to bring home that will better the lives of common people in order to rebuild a voter base. I think I speak for many voters when I say I care much less about the personalities involved than the results. If the transportation movement is going to make progress, we have to stop making the perfect the enemy of the good and cut out the absolutism that this piece so clearly demonstrates.

  18. Wrong, Larry. The Trumpian opposition to illegal immigration is predicated upon a desire that rules and laws be followed and, even on a more cynical view, is xenophobic not racial. As an example, I know two white illegals, and several non-white legals. Where is the racism there?

  19. The question is do the Democrats want to follow the lead of the Republicans? Let’s use Obamacare as an example.

    The political self-interest play is to fillabuster repeal without replacement for a while, but then let it go through with no Democratic votes.
    And then refuse to vote for any Republican replacement, even single payer, no
    matter now much they agree with it. Just keep criticizing the fact that any replacement would not mean zero costs and unlimited benefits.

    In order to do anything, therefore, the Republicans would need the approval of their absolute worse, most ideological or corrupt member. Either nothing will pass or it will be a mess (like Obamacare).

    That’s what the Republicans did to the Obama Administration. Want a repeat? Of course there would be quite a bit of collateral damage to the serfs. The worse it gets the better it is?

    Then the Dems shouldn’t have voted to stop the financial collapse in 2008.

  20. This isn’t immigration blog, but let me give you an example of something my father told me.

    When he needed work done on his house, he used to hire a crew of Afro-American handymen led by a guy he’d done business with and been happy with for years. Decent people, did a good job.

    Unfortunately that man got old, got diabetes and died. His crew tried to continue the business, but did not succeed.

    Why? By now my dad was older, retired, and paying more attention to living costs. When he needed maintenance done a Mexican crew (documented status uncertain) offered to do they job for half as much. They are also decent guys, and do a good job. So that is who he has hired ever since. Compared with what life would have been like in Mexico, this business is doing well.

    I think that sums up the issue as many people see it very well.

    You have aging engineers who get dumped for someone younger and cheaper who are complaining about H1-5B visas, even though lower pay for people like that DECREASES inequality. And hey, with the U.S. transit industry as small as it is one sector that needs imported expertise is transit.

    This is why I wouldn’t expect unlimited immigration to be very popular as an alternative to what the Trumpsters would probably like which is a return to pre-1965 — limited immigration, Europe favored.

  21. Regarding Obamacare, intentionally or not, I think it set the stage for single payer. The Reupublicans are poised to repeal the most unpopular parts of Obamacare, like the individual mandate (to which I personally say good riddance), while keeping the requirements for covering preexisting conditions intact. Same with keeping children on their parent’s plan until they’re 26. Both of these things are too popular to risk repeal without any potential replacement. So in the short run the Republicans will score political points by saying they got rid of Obamacare, or at least the most intrusive, unpopular aspects of it. In the long run a smaller pool of sicker people will mean a death spiral for the insurance companies but I don’t think all that many people will be shedding tears given their long, predatory history. Honestly, to that I say good riddance but at that point you have only one option left on the table—namely single payer. At one time, perhaps still, Trump was a supporter of single payer. To me single payer offers the best hope of covering everyone while simultaneously using the negotiating power of government to bring down medical costs. Indeed, longer term it will probably make sense to have government run hospitals and government run medical research facilities. Unlike with private medicine where developing a cure for, say, cancer, will hit the bottom line big time, in this case inexpensive cures for expensive-to-treat ailments will only help to lower the government’s costs of covering everyone. It’s no coincidence medicine in countries with single payer is usually better and less costly. I’m a big supporter of capitalism for nonessential goods or services but medical care is one thing which is totally incompatible with the profit motive. That goes double when you have middlemen like insurance companies making money for doing essentially nothing but acting as buffers between the patient and medical service provider.

  22. Yes, Mexicans working as labourers, handymen, mechanics, etc. can often live better in U.S. urban and suburban areas than they could have done back home (even when they are being exploited by being paid sub-market rates and sub-minimum wages). These are people who typically had a realistic knowledge of the conditions in the U.S. before they decided to come here.

    I was referring to people who come from China and from elsewhere in Asia, people who had no conception of the realities of life in the U.S. before they made the decision to come, people whose impressions of this country come entirely from Hollywood movies.

    They might have left their homes in order to escape working in a sweatshop, only to end up in a similar situation in this country. Most of them would have seriously believed that they would be comfortable or perhaps even rich in the U.S., and that they would be able to easily pay back the smuggler who got them here. Instead, many find themselves to be essentially indentured servants (which, for women, often amounts to being sex slaves).

    People who meet this description wind up miserable and constantly fearful. If everyone in Asia who saw a some Hollywod crap starring Tom Cruise or someone like that also saw a documentary informing them about the conditions of immigrants who arrive en masse into American cities, then almost none of them would ever elect to leave their homes and their loved ones in order to make that journey.

  23. The problem with single payer is that the government then decides how much everyone in healthcare gets paid. Based on what? Campaign contributions?

    Here in NY, where our state government is what it is, I found years ago that despite the highest Medicaid spending in the country, NYC was near last in spending per beneficiary for physicians. To the point where the poor had trouble getting preventive care.

    Of course our current system, bad as it is, also undervalues those who provide well care. But NY’s Medicaid program is enough to make you not like single payer. At least now there is some semblance of a private market to use as a benchmark for what different health care services are worth.

  24. His first action targeted legal immigrants as well as illegal immigrants.

    As did the 1996 welfare reform, which after a debate on denying benefits to illegal immigrants denied them to legal immigrants as well. So working poor legal immigrants were denied food stamps, Medicaid if they fell ill, workers comp if they were injured, etc.

    Most regular people see a distinction between legal and illegal immigrants. But those who are politically active on the subject on either side make little distinction in their attitudes between legal and illegal immigrants. To the extent that Trumpsters use the word illegal they are just being politically correct. Read up on the immigration act of 1965.

  25. You don’t even need a documentary on immigrants. One on how the vast majority of poor and lower middle class Americans live might do just fine. Despite what the sitcoms show you, a secretary can’t afford a Manhattan apartment and most people don’t take a few trips a year. My brother and sister are both living paycheck to paycheck. Both may never be able to retire. I’m only doing a little better because I never left my parents (and that means I’m the one stuck taking care of my mother now who has dementia). Sure, many Asian immigrants live much worse than me but the idea that everyone in America has a rich life of leisure is the biggest load of crap put out by Hollywood. Even as an American, it’s refreshing the rare times I see movies realistically depicting how a lot of people live. You know, stuff like do I eat lunch today or take the train home from work because I can’t afford to do both.

  26. That’s all true but I have a lot of trouble believing something as awful as NYC’s Medicaid program is what would be duplicated nationally under single payer. Probably something similar to Medicare is what would happen, perhaps even a gradual expansion of Medicare until it covered everyone (i.e. first year you might cover people 60 or older, second year 50 or older, and so forth until everyone was covered).

  27. You’re confusing two different things. First there is immigration policy, and that is mostly focused on Mexico rightly or wrongly.

    Second there is homeland security and that is less to do with immigration status and more to do with where someone is from. Most of the 9/11 bombers were here legally

  28. “That’s all true but I have a lot of trouble believing something as awful as NYC’s Medicaid program is what would be duplicated nationally under single payer.”

    For several decades the U.S. Congress was a much better legislative body than the NY State legislature. Today? Tomorrow?

    The federal trend isn’t good.

  29. If your goal is to stop illegal immigration then you must target and punish the companies that hire those immigrants in order to quell demand. Just as with fighting the supply of drugs or firearms only cause an increase in crime and the formation of a black market due to a supply shortage, so too does fighting illegal immigration by punishing the immigrants. Demand will always cause someone to try to provide a supply.

  30. Yes, I completely agree. There are also some parallels to the firearms and drug markets here. First, we must understand the source of the demand and whether it even makes sense to make certain classes of firearms, drugs, or immigration illegal. In the case of the first two, my opinion is largely no. People for whatever reason want guns and they want to get high. I’ll even add prostitution to the list of illegal things which shouldn’t be illegal. Second, it’s better for government to allow these things so it can so it can regulate and tax them. This way they can be bought/used in a manner which doesn’t harm anyone.

    Probably much the same with immigration. Determine where there’s a need for lower cost labor and a supply able to fill that need. If no domestic supply exists, then allow work visas at least, perhaps even longer-term paths to citizenship if the immigrant worker pays their taxes and stays out of trouble.

  31. I agree entirely with the legalize, regulate, and tax stance but I don’t entirely agree with allowing visas to fill the need for cheap labor. If we had universal healthcare and a strong social welfare system or even a UBI, then allowing cheap labor could help the country. Without those in place, we would just be allowing corporations to undercut citizens by hiring foreign labor which would suppress wages and further strangle the middle class. I think it would be better to have a regulated rate of legal immigration where laborers can become citizens or visas would need to be tied directly to sponsored citizenship that would have the same labor protections and ability to freely move between jobs.

    This is also a similar moral hazard as that which occurs with free trade agreements. Free trade generally helps the consumer but can hurt the laborer unless it is married to the free movement of labor and labor organization. The exception is when the agreements are instead based upon competitive advantage which allows for labor to specialize but still would require freedom and a strong movement of organization.

  32. What makes you think FAST Act funding would go toward maintenance rather than new construction? (Serious question, not trying to be snarky.)

  33. That list is a little misleading, in the sense that not all of those projects are eligible for/seeking federal funding, and some are already receiving federal funding (e.g. Chicago Red/Purple Line Modernization). If it actually reflects the Trump admin’s priorities, then I agree that would be a pretty good sign. FWIW the only on-the-record statement from the Trump transition team denies it came from them.

  34. 1. Support for Obamacare repeal and Trump’s refugee ban is not “strong” – it’s mixed at best.

    2. “Nevertheless, these people and their children cost our schools and social safety net systems a huge amount of money.” They also bring in large amounts of money through sales taxes and other revenue streams. The overall effect is hard to discern exactly, but most experts agree it’s somewhere around neutral. Plus, our population is aging fast. The new American citizens born here are crucial to preventing a cataclysm.

    3. “The bottom line is the US needs secure borders, and anyone wishing to get in the country must do so by legal means. Sorry, but here I have to support Trump.” Again, looking to execution rather than theory: what makes you think the proposed wall will actually secure the border? What about Trump’s proposals makes you think that legal immigration will be facilitated or encouraged? Already legal residents (green card holders and others) were caught up in the refugee ban.

    4. Also worth noting that the Trump Organization has been revealed to have used illegal immigrant labor at multiple properties. Why is it better to crack down on and deport immigrants themselves rather than stricter enforcement of employment law? That’s the only policy that will actually help your friend and other legitimate business owners. Otherwise, bigger players like Trump will always be able to game the system.

    Overall, you claim to agree with Trump on immigration, but then seem to disagree with nearly every single instance of how he’s actually gone about executing such policies so far – including threatening local governments, denying sanctuary to those fleeing persecution, and detaining legal residents at airports.

    I’d encourage you to think more about that. “Enforcing the law” sounds good in theory, but can you really rely on Trump to enforce the law competently and equitably? Especially when, as you say, local jurisdictions are under no obligation to cooperate.

  35. Assuming the critical maintenance needs, while there’s obviously no guarantees, it stands to reason that if a new pot of money reduced the burden in one place that there is more money that could be used in the other place.

  36. The problem is that state DOTs have known of these maintenance needs for quite some time and yet continue to program federal funds for new construction. I see what you’re saying, but without specific and enforceable federal direction I have little to believe that their standard procedures will change much. To me it’s equally possible that they keep building shiny new infrastructure and kick the maintenance can down the road (again).

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