Trump to form infrastructure task force to manage $1 trillion project

Donald Trump made infrastructure spending a key part of his “Make America Great Again” campaign platform, and the transition team is already laying the groundwork for it. The Washington Post reports that the new administration will form a select taskforce for the effort rather than operate from within an existing bureaucracy. That might wind up bypassing the woman Trump chose to run the Cabinet agency with the most jurisdiction over these matters:

The task force head is “not Cabinet level,” this individual said, but would play a critical role in coordinating among federal, state and local officials as well as private investors as the new administration prepares to inject hundreds of billions of dollars into projects across the country.

Trump has pledged to mobilize anywhere from half a trillion to a trillion dollars into upgrading the nation’s aging roads, bridges and transportation hubs. But that plan might not rely on direct federal spending. Venture capitalist Wilbur Ross, Trump’s nominee to run the Commerce Department, and University of California at Irvine business professor Peter Navarro have proposed an investment tax credit that they say would cost $137 billion and stimulate about $1 trillion of private investment. Ross and Navarro say the plan would be revenue-neutral — a claim likely be hotly disputed. ….

One possible wrinkle: A task force would assume part of the role traditionally played by the transportation secretary, especially when it comes to roads and bridges. Trump has nominated former labor secretary Elaine Chao, wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), to the Department of Transportation post.

That would be rather curious. Chao would appear to be a good choice for Trump to lead such a project, and in fact the person most suited to make sure it succeeds. Not only does she have a track record at the Department of Labor of loyalty to an administration, her husband is the man who would have to quarterback infrastructure-spending plans in the Senate — Mitch McConnell. One key reason to appoint Chao is to make that coordination between the White House and Senate much more efficient, which will be necessary because of the resistance to stimulus spending that will arise in the House among fiscal conservatives. Bypassing Chao will only push McConnell farther away, and give Trump less leverage on Capitol Hill.

The Post’s team notes that the organizational structure is still vague, and that “it doesn’t seem particularly well formed or specific at this point.” Bet on Chao being directly in the chain of command on it in the end.

The chain-of-command question isn’t the most intriguing part of the infrastructure project, though. This is: How will Trump’s team turn a $137 billion expenditure into a trillion-dollar private-sector investment in public infrastructure? That’s roughly an 800% return on investment, a point that House Republicans will no doubt highlight in their skepticism over whatever the plan turns out to be. Republicans mocked Barack Obama’s stimulus plan for similar claims about investment in “green energy” efforts, and for good reason, as it turned out.

And here’s another good question: How will Trump’s plan keep Democrats (and Republicans, for that matter) from treating this a pork-barrel gravy train? Obama’s stimulus spending consisted in large measure of back-home pork projects that primarily benefited Democrats, since almost all Republicans voted against the measure after being locked out of its drafting. Jared Kushner’s already cleaving closer to Chuck Schumer than Paul Ryan on infrastructure spending, as Allahpundit pointed out, which means we’re going to see pork on a massive scale unless McConnell gets it under control — at which point it might not pass the House due to a lack of Democratic support. The problem with larding the bill up with pork is that it will dull whatever effectiveness that spending might have had on real infrastructure issues rather than vanity projects for the down-home constituents.

The political benefits of that spending may not materialize in 2018 for Trump if that’s the case. Did all that spending help Obama and the Democrats in 2010? Hopefully Team Trump will learn the lesson that stimulus spending does not guarantee political success, but so far they don’t appear to have recognized it.