By Ted Mann
WASHINGTON -- The last time the federal government raised the
gas tax that is supposed to fund improvements to America's
highways, Pete Buttigieg was 11 years old.
Some 28 years removed from that gas-tax increase, signed by
President Bill Clinton in August 1993, Mr. Buttigieg is the federal
transportation secretary, working for another president who will
try to deliver where predecessors of both parties have failed:
crafting a program to rebuild aging roads, dams and railroads, and
finding the political will to pay for it.
President Biden met Thursday with Republican and Democratic
members of the House of Representatives to discuss his plans for an
infrastructure package, a goal that has eluded Democratic lawmakers
and his predecessor, Donald Trump, even as members of both parties
and outside groups claim there is bipartisan support for such a
Mr. Biden told reporters at the outset of the Oval Office
meeting that the subject of their discussion would be American
competitiveness. The group would be talking about "what we're going
to do to make sure we once again lead the world across the board on
The president was joined at the meeting by Mr. Buttigieg, now
39, a former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and presidential candidate
who says his local experience will help him lead the department
that is a major source of federal grants for states and towns.
Mr. Biden campaigned on a promise to pass a $2 trillion
infrastructure package and is expected to send Congress an
infrastructure proposal after the passage of a Covid-19 relief
Mr. Trump's example may show how hard it is to deliver on
something that all parties say they want. Campaigning for president
in 2016, Mr. Trump vowed during a TV appearance to do twice as much
as Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, who had initially proposed a
$500 billion package, leading his aides to begin working to meet a
$1 trillion target.
In office, Mr. Trump's plans were undermined by his other
priorities, such as overturning Obamacare, and his own resistance
to elements of the plan designed by his administration. When Mr.
Trump finally delivered a proposal to Congress in 2018, it was dead
on arrival, thanks in part to the decision to put the burden for
raising money for new projects overwhelmingly on states and cities,
not the federal government.
House Democrats passed their own $1.5 trillion package last
year, but it too went nowhere, thanks to opposition in the
Democrats hope Mr. Biden can succeed where they and Mr. Trump
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D., Ore.), chairman of the House
Transportation committee, was among the lawmakers attending
Thursday's meeting. Earlier this week, he called for the federal
government to bear the cost of funding a new infrastructure
"The states can't go it alone," he said, in a video released by
his office. "The cities can't go it alone. They need a federal
Mr. Buttigieg said during his Senate confirmation hearing that
he was eager to work on the administration's infrastructure
proposal. "Good transportation policy can play no less a role than
making possible the American dream," he said at the time.
The Biden administration hasn't revealed the text of its
infrastructure package or said what it hopes to build other than
listing the categories regularly cited by politicians of both
parties: rebuilding crumbling roads and bridges, shoring up aging
water infrastructure and expanding broadband in rural areas.
Mr. Biden has said his infrastructure bill will give priority to
the response to climate change, but it isn't clear what that would
mean in practice. Republicans generally oppose government action
and spending to address climate change, as do some centrist
Democrats who will hold the key to a bill's passage, especially in
Veterans of infrastructure efforts from both parties see the
potential for major change. Former Rep. Bill Shuster, a
Pennsylvania Republican who chaired the House Transportation
committee, pointed to bipartisan legislation to create an
infrastructure bank structured like the Federal Home Loan Bank
system as a means to provide long-term capital funding for projects
outside the annual partisan bickering of the budget cycle.
Former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, who like Mr.
Shuster now works at the Washington lobbying powerhouse Squire
Patton Boggs, noted that the Biden administration already had begun
tailoring the criteria of some existing programs, like the
Transportation Department's Infrastructure for Rebuilding America
grant program, to emphasize its climate goals. But that isn't a
substitute for a new package of infrastructure legislation, Mr.
"They are limited to some degree in the long-term viability and
sustainability of an effort like that when you don't have it
written into new legislation," he said in an interview.
Neither party has shown the ability to get a law creating new
streams of revenue to pay for a major infrastructure package
through both houses of Congress. Mr. DeFazio helped pass the $1.5
trillion infrastructure package in 2020 that was dead on arrival in
Congress hasn't even raised the gasoline tax that is the primary
funding source for the Federal Highway Trust Fund in more than a
generation. The government last raised the federal gas tax, to 18.4
cents a gallon, in 1993.
Write to Ted Mann at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
March 04, 2021 15:45 ET (20:45 GMT)
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