WASHINGTON – Donald Trump’s decision to begin his presidency supporting politically divisive efforts to repeal Obamacare and overhaul the tax code appears to have crippled his infrastructure agenda and thrust states and localities into the leadership role, lawmakers and business leaders said Thursday.

Their comments came during an Infrastructure Week panel discussion hosted by The Business Roundtable, an association of U.S. chief executive officers whose stated aim is to “promote a thriving U.S. economy and expanded opportunity for all Americans through sound public policy.”

While some panelists remained bullish on the prospects of making some progress at the federal level, others believed the White House squandered its best chance to promote the president's infrastructure plan, leaving legislation to be approved on a piecemeal basis.

Panel moderator Chuck Todd, the host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” told the group that he believed Trump made a mistake by not kicking off his presidency’s first 100 days with a focus on his infrastructure plan, an issue that candidate Trump had leveraged his real estate development background to campaign on and that had support from many Democrats. Instead, Trump pushed unsuccessfully to repeal Obamacare and then successfully to pass new tax legislation, both bruising battles that left Democrats and Republicans deeply divided.

“I’m already looking back at that as the miss moment,” said panel member Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee who is pessimistic about the chances of Congress coming together on infrastructure in the near future.

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon
JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon Bloomberg News

“This is a bipartisan problem,” Davis said, explaining that he doesn't think leadership of either party has the stomach to make the kind of concessions that will likely be necessary to muster enough votes to pass major infrastructure funding legislation.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., preferred to lay most of the blame at the feet of Republicans for being unwilling to support even small increases to the federal gas tax that funds federal roadways and some transit programs. But Carper also struck a more optimistic tone, saying that lawmakers could still fund infrastructure in other bills such as the water infrastructure bill now currently under development in the Senate.

Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co. and the Business Roundtable chairman, said that the American people need to demand accountability from their elected officials for failing to pass infrastructure bills that would benefit everyone.

“It costs more money not to fix than to fix,” Dimon said of the need to reinvest in the nation’s aging infrastructure. “Your leaders are failing you, basically,” he said, adding that Congress should institute a system for ensuring that tax dollars collected for certain purposes are used only for those purposes.

The panel largely agreed that much of the leadership has been and will continue to be taken on by the states and localities.

“There are a lot of local people that are doing great stuff,” Dimon said.

“States and cities are going increasingly to be the driver,” said Brendan Bechtel, chairman and CEO of the engineering firm Bechtel.

“I think you guys are making the case that we should just go to the states with this,” said Todd.

Infrastructure Week began May 14 and concludes May 21.

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Kyle Glazier

Kyle Glazier

Kyle Glazier is a reporter covering market trends, infrastructure, and the Far West region for The Bond Buyer.