President Donald Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other congressional leaders met at the White House on Tuesday and announced an agreement in principle to spend $2 trillion to fix the nation's infrastructure. This verbal agreement is a great distance away from the enactment of actual infrastructure legislation. But from a public opinion perspective, the idea is one of the most viable and positively received policy proposals currently on the legislative table.
Every bit of polling evidence I have reviewed shows that Americans are extremely supportive of new government infrastructure legislation. If anything, I think, Americans are asking why it is taking so long to get this idea going.
Back in 2016, Gallup found 75% agreement with the idea of spending more "federal money to improve infrastructure, including roads, buildings and waterways."
Then in January 2017, just before Trump's inauguration, Gallup asked Americans how important it was that Trump keep each of 12 policy promises he made during his presidential campaign. Infrastructure was at the top of the list. Some 69% of Americans said it was very important that Trump "enact a major spending program to strengthen infrastructure" -- 15 percentage points higher than the next highest campaign promise (cutting taxes for all Americans).
In March 2017, Gallup again asked Americans about their agreement with a list of 15 Trump proposals. In this survey, we included a price tag -- $1 trillion -- on the infrastructure proposal. This made essentially no difference; 76% agreed with the idea. That was second only to 81% agreement with Trump's campaign proposal to require companies to provide family leave for parents after the birth of a child. By way of comparison, just 36% in the same survey said it was very important to "begin the construction of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico."
A YouGov poll in January 2018 found 71% support for "increasing federal spending for roads, bridges, mass transit and other infrastructure." A Quinnipiac University poll conducted in February 2018 showed 87% support for "increasing federal spending for roads, bridges, mass transit and other infrastructure." And a Monmouth University survey, conducted in April 2018, found that 62% of Americans believe the federal government is not spending enough on "transportation infrastructure, including roads and bridges."
Unlike most policy initiatives these days, support for a federal infrastructure program is high among both Republicans and Democrats. In Gallup's March 2017 survey, 87% of Republicans agreed with the idea of spending $1 trillion to improve the nation's infrastructure, along with 73% of independents and 71% of Democrats. Rarely do we see this type of political consensus, which comports with the apparently unanimous agreement between Republican and Democratic leaders that an infrastructure plan is a good idea.
It's hard to quantify what psychological impact agreement on a major program to fix the nation's infrastructure might have. But a massive, united government effort to fix infrastructure -- maybe with an appealing title like "Americans Unite to Build World-Class Infrastructure" -- might well help move the nation away from the bitter partisanship in whose grip we are now locked. Americans' stress, worry and anger are higher than ever, according to Gallup data, and some big and bold initiative may be what is needed to provide the nation with a morale-boosting uplift.
An infrastructure plan would produce benefits that Americans can see and experience directly in their everyday lives -- tangible results. That's important given that many Americans believe infrastructure improvements are needed. A Monmouth poll conducted last year found that 64% of Americans rate the quality of transportation infrastructure of roads and bridges in their area as only fair or poor, and that 65% believe most or some roads in their area are in need of urgent repair. Plus, an authoritative report from the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation's infrastructure a grade of D+.
An infrastructure plan will also create jobs. To be sure, the public is fairly happy with the jobs situation right now, but we know that jobs are the key to the economy in Americans' minds. Bolstering employment for years and decades to come through a government infrastructure program can't help but be perceived positively.
As I noted earlier, bipartisan agreement that a massive infrastructure program would be good for the country is only the first step in a long process before such a program could become law. Politicians have a habit of getting in the way of what would appear to be logical policy enactments, sometimes because they view a major new spending program like a clothesline onto which they can hang special interest projects.
But, based on public opinion, this is one program that appears to be worth the political effort to enact. Two big hurdles are cost (who is going to pay for a $2 trillion program, and how does that affect the need to raise taxes and/or increase the federal debt?) and politics (coming into a presidential election year, who is going to get credit for such a program?). Few would doubt the great value of the interstate highway system that began in earnest in the Eisenhower administration, and this program could eventually become just as significant.