2017 WASHINGTON, DC TRIP REVIEW
By Dan Cunningham, Forward Janesville Vice President
Forward Janesville’s fifth annual journey to Washington, DC took place on March 7-9, 2018. A great cross section of 45 business, civic and community leaders participated in the trip. This year’s trip featured some extraordinary events and meetings—from a private dinner with House Speaker Paul Ryan to an exclusive briefing with White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, this may have been our most successful trip yet. Thanks to those sponsors who made the trip possible: Alliant Energy, Blackhawk Community Credit Union and Shine Medical Technologies.
Here are some observations about our trip and what we learned:
Hollywood…for Ugly People: Back in my days as a Capitol Hill staffer, I often heard Washington described as “Hollywood for Ugly People,” as you never know who you’ll run into in the halls of Congress or in the White House. We were fortunate to have most of our Capitol Hill meetings on the third floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, which also happens to be near Senator Bernie Sanders’ Congressional office. We did experience a Bernie sighting, to the delight of several trip participants. During our White House tour, I swear I was standing right beside actor Ted McGinley of Happy Days, The Love Boat, and Married…With Children, but I don’t think anyone else saw him. Also, I heard that the lead singer of Nickelback was in the White House while we were there, but I missed him and his frosted tips. This is part of the fun of Washington; Hillary Clinton could be right around the next corner.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders is a Normal Person: We were fortunate to have a 20-minute meeting with White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, who is about as normal as she can be while holding down one of the most challenging jobs on earth. Before you groan, just know that she has THREE children under the age of five. I have one child under the age of five, and I feel like I spend 90 percent of my off hours trying to devise strategies to get to work on time. In all seriousness, it was great to hear from her about the demands of the job and her approach to it. We work hard to secure meetings like this, as it is so important for people to look beyond the media portrayals and caricatures of those in the Trump Administration and remember that most of them are regular people in big jobs.
Look Beyond the Tweets: Despite the Tweets and personal drama that accompanies the President, business lobbyists and many Republicans are thrilled with the overall direction of government and the American economy. In their view, President Trump has taken the Obama Administration’s regulatory brakes off our economy, and it has taken off like a rocket ship. The recent stock market downturn is no surprise, given the fact that bull markets really don’t know how to end—they just go higher and higher until they crash. The current bull market may have gone too high, so the market may continue to correct itself.
Our Capitol Hill Day kickoff speaker, Beloit College Alum and Washington Lobbyist David Goodfriend, noted that Democrats and others who simply deride the president without looking for reasons for his 2016 victory are missing the boat. President Trump was a shot across the bow for a public that was extremely dissatisfied with status quo politics. Those who believe that the President is in line for a big defeat in 2020 no matter who the Democrats offer up are viewing things too simply. While there is frustration about the president’s style in Washington, the results are what really matters.
A Different Way Forward? I’ve said it for years—the rise of broken, partisan Washington can be traced directly back to party extremists (on both sides) getting elected to Congress. If you elect enough Tea Partiers or raging socialists, you shouldn’t be surprised when governing is difficult. Though many in our country consider themselves to be unaffiliated moderates, our recent political history has left moderates out in the cold. One of our meetings featured a little chicken soup for the moderate soul, as Neal Simon, an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate in Maryland, told us about his candidacy and about Unite America, a movement to look for moderate, independent candidates who will help change the divisive political environment and work together to get things done.
Wolves at The Door: Love it or hate it, the tax reform package that passed last year was a transformational piece of legislation that will forever alter the American tax landscape. The bill has changed the world economic picture and has left companies in other countries wondering how they will compete with their American counterparts. The American labor market is essentially full. There are no looming economic bubbles like those we saw in the tech and housing sectors.
So everyone is happy, right? Not necessarily. The U.S. Chamber crowd is less than thrilled with our nation’s trade policy—specifically, the lack of progress on North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) modernization, our trade relations with China, and the recently announced tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. The president’s position on the latter issue has put him at odds with many top Republicans and economists, who fear that these tariffs will lead to higher material prices and potential job losses in non-aluminum and steel related industries.
Infrastructure’s Importance: President Trump has unveiled a plan to stimulate $1.5 trillion in new infrastructure spending over the next decade by investing over $200 billion in federal money to encourage state and private sector spending.
A significant state matching requirement is the centerpiece of the package. States will need to step up with significant funding of their own to unlock federal funds. States that can’t find the funding will be left behind. This is good news, as it will force Wisconsin state leaders to have an adult conversation about the future of transportation funding in our state.
When asked how a $200 billion federal investment could be the catalyst for generating $1.5 trillion in nationwide spending, D.J. Gribbin, the Special Assistant to the President for Infrastructure and one of the speakers during our White House Policy Briefing, sounded the death knell for the 80/20 federal/state funding split. For decades, states could expect to receive about 80 percent of the funding for federal highway projects from the federal government, while putting up only 20 percent of the funds themselves. Mr. Gribbin told us that 80/20 has been a thing of the past for some time now, and that the percentage has really flipped: states are now expected to put up about 80 percent of the money for these mega projects, while the feds will throw in the last 20 percent. 20 percent of $1.5 trillion is $300 billion, which is at least in the same ballpark as $200 billion. The idea is for states to come to the table with well thought-out, mostly funded projects that need a federal nudge over the finish line. Projects like the I-39/90 expansion would be well positioned for such federal help.
The infrastructure proposal also eliminates federal barriers to tolling and gives states the flexibility to collect tolls on interstate highways to allow for additional local infrastructure investment. Additional tolling could face an uphill battle in Congress, as many lawmakers are wary of facing the subject. Forward Janesville supports the elimination of federal restrictions on tolling because we should be able to decide for ourselves whether we want tolling—something federal law currently prohibits.
The big question is how the plan will be paid for and what the federal share will be. Some, including the U.S. Chamber and the President himself, have voiced support for raising the federal gas tax, which hasn’t been altered since 1993. A 25-cent gas tax increase would raise $375 billion over the next 10 years, which is more than enough to finance the infrastructure package. However, House Speaker Paul Ryan has said that raising the gas tax is off the table, so it’s back to the drawing board.
The President and Congress have an ambitious timeline for the infrastructure package, with hearings and a bill draft in April and possible Congressional consideration in July. Any action on the package would probably need to come before the August recess, as Congress will have its eyes on the November election by summer’s end.
See You Next Year? Thanks to those who shared this journey with us. We have already started thinking about our 2019 Washington trip, which will take place in early spring. If you’ve never been on this trip, it is an experience worth considering. Stay tuned for details later this year.
Click here to see our trip photos, courtesy of Dennis McDougall!