A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Bill Straub: With Ryan stuck on entitlements, is McConnell ready to work with Dems on infrastructure

WASHINGTON – One thing that can be said about Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root and Branch’’ McConnell, to paraphrase the late Democratic Sen. Henry “Scoop’’ Jackson of Washington, is that he’s a conservative, not a damn fool.

McConnell

While his counterpart in the lower chamber, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-WI, is becoming increasingly bellicose about tackling entitlements during the upcoming congressional session, thus returning the nation to pre-FDR days, McConnell is having none of it.

Holding only a slim advantage in the Senate and maintaining uncertain prospects heading toward the November election, McConnell, of Louisville, is in no mood to diddle around with popular programs that actually aid people just to firmly establish his caucuses’ right-wing bona fides.

In fact, McConnell is exhibiting signs of making a U-turn and embracing (Gasp!) bipartisanship, a concept he has quite frankly spat upon since the GOP gained control of the Senate after the 2014 elections. McConnell has long been the standard bearer for mindless, wasteful, insipid partisanship and has, in fact, shown to be quite proud of that reputation, dismissing with a wave of the hand any negative impact it might have on the nation as a whole.

But facts is facts. Holding a scant two-seat advantage in the upper chamber, having failed to pass the promised repeal of Obamacare before adopting a godawful tax cut measure that has been given a decisive thumbs down from the public, McConnell can’t afford to further alienate voters by irrationally taking on programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Rather, to his credit, ol’ Root ‘n Branch has expressed a desire to work with Democrats on legislation to upgrade the nation’s teetering-on-the-brink infrastructure, which has the potential to address more of America’s economic woes than any tax cut bill aimed at making the wealthy even wealthier.

Ryan

In an interview with Mike Allen of the Axios political web site a few weeks back, McConnell said he would “not expect to see’’ any discussion regarding entitlements during the upcoming session, despite Ryan’s pleas. On the other hand, “I hope we can go forward with infrastructure,’’ he said. “I think there is a lot of interest in infrastructure.”

That would be the smart move. Anyone involved in Kentucky politics for even a short period of time realizes that better roads, bridges, sewers and even culverts gain more attention, and affection, from voters in both the long and short run than just about anything else lawmakers might do. Driving on a two-lane that doesn’t endanger the health of your front axle is more popular with folks than a couple extra bucks in the paycheck.

McConnell, who has been involved in Kentucky politics in one form or another for better than 40 years, certainly realizes this. It can be speculated that one of the reasons he stood in the way of then-President Barack Obama’s stimulus package, offered in wake of the Great Recession in 2009, was that the public works projects contained therein would prove too popular and benefit Democrats down the line.

Infrastructure improvement carries the benefit of being sorely needed if the U.S. expects to compete with the rest of the world. The American Society of Civil Engineers, in its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, gave the nation an overall grade of D+, meaning that “The infrastructure is in poor to fair condition and mostly below standard, with many elements approaching the end of their service life. A large portion of the system exhibits significant deterioration. Condition and capacity are of serious concern with strong risk of failure.’’

The nation’s roads, according to the Society, “are often crowded, frequently in poor condition, chronically underfunded, and are becoming more dangerous.’’  As for dams, “the overall number of high-hazard potential dams is increasing, with the number climbing to nearly 15,500 in 2016.’’ Public transit grade out worst of all, leading the analysts to say “the symptoms of overdue maintenance and underinvestment have never been clearer. Despite increasing demand, the nation’s transit systems have been chronically underfunded resulting in aging infrastructure and a $90 billion rehabilitation backlog.’’

It’s not a pretty picture but one that’s fixable with proper investment. The thing is, infrastructure upgrade benefits everyone, rich and poor. For what it’s worth, President Trump (gag!) is providing lip service to infrastructure improvements even though his actions in the area thus far belie that intent — his proposed budget called for cutting passenger rail and transit construction grants and he nixed federal aid to build a second railroad tunnel under the Hudson River connecting New York and New Jersey.

Jackson

Regardless, ol’ Root ‘n Branch and the 71-year-old enfant terrible will have a chance to hash it out when they meet at Camp David in a few days.

Ryan, meanwhile, continues to dream precious thoughts about how he can make the lives of the poor, elderly and children even more difficult. Just before the end of the year he asserted that Congress is “going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit.”

That comment came, by the way, stunningly, after lawmakers approved a tax cut measure – during a period of high employment in a deficit situation, mind you – that will add $1.5 trillion to the nation’s debt over the next 10 years.

“Frankly, it’s the health care entitlements that are the big drivers of our debt, so we spend more time on the health care entitlements — because that’s really where the problem lies, fiscally speaking,” the most over-rated man in the District of Columbia told talk show host Ross Kaminsky.

This is all part of Ryan’s master plan – cut taxes, add to the deficit, then cry crocodile tears over the debt and blame the poor and the elderly rather than your own misbegotten actions. Then cut Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps or what have you and blame it on that mounting debt.

There’s a couple problems with this ingenious strategy. For one thing Trump campaigned for president with a promise to keep hands off on Medicare. That and Ryan isn’t near as smart as McConnell, who understands that goofing around with these programs can only lead to political heartache.

McConnell holds all the cards on this one. If he doesn’t want to consider entitlement reform, there’s nothing Ryan can do about it, regardless of how many “reform’’ bills the House might send the Senate’s way. At the same time, should the lower chamber retaliate by refusing to act on infrastructure legislation developed by those who follow ol’ Root ‘n Branch there likely will be hell to pay with the folks back home.

The choice is Ryan’s. But smart money says sooner or later he’s going to have to fold.

The NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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