Infrastructure Theater

by Yuval Levin

The air-traffic control reform that the Trump administration endorsed yesterday strikes me as basically a good idea. It possesses some of the usual flaws of an actually worked out legislative compromise: It’s a good idea that is wrapped up in some bad ideas that were necessary to quiet critics and win supporters. But on net, it remains a good idea. 

I think consideration of this proposal is confused some by the term “privatization” — which may or may not be a good idea but isn’t what’s being proposed. The idea here, rather, is just to separate the regulation of air-traffic control (and air-traffic safety regulation more generally) from the actual provision of air-traffic control services itself. The former would remain the purview of the FAA, the latter would be managed by a nonprofit board run by the various stakeholders involved. This is a very common way to think about how to run an air-traffic control system around the world, and it seems likely to help improve our system. 

This proposal also offers one model of how policymaking might be possible in the midst of the staggering dysfunction that has overtaken the elected branches of our federal government this year: Take an idea long-championed by some reasonably substantial congressional coalition, have the administration adapt and adopt it, and push it forward. That’s good. Some things might get done that way. Some of them may also be worth doing. 

But the fact that the administration’s “infrastructure week” is being anchored by this longstanding and modest idea suggests not that the administration and Congress are now making progress toward keeping the president’s assorted grandiose pledges regarding a big infrastructure program but rather that no such progress seems in the offing. The same was suggested by the desperate desire to create the appearance of progress in yesterday’s announcement. The event took the form of a signing ceremony — a format complicated somewhat by the fact that the president had nothing to sign. What Trump wants to do cannot be accomplished by executive action, and Congress has passed no bill. So the president apparently signed “a decision memo and letter transmitting legislative principles to Congress.” In other words, nothing. It had the feel of the big White House event celebrating the House passage of a health-care bill the Senate hadn’t even started working on. Frankly embarrassing. 

The rest of the “infrastructure week” events — a speech on inland waterways, a White House event with governors and mayors, and an event on permitting reform — are more traditional forms of policy cheerleading, though they also suggest a dearth of real activity. I happen to think that taking up the permitting problem, focusing on inland waterways, and emphasizing federalism are the right priorities, particularly if the administration has given up on trying to do infrastructure in a bipartisan way. But on none of those fronts does there appear to be a clear agenda with a clear way forward. 

It will be interesting to see if the air-traffic control reform, at least, begins to move in Congress. 

The Corner

The one and only.