One is a stalwart of organized labor, the leader of one of the largest U.S. labor unions. The other is the head of one of the most powerful and relentless pro-business lobbies in the nation’s capital.
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO labor organization, barnstormed the country last fall campaigning for the re-election of congressional Democrats to bolster an agenda for working Americans and the middle class. At the same time, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO was sitting at his desk in Washington, helping to bankroll an endless stream of attack ads on those same Democrats, pushing them — and their reform agenda — toward defeat.
But there they were on Wednesday, sitting shoulder to shoulder at the witness table in a Senate hearing room, both pushing lawmakers to more aggressively fund highway and transportation projects nationwide.
Call them the infrastructure odd couple. The political divide between the two did not go unnoticed.
“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO don’t always agree, so Mr. Donohue and Mr. Trumka’s willingness to stand together in support of a strong surface transportation bill is a powerful signal,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chaired the hearing, remarked in her opening statement. “And just like they set aside their differences, I believe we in Congress — Democrats and Republicans — must roll up our sleeves and get to work on a bipartisan bill.”
Trumka and Donohue agree that robust federal spending on transportation and infrastructure creates jobs.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the left-leaning independent from Vermont, also took note that Trumka and Donohue came to deliver a unified message.
“There is a broad understanding that now is the moment to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. Let’s go forward on this. We have an opportunity to do a whole lot for America,” says Sanders, a member of the Senate public works panel chaired by Boxer.
The United States invests less than half what Russia does on infrastructure, in terms of gross domestic product, and less than a third of what Western Europe invests, Trumka notes.
“If we want to have a great future as a nation, we cannot sit by and watch the future happen elsewhere, and not here,” he says. “America wants to work, and the cost of inaction is already being felt.”
Donohue agreed, although he framed the argument as might be expected, in pro-business terms.
“Quality transportation infrastructure unleashes competitive advantage by leading to lower production costs making U.S. businesses more efficient, making the United States a desirable location for new and existing businesses, and also making U.S.-produced goods and services more competitive in the global economy,” he says. “However, deteriorating infrastructure in the United States may actually be contributing to increased costs and decreased efficiency for American businesses.
“The consequences of an underperforming system are hundreds of billions of dollars annually in wasted fuel, lost productivity, avoidable public health costs, and delayed shipments of manufacturing inputs, consumer goods and other items critical to the underlying growth of our businesses,” Donohue adds. “Without smart investment the U.S. infrastructure American businesses will to lose ground to major international competitors.”
‘Everything Should Be On The Table’
The pair also agree the federal government should be open to spending robust amounts to fund such projects, even at a time when the Obama administration and congressional Republicans are waging an arms race to cut the government’s budget.
“We believe everything should be on the table when looking at funding sources–including innovative ideas, as well as beefing up revenue streams that currently fund the system,” Trumka says.
Specifically, Trumka recommended re-authorizing the Build America Bond program, as well as creating or expanding other bond programs to provide private-sector investment. These bond programs, however, should “not replace direct federal investment.”
Donohue, likewise, says lawmakers should “keep an open mind.”
“I am well aware that members of Congress and the Obama administration are faced with difficult fiscal circumstances,” he says. “It is clear that federal budget and appropriations processes appear dominated by discussion of deficit reduction, and Americans expect their leaders to make tough choices just as they have for their own households.
“However, without proper investment and attention to our infrastructure, the United States’ economic stability, potential for job growth, global competitiveness and quality of life are all at risk. Investments in the nation’s highways and public transportation systems are a core federal government responsibility.”
Boxer says she hopes this “rare show of unity” between two historical political rivals helps make federal infrastructure investment a reality, to help put jobless Americans back to work.
Boxer notes that “2010 was a tough election and many of us found ourselves on different sides.
“But for everything there is a season – election season comes soon enough but now we have an obligation to work together for the American people – for jobs, for business and for our nation,” she adds.
Scott Nance is the publisher of the news site The Washington Current, formerly known as On The Hill. He has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.