WASHINGTON — With legislation overhauling taxes and health care on an uncertain path, President Donald Trump returned to the familiar. Trump brought 52 business leaders from New York City to the White House Tuesday to talk about another favorite campaign issue — infrastructure and economic growth.
The U.S. economy has so far proven to be a point of pride for a presidency that has otherwise gotten off to a rocky start. Trump inherited a stable economy from former President Barack Obama, an economic recovery that's heading toward its eighth year. But Trump believes he can do more for business.
Trump and several of his top aides emphasized plans to cut red tape and jumpstart infrastructure projects at Tuesday's meeting, while also previewing for the CEOs' other priorities that include shortening flight times for airplanes, increasing the power grid's efficiency and targeting programs to improve job training.
At one point the president had an aide come on stage to hold up a long scroll of the government's approval process for building a highway. The president then pledged to eliminate more than 90 percent of the regulations involved and "still have safety." He provided no details.
The administration has committed to directing as much as $1 trillion for infrastructure over the next decade, although it has yet to release policy specifics. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao recently said she expects a plan will be unveiled later this year.
But getting a measure through Congress could be difficult given the Republican majority in both chambers and their desire to reduce tax rates as much as possible. An infrastructure plan that relies on direct funding could possibly raise the budget deficit more than one that uses tax credits.
Trump touted the plan he says is in the works, telling the room, "We're talking about a very major infrastructure bill of a trillion dollars, perhaps even more."
Administration officials stressed that it can take more than 8 years between funding and the start of project construction, a timeline White House officials say is too slow given the commitment of hundreds of billions of dollars a year.
Trump wanted the CEOs gathered at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building — many of them involved in real estate — to start building roadways, airports, railways, bridges and other infrastructure as quickly as possible.
"If you have a job that you can't start within 90 days, we're not going to give you money for it," Trump said.
Meanwhile, executives from American Trucking Associations’ member companies FedEx Freight and Werner Enterprises, Tuesday told Congress about the trucking industry’s urgent need for greater investment in the highway system.
FedEx Freight President and CEO Mike Ducker and Werner Enterprises President and CEO Derek Leathers both told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security, the U.S. must invest more in its roads and bridges so the trucking industry can continue to safely and efficiently move the nation’s goods.
“ATA and its members are continuing to tell our story on Capitol Hill and at the White House about need to improve our nation’s roads and bridges,” said ATA President and CEO Chris Spear. “Our industry currently loses nearly $50 billion annually to congestion – that is unacceptable. We must unclog our arteries and highways and make our infrastructure safer and more efficient by investing in our roads and bridges as Derek and Mike so eloquently told the Committee today.”
“Without improved surface infrastructure and wise policy decisions from Washington, FedEx and other companies cannot continue to help grow the U.S. economy and increase jobs. The need for significant investment in our infrastructure has never been more critical,” Ducker said in his testimony.
“Congress should concentrate investment in major freight bottlenecks and congestion that hamper the efficient movement of both freight and passenger travel,” Leathers said. “The additional mileage and congestion combined with high freight demands and insufficient truck parking continues to cause needless added stress and frustration to our driver workforce, and can take away from their focus on safely and efficiently delivering our nation's goods.”
Leathers and Ducker also took the opportunity to raise a number of important issues with the Committee.
“While infrastructure investment is a primary focus for ATA, Mike and Derek did a tremendous job raising a number of significant issues during the hearing,” Spear said. “From driver recruitment to the need for smarter regulations and the prospects for automated trucks, they did a remarkable job telling our story and representing this industry.”
The president followed up his remarks at the town hall by giving an afternoon speech to the Building Trades Union, pledging to "rebuild our nation."
At the CEO town hall, Gary Cohn, director of the White House National Economic Council, noted that infrastructure upgrades could help growth.
A new air traffic control system that relied on GPS instead of radar would shorten flights and save on jet fuel, helping consumers, he said. Cohn also suggested updates to the power grid to avoid the loss of 20 percent of electricity in transmission. Trump's daughter Ivanka spoke to the CEOs about the value of job training.
The sales pitch with its technocratic angle seemed perfectly targeted for the assembled business leaders.
"It's terrific in terms of the stuff you're trying to do to modernize the government, educate and so forth," said Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the Blackstone Group, an investment firm, and chairman of the president's policy forum.
"The outside world doesn't always get the message that that's really what is going on," he said.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Joan Lowy contributed to this report.