WASHINGTON, Feb. 28, 2017 - In his first address to Congress, President Trump Tuesday night declared that the “time for small thinking is over” and called for massive infrastructure spending, deep tax cuts and immigration reforms that he promised would unleash new economic growth.
“We will look back on tonight as when this new chapter of American greatness began,” he said.
Trump also touted his “historic effort” to roll back and eliminate “job-crushing” regulations, and his decisions to clear the way for construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines.
He didn’t mention the “waters of the United States” rule directly, but earlier in the day Trump signed an executive order to withdraw and replace the measure issued by the Obama administration to expand the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act.
Several of Trump’s nominees who are awaiting confirmation by the Senate, including his pick for agriculture secretary, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, watched the speech from the gallery.
Trump provided few new details of his agenda for Congress. He didn’t, for example, say how he would pay for slashing individual and corporate taxes, although he seemed to hint at possibly supporting the House Republicans to restructure the corporate tax so that it falls on imported products but exempts export sales.
Trump said he wanted to make it easier for U.S. exporters to compete with foreign companies. “Currently, when we ship products out of America, many other countries make us pay very high tariffs and taxes – but when foreign companies ship their products into America, we charge them almost nothing,” Trump said.
Trump didn’t back down one iota from his tough talk on trade. He cited as one of his first achievements withdrawing from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. “I believe strongly in free trade but it also has to be fair trade,” he said. “It’s been a long time since we had fair trade.”
Then, in a direct challenge to his own party, he quoted “the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln,” as warning that the “abandonment of the protective policy by the American Government (will) produce want and ruin among our people.”
Trump’s remarks on immigration reform fell well short of reports before the speech that the president would support a major reform bill that provided some path to legalization for undocumented workers. Farms and processors that rely on immigrant labor have been holding out hope that Congress would pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would increase their access to legal foreign workers.
Trump instead emphasized the need to shift from low-skilled immigrants to a merit-based system that would “save countless dollars, raise workers' wages, and help struggling families, including immigrant families, enter the middle class.
“I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible, as long as we focus on the following goals: to improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation’s security, and to restore respect for our laws,” he said.
The president of the National Farmers Union, Roger Johnson, said Trump’s call to shift from lower-skilled immigrants “neglects the unique and important work that immigrant laborers provide for our nation’s food system and rural economies.”
Advocates on both sides of the issue felt Trump was staying tough on immigration.
Frank Sharry, founder of America’s Voice, which supports comprehensive immigration reform, said Trump was essentially calling for cutting legal immigration and increasing deportations.
Roy Beck, president of a advocacy group that favors relatively tight immigration limits, Numbers USA, tweeted praise for Trump’s “strong words” on immigration reform. “Media was in frenzy beforehand about pivot to amnesty,” Beck said.
Trump renewed his proposal to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure and to pay for it with a mix of public funding and private investment. That reliance on private spending has raised concerns among senators who say rural states can’t attract adequate private capital.
In the Democratic response to Trump’s address, former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear focused on attacking the GOP’s effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Beshear accused Trump of being “Wall Street’s champion.”
Beshear said Trump had nominated a “Cabinet of billionaires and Wall Street insiders who want to eviscerate the protections that most Americans count on and that help level the playing field.”
NFU’s Johnson also expressed concern about Trump’s pronouncements on trade, although he shared his group’s concern about the TPP. “While his focus on improving trade agreements is appreciated, our members are increasingly concerned about his earlier harsh rhetoric and the strain it has placed on our trading partners,” said Johnson.
Jim Matheson, president of the National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association, said Trump’s infrastructure plan should include broadband. “Any infrastructure package should address both rural and urban needs – and should prioritize expanded broadband access for rural America,” Matheson said.