James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:33 P.M. EDT
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. Happy Friday. Okay, so if it’s another day, we have another member of the Jobs Cabinet.
Joining us today is Secretary Buttigieg. He served, as you all know, two terms as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, where he worked across the aisle to transform the city’s future and improve residents’ everyday lives. Household income grew, poverty fell, unemployment was cut in half. He helped spark citywide job growth and facilitated innovative public-private partnerships, like a benefits program to improve the city’s transportation experience for workers.
One of the mayor’s initiatives, “Smart Streets,” led to benefits that included small-business growth along previously neglected corridors and hundreds of millions of dollars in new private investment in the once-emptying downtown.
He also served for seven years as an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, taking a leave of absence from the mayor’s office for a deployment to Afghanistan in 2014. And he is the first openly gay person confirmed to serve in a President’s Cabinet. I know you know a few things about him from the past.
He will take a few questions at the end. We kind of have a time limit, so, as always, I will be the bad cop. With that, I will turn it over.
SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Thank you. All right. Thanks a lot, Jen. And thanks, everyone. It’s a real honor to be here, especially at such an important and exciting moment for the country. I’m convinced that this is the best chance in our lifetimes to make a generational investment in infrastructure, and that’s what the American Jobs Plan does.
The need is clear. It’s growing by the day. After decades of underinvestment, we have fallen to 13th place globally in infrastructure. Delays caused by traffic congestion alone cost over $160 billion per year, and motorists are forced to pay over $1,000 every year in wasted time and fuel.
Americans are spending too much of their money on transportation in the wrong ways or don’t have access to it at all. And the American people are making clear to all of us, regardless of party, that they want us to get it done and they are not asking us to tinker around the edges.
We’ve risen to this challenge before as a country. In fact, building bold infrastructure has always been central to America’s story. We built the Erie Canal, we connected east to west through the transcontinental railroad, and we developed the Interstate Highway System. And each of those projects was audacious, was transformative, and — partly because it challenged the American people to expand our concept of infrastructure. But in doing so, these projects have transformed our nation for the better, and they fueled the U.S. economy and way of life for the long run. So now it’s our turn.
The American Jobs Plan will again transform America’s roads and bridges, rail and transit, ports and airports for the better. It’s going to help modernize our transportation infrastructure so we can compete in the 21st century and connect communities. It will create millions of good jobs in communities across the country.
I want to point out again that this is the biggest investment in American jobs since World War Two.
But I think it’s important to demystify the kinds of jobs that this plan is going to create. These are good jobs; they’re not mysterious or overly futuristic or inaccessible. We are going to need workers who are good with steel to make the cars and trucks of the future. We’re talking about building retrofits that are going to require union carpenters and insulators, painters, and glaziers. We’re going to need electrical workers more than ever. And we’re not going to be able to build the roads we need to build without construction workers, laborers, operating engineers. Plumbers and pipefitters are going to be a huge part of the story of how we overhaul those lead service lines.
So this is a jobs plan that is building America’s economy from the middle class out, coming at just the right time. It’s meeting the challenges that we face today. And it is fully paid for by making corporations pay their fair share.
We think it’s unacceptable that there are major profitable corporations in this country paying less in taxes than a teacher or a firefighter, not in terms of a percentage, but in terms of dollars — specifically, in many cases, paying zero.
And there’s been a lot of talk at this moment, as you know, about what infrastructure is and isn’t. I would argue that infrastructure is the foundation that makes it possible for people to live and work well. And you can’t live or work or thrive without things like roads, clean water, electricity, broadband — yes, that’s infrastructure. And investing in a full vision of infrastructure is how we build a safer and more prosperous America, and ultimately, I believe, critical to the American Dream.
So that’s why I’m thrilled to be in this role, delighted by the American Jobs Plan announcement, and spending time every day speaking to stakeholders about how to make sure we get it through.
MS. PSAKI: All right. It’s time to kick us off. Okay, Peter, go ahead.
Q Thank you. President Biden says he wants $80 billion for rail. And the other day he was talking about having trains that can go across the country as fast as a plane. I’m curious, as the Transportation Secretary, do you see a big demand for that — for a high-speed cross-country train?
SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Well, there’s definitely a lot of excitement around America about ensuring that the American people can enjoy a high standard of passenger rail service. Like the President, I don’t think Americans should settle for less than citizens in other countries enjoy as a matter of course.
Now, the truth is, we have a backlog to deal with, in addition to making sure that we can create new routes and new capacity. And what’s great about the scale of the American Jobs Plan is it’s going to support both of those things: maintenance that we’ve needed to do all along, and a chance to build new routes and expand what Americans can access.
Q And about how long away are we from something like a high-speed cross-country train?
SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Well, again, we need to add a lot — first of all — to what we’ve already got, but we can build new routes with the resources that are here. It’s not the end of the story, but it’s a fantastic beginning for a new chapter in American rail.
MS. PSAKI: Josh.
Q Thanks for doing this. As you know, there’s been some criticism about the corporate tax hike. Some people have said that user fees should fund infrastructure. And I was curious because user fees often cover the costs of maintenance and repairs. Does this administration have a plan to cover maintenance and repairs for all the infrastructure that’s being built?
SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: So, as you know, the Jobs Plan envisions this being covered through corporate taxes. And the President believes very strongly that this is not something that should burden ordinary American families at a time when we’ve got so many corporations that have paid literally zero.
And I also would argue that there’s ample evidence that American corporations can be competitive at a tax rate like 28, for the simple reason that they were extremely competitive at a tax rate like 35. If they could handle 35, surely they can handle 28, which was lower — of course, is lower — would be lower than it’s been for most of my lifetime.
Now, we’ve heard a lot of different ideas on what the payfors should be. I think this is a good time to take those inputs on board. But for my dime, it’s pretty hard to beat the vision that the President put forward.
Q Does there need to be a dedicated revenue stream?
SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Well, look, we’ll keep talking with Congress about this. But as you know, for some time we’ve seen general fund dollars going into supporting maintenance. So there are a lot of different ways to do this, but the best way I’ve seen — especially for these kind of capital improvements — is exactly what’s in the President’s plan.
MS. PSAKI: Mike.
Q Hi, Mr. Secretary. Having covered local — state and local government for almost 20 years before coming here, I’ve seen the divisions that can erupt in — within the state, between regions of the state over — as they fight over limited pots of money to build these kinds of infrastructure projects.
How involved do you think the federal government, the Department of Transportation, the Congress, the White House should be in making the inevitable choices that are going to have to be made, in terms of which bridge gets fixed first, which road gets widened?
You know, there’s obviously not enough money to fix everything and to do everything. And so, how much of a role do you envision playing? Or is it up to the states to kind of wage the wars they normally wage over this stuff?
SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Well, I think there’s always been a push/pull here — right? — because communities often know what is most needed for them. And we welcome that, and I think our program design recognizes that. So I view our role as laying out the broad policy strokes.
Even in the existing discretionary grant programs, you’ve seen this. So, for example, with the INFRA — formerly known as FAST grants — we made sure that that first wave of calls for applications clarified that we’re looking for great projects that also bear on things like equity and climate that are important to this administration. And you’ll continue to see that in the program design.
Of course, there’s always going to be competition for limited funds. But the other thing I would say is: That competition is most ferocious when the funds are most limited. And so, part of what we’re trying to do here is make sure there’s an ample set of resources to go around so that some communities may be the most successful in rounds of competition, but that it doesn’t feel like other computies [sic] — communities are being left behind, because we’ve got to make sure there’s enough to raise the bar in the country as a whole.
Q And just one quick follow-up on that. To the extent that then a lot of that decision making gets pushed to the local level because that’s where they know that the — you know, how to allocate the needs, how does the federal government retain oversight over what is an enormous amount of money — both in terms of, you know, just, sort of, waste, fraud, and abuse, but also in terms of making sure that — you know, that it adheres to those kind of broader equit- — equity, you know, issues that you guys have talked so much about?
SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Yeah, I mean, that’s a big responsibility for a department like mine that will be charged with carrying this out. And the President has already made clear his very high expectations for us in the Rescue Plan dollars. Right? That’s about $40 billion, just out of the Rescue Plan, that we got to manage well.
But, you know, he also rightly takes pride in the remarkably low rate of waste, fraud, and abuse in the — in the Recovery Act that he led in the Obama administration. I think now is the moment to make sure we double down on those principles to make sure that the dollars are well spent.
And, yes, we got to make sure that they actually meet the public policy goals that are motivating us to do this in the first place.
MS. PSAKI: Ed.
Q Secretary, thanks for doing this. Although with you and Chris here, I’m having like alternative universe flashbacks to — (laughter) — other times and other places. Since you’re Transportation Secretary — travel, obviously a big part of what you have to worry about. To Americans eager to get back overseas, whether it’s by plane or by cruise ship — as you know, there have been questions about the cruise industry, especially this past week.
CDC issued some guidance; there’s concerns that it perhaps didn’t have enough specifics — or specific benchmarks, I guess. Have you been in touch with the CDC about that industry’s concerns? And to cruise industry leaders who say, “We should be treated more like the airlines,” what would you say?
SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Well, the bottom line is safety. Right? And we’ve — look, I’m the Secretary of Transportation; I can’t wait for us all to be on the move as much as possible in a safe and responsible way, but it’s got to be safe and responsible. And airlines have — airplanes have one safety profile; cruise ships have another, vehicles have another. And each one needs to be treated based on what’s safe for that sector.
I’ll tell you, I certainly care a lot about seeing the cruise sector thrive. And I know that CDC is hopeful that a lot of these operators will be in a position to be sailing by mid-summer. And laying out these specific, kind of, gates that they need to get through is a very important step toward that.
Q And to the industry leaders who say mid-summer is too late, to the governors who say that’s too late for our state economies, you would say what?
SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: We want to do this as soon as we responsibly can, but we also have to make sure that it’s safe.
MS. PSAKI: All right. Steve?
Q Once you get the money from the Rescue Plan, is there a process for speeding the projects that you’re getting construction started? Because there’s always delays and permitting and so forth.
SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Yeah, this is another thing that I was glad to see specifically discussed in the Jobs Plan release, which is the importance of efficiently delivering these dollars. And we see that a lot of countries that have very rigorous standards around environmental and other concerns also have found ways to make sure the delivery is efficient.
So provided it does not entail cutting any corners on things that are fundamental policy goals and legal requirements like, you know, environmental standards — you know, provided we can do it without cutting corners, I think we can find ways to make sure that the process is more efficient, to look for duplication, and try to root that out.
And that’s going to be an important part of making sure that these dollars do the most good economically. Although I would point out this is not the same kind of stimulus pattern we were talking about in 2009. Right? We’re looking for shovel-worthy projects, but we’re also looking — or shovel-ready projects but also shovel-worthy projects that are still in that pipeline.
MS. PSAKI: Jenny?
Q To pivot, really quickly, to planes: There’s been problems discovered with the 737 MAX. Dozens of them have been grounded, and this was months after the FAA said they were safe to fly again. I’m curious if you still have confidence in the FAA’s decision to lift the grounding of the jet.
SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: So, my understanding — and we’re just looking at this — but my understanding is that this is different from any of those other issues and that — obviously, that we need to make sure that they are — that there’s full confidence before these specific aircraft return to the air. And that’s what the FAA will be closely monitoring.
MS. PSAKI: Patsy.
Q Thank you. Mr. Secretary, many administration officials, including Secretary Granholm yesterday, frame infrastructure in the context of competition with China. So my question is: Why do that? Why design and frame a policy based — or in the context of what an adversary is doing?
SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: I think because it’s really important to understand that American competitiveness happens in a context. And when you see other countries — our allies; also our strategic competitors — doing more than we are, it challenges that fundamental idea that American life is what it is partly because America is in first place in so many of these aspects of our national life. Only America is not in first place in infrastructure. Like I said, we’re in 13th.
So when you have a strategic competitor, like China, investing sometimes multiples of what we are in forms of transportation, we have to make a decision about whether we’re content to be left behind or whether we actually want to remain number one.
And for my dime, there’s no good reason why we should settle for less, why we should be content that — it’s nothing against Chinese citizens, but I’m not content that a Chinese citizen can count on a dramatically better standard of, let’s say, train travel than a U.S. citizen. I think Americans should always have the best, and I think that’s the tone that the President sets every day.
Q Just to follow up on that, is it partly also a messaging strategy to get more Republican support?
SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Well, I’ll say that I’ve heard a lot of voices from across the aisle also expressing concern about whether America is falling behind in any number of strategic and economic dimensions.
And again, a lot of that depends on what we’re investing. And this is nothing new. Right? I mean, part of what made the Interstate Highway System so important was an understanding that our national security, in the Eisenhower era, was well served by making sure that we had a more connected economy and country.
We’re not in the Cold War, and this is not the Eisenhower era, but that principle that national security is at stake applies, especially when you consider that, today, one of the biggest threats to our national security is the global security threat posed by climate change.
MS. PSAKI: We have time for a few more. Go ahead, Kaitlan.
Q Have you personally spoken with Senator Manchin about this proposal?
SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: I’m looking forward to speaking with him soon.
Q This next week? Or —
SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: I don’t remember the date, but I think we got a conversation in the works.
Q And he, of course, has an issue with the corporate tax rate going to 28 percent. Is — in his proposal — his counter proposal — it’s been 25 percent. Can this plan be successful with a 25 percent corporate tax rate?
SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Well, as you know, the — maybe the flagship piece that people are talking about most is the rate, but there’s a lot of other things alongside that — right? — in terms of what’s going on with loopholes, the offshoring incentives, and other things.
And I haven’t had a chance to get a sense of how he views those things adding up — whether he envisions another element that makes up for the gap between 25 and 28. Those are the kinds of things I want to take up with him and get a — have a good conversation on.
Because I think, you know, for anyone who is on board — and, by the way, I have yet to talk to anybody who — including in conversations with Republicans — who is against the idea of a big investment in infrastructure. Right?
So most of the dialogue we’re having is around how we’re going to pay for it, and we’re really eager to hear the alternative suggestions for how to pay for it.
Q And have Republicans given you, so far, alternative suggestions for how to pay for it that you believe are viable?
SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Not in any detail, no.
MS. PSAKI: Alana?
Q Just to follow up on what Kaitlan said because she actually asked my question. (Laughs.)
MS. PSAKI: Some coordination. (Laughter.)
Q Not in coordination. But you would be oppo- — so you would be willing to lower the corporate tax rate in exchange for maybe closing additional loopholes? Or — like, the 28 percent, is that a fixed rate that you are dead set on?
SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Well, we’ve heard the President say that this is going to be a process of negotiation, that we’re going to take ideas on board, that there’s going to be refinement as we go.
I haven’t heard a proposal that I consider to be better than the one the President put forward, but it’s early in that legislative process.
MS. PSAKI: Rob, make it a good one.