WASHINGTON -- Just hours after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell argued that the president wants to raise gas prices by hiking taxes, a senior member of his caucus argued that is exactly what needs to be done to preserve the nation's transportation system.
McConnell (R-Ky.) argued that President Barack Obama's call to end about $4 billion a year in subsidies for oil companies amounted to a tax hike that would be passed on to the consumer and hurt the economy.
“If higher gas prices hurt the economy, then why in the world is the administration calling for higher taxes on energy manufacturers?" McConnell said. “We know these taxes would drive up the price at the pump and send jobs overseas. If the president wants to drive prices down, he should stop calling for them."
But just a few hours later, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) took to the Senate floor to make the case for a measure that would impact consumers far more directly -- raising the federal fuel tax.
Offering an amendment to the $109 billion transportation bill that the Senate is working on, Enzi argued that the gas tax was failing to keep up with its intended purpose of funding the federal highway trust fund because it was never adjusted for inflation.
That means that while the tax of 18.3 cents a gallon set in 1993 has stayed constant, the effects of inflation make it worth less, and it accounts for a smaller and smaller share of the cost of gasoline, which has roughly quadrupled since then.
Enzi is not alone in thinking the fuel tax needs to be fixed. In fact, it's one of the goals of transportation advocates who have watched in alarm as the trust fund has been increasingly squeezed. The Wyoming senator noted that by 2016, it will be more than $50 billion in the red if the revenue stream is not adjusted.
While Enzi's proposal might make sense from a policy perspective, he recognized it would not be popular in a Senate where gas prices are a political weapon.
"This isn't a new idea and it certainly isn't a very popular discussion point," said Enzi. "Several of my colleagues have said to me, 'This just isn't the time to be talking about the gas tax.' I must ask, when will the time be right? Members of Congress don't want to tackle this topic when the economy is strong, nor do they want to tackle the topic when we have economic challenges."
And he argued that he was not exactly talking about a big tax.
"If this amendment had been enacted last year, in 2011, this January -- the tax doesn't go into effect until the January after the inflation is measured -- this January the tax would have been increased by one half of one penny," he said. "The price of a gallon fluctuates more than that on a daily basis."
And Enzi noted that while those high gasoline prices have not helped fund road and bridge work, they have made such projects more expensive.
"Don't you think construction costs have increased based on the cost of a gallon of gas alone?" he said. "Remember the gas tax is what's paid for roads and bridges, but can't anymore, causing us to use very bad financing methods."
Enzi argued that it was time for Congress to be honest and raise the tax, even if there is resistance, especially in spread-out states like his.
"I know there are a lot of sensitivities in talking about the rate of the gas tax or any other tax," Enzi said. "There's no doubt that individuals and businesses are still stressed in this economy and are struggling to make ends meet. People in rural states like Wyoming have few options driving long distances for many of their needs.
"We are pennies away from insolvency of the highway trust fund," he added. "When's the right time to talk about the revenue stream for the highway trust fund? We need to start today," he said.
It did not seem likely, however, that his amendment would advance. Democratic and Republican staff sources doubted leaders would allow it to be added to the transportation measure, and one called his speech a "floor statement," suggesting that was all that would come of it.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.
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