WASHINGTON -- As gas prices nationwide continue to plummet, advocates for enhanced federal investment in transportation are sensing a rare political opening.
A hike in the federal gas tax -- so these advocates argue -- would have a smaller psychological impact at a time like this, when the cost of filling up is low. Congress should therefore raise the tax, for what would be the first time since 1993, in order to replenish the federal highway trust fund, which is set to run out of money around the end of May.
President Barack Obama met with members of the Business Roundtable, a group of CEOs of major companies, on Wednesday. During that meeting, Fred Smith, the CEO of FedEx and a huge booster of transportation spending, made the case for raising the gas tax, saying the move has support among Democrats, Republicans and the labor and business communities.
“Why not, before the Congress goes home for December, just pass a bill that takes the two bipartisan bills that I just mentioned, up, and solves the problem?” said Smith.
The event was only available on audio feed, so it was impossible to know how the president reacted. But one could imagine a sly grin on his face. If only it were so simple.
While advocates for a higher gas tax may be buoyed by the current oil market, and while they are certainly arguing their case with more vigor than in the past, most elected federal officials remain unmoved. Though Smith spoke of bipartisan bills in both chambers, the truth is that only a handful of Senate Republicans support the concept. In the House, meanwhile, there is only one Republican lawmaker who has co-sponsored a bill to raise the gas tax. And he's retiring in January.
“No one likes taxes,” Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) said Tuesday in an interview with The Huffington Post. “But the issue is whether we should pay for transportation, or cut back on spending and transportation and have less roads and poorer infrastructure, or borrow it from our kids -- debt financing it and hoping someone pays the debt off at a future date. And of those choices, it seems to me that the most responsible long-term approach is to do the thing that is unpopular but necessary.”
A member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Petri is a moderate voice in a party that has drifted toward its base. He is a member of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group that promotes centrism in the party. And he has been a vocal advocate for infrastructure of all kinds. In 2012, he received the Wisconsin Bike Federation’s Hero Award for his work as the Republican co-chair of the Congressional Bicycle Caucus.
So his support of a higher gas tax isn’t shocking news. This past spring, he began forcefully making the case that the nation’s infrastructure needs are great and that the public would not punish politicians who ask them to help re-invest.
“I think there are a lot of people out there who would be willing to [take] an increasingly small political hit now that the price of gasoline is dropping, if it were to actually achieve the result of responsibly funding our transportation program for five to six years,” Petri told The Huffington Post.
But thus far, there aren't many other lawmakers who seem to believe their constituents would forgive them for supporting a higher gas tax. On Wednesday, Petri joined Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) to push for the UPDATE Act, which would raise the gas tax by 15 cents over three years and then tie it to inflation. Blumenauer and Petri are currently the only co-sponsors of the bill.
Petri’s singular status within the House Republican conference suggests that Smith's argument to Obama -- that a bill could somehow be crafted within the next few days -- is far-fetched at best. But Petri insists it’s only ideology that’s holding it up. The press conference that he and Blumenauer hosted also “featured” Ronald Reagan, who agreed to a gas tax hike when he was president and did a Saturday morning radio address to explain it. (Petri and Blumenauer played the audio of Reagan's address on Wednesday, accompanied by a cardboard cutout of the former president for visual effect.) In the Senate, meanwhile, Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has come out in favor of a gas tax hike, and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) has warned that the tax needs to be raised. And last year, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that $15 billion would be needed in 2015 to maintain highway trust fund spending levels -- and suggested "raising the taxes on motor fuels by about 10 cents per gallon" as one possible solution.
So Petri’s not exactly a pariah. But he has shown a willingness to go further than others. Corker’s proposal, co-written with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), would raise the tax by 12 cents over two years before tying it to inflation. And it would offset that hike with tax relief elsewhere -- something the UPDATE Act doesn’t do.
Petri offered several explanations for why no other House Republicans have made themselves vulnerable on the gas tax -- the obvious being that the majority of his colleagues have signed pledges never to hike taxes at all. But on this, Petri argues, the difference is a matter of semantics. If you think of the gas tax as a user fee, i.e. the cost of being able to use federal infrastructure, then you aren’t impeded by that pledge.
The other theory is more surprising. Petri says that a lot of House Republicans won’t support a gas tax hike because Obama, likewise, has not backed the proposal.
“There has been a vacuum of leadership there that is different than when Bill Clinton was president or Ronald Reagan was president or George Bush was president,” he said. “I think that, especially now, with the gas prices plummeting from 4 dollars plus to 3 dollars minus, and the fact that it is after the election ... there is a clear need, and it is the responsible thing to do. So, yes, it would help [to have Obama support the idea].”
The Obama administration has steadfastly rejected the idea of a gas tax hike. But as the U.S. Highway Trust Fund neared depletion this past summer, the administration softened its opposition. A spokesman for the Department of Transportation said in June that the agency would be “open to ideas that Congress comes up with,” while the White House left some wiggle room by saying merely that it didn’t have “plans to propose an increase in the gas tax.”
But this only puts the president in the same position as many of Petri’s colleagues: willing, perhaps, to support a hike in the gas tax, but unwilling to proactively push for it. Responding to Smith’s proposal that he get a bill done in the lame-duck session, the president suggested Wednesday that he’d love to live in a world where that was feasible.
“If I were running Congress, I would potentially take you up on that offer or suggestion,” he said.
“In fairness to members of Congress, votes on gas tax are really tough," Obama went on. "Gas prices are one of those things that really bug people. When they go up, they are greatly attuned to them. When they go down, they don’t go down enough. And so, historically, I think there has been great hesitance."