WASHINGTON — There’s a simple, popular solution that Republican leaders in Congress could grab hold of to get themselves out of their embarrassing public fight over the highway bill, and President Barack Obama could help force them to do it.
That solution is to raise the gas tax, said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who explained in an interview with The Huffington Post how the GOP could come around to an idea that is currently heretical to Republican anti-tax purists, including the chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who has adamantly rejected hiking fuel taxes.
The matter is of increasing urgency because Congress on Thursday is expected to pass the 34th short-term extension of the fund that pays for highway and transit construction across the nation. This would prevent construction projects from shutting down on Saturday, when the previous extension runs out. But the new stopgap is only for three months, leaving lawmakers just until October to craft a long-term measure.
The key question is how to pay for the vital, expensive work of maintaining and building infrastructure. A Senate bill that would cover six years (and is also expected to pass Thursday) only found money to fund three years of the work, mostly by raiding the federal government’s figurative couch cushions for one-time payments, such as selling oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
The House didn’t even try for a long-term bill. It passed a five-month plan, then resorted to the three-month version after Republican House leaders couldn’t agree with Republican Senate leaders on the Senate plan.
Still, every leader says the long-term bill is their goal. For Blumenauer, the answer is for Obama to embrace the temporary bill and lay down a marker to hike the gas tax, which has remained at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993, even as inflation has eroded the value and cars drive more miles on less fuel.
“I would hope that the president would say, 'No more. I’ll give you guys three months. Get down to business,’” Blumenauer said.
Ryan has flatly rejected raising the gas tax. In a recent hearing on funding road projects, he told the American Trucking Associations, which favors a hike, that Republicans wouldn’t do it.
Blumenauer, however, argued that Republicans could be made to see the light, as a half-dozen GOP-led states have in raising their own fuel taxes.
“This is a legislative process, where presumably things that make sense and have support can be considered,” Blumenauer said.
“This is not something that is likely to be stand-alone legislation, but it could be something that in the back and forth between the House and the Senate could emerge. It’s the best solution, it’s the most effective solution, and it is the most widely supported solution.”
Indeed, aside from unlikely backers such as truckers -- who pay an extra 24.4 cents a gallon for diesel because of the tax -- the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others hostile to raising revenue have suggested raising the gas tax.
The simple idea is that people who want to drive on safe bridges and smooth roads with fewer delays are willing to see a higher gas tax as a well-spent user fee.
“In three months, we could put this together and stop the nonsense. We could put hundreds of thousands of people to work at family-wage jobs in less than six months, and we’d be able to help improve the quality of life and the environment in every state in every community across the country,” Blumenauer said.
One thing is certain: There will have to be a back and forth between the Senate and the House to pass a long-term highway and transit bill. The Senate may pass its version Thursday, but there is no equivalent in the House. If the House passes something entirely different in that three-month window, it will mean the two chambers have to work out a compromise. And as unlikely as it may seem, considering the House leaders’ rhetoric, Blumenauer’s idea could at least have a chance.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.