Republicans Backing A Gas Tax Increase? Actually, We’ve Seen This Before

Isaiah J. Poole

This week there are signs of a crack in the no-tax-increase-no-way-no-how stance of the Republican Party in Congress.

Now that they have control of both the House and the Senate, it is the Republicans’ turn to figure out on their own how to pay for the federal program that helps maintain and expand the nation’s transportation system, the authorization for which expires this spring. And that means looking at the federal gasoline tax, which is the primary source of funding for the program and which hasn’t increased one iota since 1993.

A small but potentially influential number of Senate Republicans are making news by leaving the door open – finally – to a gasoline tax increase, among them Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

But before you check the window to see if pigs are flying, it pays to remember that we’ve seen this before when it comes to transportation funding.

In fact, not only have Republicans in recent memory made tentative statements about being “open” to raising the gasoline tax, a group of Republican House members have actually voted to do it.

That happened in March 2004, when the Republican-dominated House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, then led by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), voted unanimously for a $375 billion transportation bill that would have included a five-cent increase in the 18.4-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax.

To be sure, the vote was something of a bipartisan act of defiance. Democrats on the committee at that time firmly believed that a $375 billion investment in the nation’s transportation network – with all of the jobs that would be created – was the least the nation could do. But Young, an old-school, bring-home-the-bacon lawmaker who would later become infamous for the “bridge to nowhere” in his district that the bill funded, resented President Bush’s veto threat of anything that raised taxes and increased spending, including for transportation. And the speaker of the House at that time, Rep. Dennis Hastert, didn’t support the bill, either. So the vote to send the full bill to the House floor with a gasoline tax increase attached was a symbolic act. What really got considered by the full House was a trimmed-down $275 billion bill, with no gas tax increase, that the committee sent to the floor at the same time. By the time that bill got to President Bush’s desk, it was $244 billion.

That history could lead one to take today’s statements of openness to a gasoline tax increase with a grain of salt. Or it could suggest that there is a wedge that champions of infrastructure investment can use to push a bold bill through what looks on the surface to be a hostile Congress.

The arguments for increasing the gas tax, at least in the short run, are compelling. By freezing the tax in the face of rising costs, fewer projects are getting funded and we’re dipping into general revenues to pay for what we do fund. A decaying transportation network in which demand outstrips capacity is a drain on economic growth, and the work of correcting those conditions will produce much needed jobs and economic revitalization. Plus, the principle of a gasoline tax is that the burden is shared roughly in proportion to who uses the transportation system the most. (For more arguments, the American Society of Civil Engineers has prepared rebuttals to 10 myths about the highway trust fund and gasoline taxes.)

Of course, there are other ways to fund the transportation investments we need, but progressives have yet to build the political momentum for those alternatives. While that work continues, we can build on what we have. The door is open to a gasoline tax increase, you say? Let’s see you walk through it.

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