Commentary

An Issue Running on Empty

By Stephen Moore
This article first appeared in the Washington Times, March 19, 2000.
It was an economically sensible and politically shrewd plan. It had the Democrats — particularly Al Gore — on the run. The proposal: repeal the Clinton-Gore gas tax increase to give motorists some relief from high prices.

Sen. Larry Craig, Idaho Republican and one of the few unrelenting taxpayer advocates left on Capitol Hill these days, says he wants to “hang the gas tax issue around Al Gore’s neck.” That makes eminent sense. Particularly when the vice president seems so accommodating in sticking his head out.

Mr. Gore sounded mealy-mouthed and defensive when he attacked the tax cut plan for taking money away from road building. Taxes aren’t the problem, Mr. Gore said, reflexively and unconvincingly. That is, of course, a preposterous argument given that approximately 40 percent of the cost you and I pay at the pump is taxes. Taxes are precisely the problem. Republicans should vote immediately in the House and Senate on repealing the Gore gas tax.

The vote hasn’t happened. It looks like it is not going to happen. Why? What explains this act of monumental political idiocy? Can the ball be teed up any more enticingly? The answer is that Republicans got scared off. In their first big showdown with Al Gore they blinked first. Mr. Gore has a new best friend in Congress. His name is Rep. Bud Shuster, Pennsylvania Republican. He is the House Transportation Committee czar in Washington. He passes out billions of dollars of road pork every year. Mess with Bud and you may have your bicycle path or parking garage money slashed.

It turns out Bud believes exactly what Al Gore believes. “The suggestion to reduce the gas tax is a feel-good proposal that would not solve the problem,” he told his colleagues. Hmm, sounds exactly like the vice president. It was almost plagiarism. And like lambs, the rest of the Republicans followed Bud over the political cliff. In fact, the next thing you know Denny Hastert is dutifully echoing the Gore-Shuster spin: The gas tax cut would provide “scant relief.” Hey, scant relief is better than no relief.

The pre-emptive surrender makes it necessary to fight back nausea.

It didn’t help matters much that also ferociously opposed to repealing the Clinton-Gore gas tax increase were two powerful special interest groups that have their snouts firmly entrenched in the federal trough: the Associated General Contractors and the American Road Transportation Builders. A party truly dedicated to smaller and smarter government should be opposed to everything these corporate welfare queens are for. If these pressure groups had their way, the gas tax would be raised, not lowered.

So now the congressional Republicans are refusing to repeal a tax that not one of them actually voted for when Bill Clinton proposed it in 1993. Back in 1993, they mercilessly savaged their Democratic colleagues for this tax increase on the backs of working class Americans.

Well, they may not have voted for it seven years ago. But today they are as eager, if not more so, than the Democrats to spend the extra $5 billion to $7 billion a year that the Gore-Shuster tax brings in for highway pork. This is old-fashioned tax, spend, elect politics. On this issue, the Republicans now are more reprehensible than the Democrats: they’re both big spenders, but the Republicans are tax hypocrites as well.

This year gas prices may rise to as high as $2 a gallon. That’s a regressive tax, folks, on motorists. It will cost American households tens of billions of dollars in extra Mobil and Chevron credit card bills. Republicans now presumably want to leave our energy policy in the capable hands of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. How reassuring. We should be repealing the entire federal gas tax to counteract this price inflation. We should be repealing the Energy Department. Get Washington, Al Gore, Bill Richardson and especially Bud Shuster out of the business of setting energy policy and building roads.

The political ramifications of the GOP surrender on the Gore tax are huge. Give Al Gore the first knockout punch in the presidential sweepstakes. He has flattened the congressional Republicans who are down on their backs for the eight-count. This doesn’t bode well under a President Gore scenario.

We also now know who runs Congress. It isn’t Denny Hastert. It isn’t Dick Armey. It isn’t Trent Lott. Ladies and Gentlemen, the acting speaker of the House: Bud Shuster, arguably the biggest spender in the history of the GOP.

Where is George W. Bush? Mr. Bush now has a spectacular political opportunity to look and act presidential. He can demonstrate he has the gravitas to manhandle not just Mr. Gore, but Congress — even the spendaholics in his own party. He must announce that under a Bush administration the tax would be cut lickety-split — irrespective of what “Speaker” Shuster has to say. Mr. Bush should denounce congressional timidity on tax cuts. Especially when the cowards are Republicans.

If he did this, he would have my vote and no doubt millions of other motorists who are going to be suffering tax-induced road rage later this year.

Stephen Moore is director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute.