An Issue Running on Empty

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 unrelentingtaxpayer advocates left on Capitol Hill these days, says he wants to "hang the gastax issue around Al Gore's neck." That makes eminent sense. Particularly whenthe 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, apreposterous argument given that approximately 40 percent of the cost you and I pay atthe 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 beteed up any more enticingly? The answer is that Republicans got scared off. Intheir first big showdown with Al Gore they blinked first. Mr. Gore has a newbest 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 haveyour bicycle path or parking garage money slashed.

It turns out Bud believes exactly what Al Gore believes. "The suggestionto reduce the gas tax is a feel-good proposal that would not solve theproblem," he told his colleagues. Hmm, sounds exactly like the vice president. It was almost plagiarism. And like lambs, the rest of the Republicans followedBud over the political cliff. In fact, the next thing you know Denny Hastertis 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 repealingthe Clinton-Gore gas tax increase were two powerful special interest groupsthat 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 pressuregroups had their way, the gas tax would be raised, not lowered.

So now the congressional Republicans are refusing to repeal a tax thatnot one of them actually voted for when Bill Clinton proposed it in 1993. Backin 1993, they mercilessly savaged their Democratic colleagues for this taxincrease on the backs of working class Americans.

Well, they may not have voted for it seven years ago. But today they areas 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. Thisis old-fashioned tax, spend, elect politics. On this issue, the Republicansnow are more reprehensible than the Democrats: they're both big spenders, butthe Republicans are tax hypocrites as well.

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

The political ramifications of the GOP surrender on the Gore tax arehuge. Give Al Gore the first knockout punch in the presidential sweepstakes. Hehas 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'tDick Armey. It isn't Trent Lott. Ladies and Gentlemen, the acting speaker ofthe 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 thespendaholics in his own party. He must announce that under a Bush administration thetax would be cut lickety-split -- irrespective of what "Speaker" Shuster has tosay. Mr. Bush should denounce congressional timidity on tax cuts. Especiallywhen 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 thisyear.