We keep hearing that there are three areas of potential compromise between the new GOP congressional majority and Democrats, President Obama included: trade, tax reform and infrastructure. The first appears real; the second less so.
But when it comes to the third — infrastructure spending — it would be nice if there actually were potential for agreement. Perhaps the most likely vehicle for a deal on infrastructure involves an agreement on long-term funding of the Highway Trust Fund, via a hike in the gas tax. Barring this, it’s hard to imagine the new Congress supporting any other kind of jobs-related spending.
So it’s unfortunate that House Speaker John Boehner, speaking to reporters Thursday, dumped a few gallons of cold water on the idea of a gas tax hike: “I’ve never voted to raise the gas tax. Funding a highway bill is critically important. It’s a priority for this year. How we’ll fund it, we’re going to have to work our way through this. It’s doubtful that the votes are here to raise the gas tax.”
Asked for clarification, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel e-mailed: “The Speaker doesn’t support a gas tax hike. Period.”
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There appears to be a bit of disagreement among top Republicans on this. Three Senate committee chairmen — John Thune, Jim Inhofe and Orrin Hatch — have all refused to take the idea off the table. GOP Sen. Bob Corker has already teamed up with Democrat Chris Murphy to offer a gas-tax-hike proposal. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said no to any gas tax increase.
The Highway Trust Fund — thanks to a short-term funding fix passed by Congress last year — will start to run dry this spring. It funds hundreds of transportation projects. Oil and gas prices are down, which theoretically should make the politics of this easier. The gas tax has been unchanged for two decades, and the value of the revenue it collects has plummeted because of inflation and developments in fuel efficiency. Long-term funding would provide local planners the certainty they need to pursue big projects. What’s more, a recent study found that Highway Trust Fund spending has a host of positive economic effects, from productivity enhancements to job creation.
Democrats, too, have been reluctant, for political reasons, to embrace a gas tax hike. But the other day, Senate leader Dick Durbin came out for raising it. People who follow the gas tax debate closely believe this leaves little doubt that Democrats would ultimately support a hike. As Politico put it, “The real opposition lies in the GOP wings.”
Business groups want the GOP to act. Michael O’Brien, a spokesman for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, e-mails: “Speaker Boehner, there’s a first time for everything, including doing the responsible thing, which is adjusting gas taxes to sustainably fund the Highway Trust Fund while oil prices are at record lows.” But for now, it’s anything but clear that Republicans are willing to take this step.
If Congress can’t reach a deal to fund the Highway Trust Fund through higher gas taxes at this particular political moment, what possible deal can it reach that would involve new revenue for spending on infrastructure?
Excerpted from washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line
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