Washington’s refusal to consider raising the gas tax is simple politics. GOP leaders would risk an insurrection from the right if they were to support, let alone propose, a tax hike of any kind. President Obama and congressional Democrats, meanwhile, have no interest in providing their opponents with the raw material for an election-year attack ad. (One notable exception: Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who last year introduced a bill to phase in a 15-cent hike in the gas tax and then index it to inflation. Tellingly, that bill has gone nowhere.) As a whole, politicians have been so loath to endorse the solution staring them in the face that the idea has been relegated to a parenthetical even off the Hill. As a recent report from Chris Krueger, a policy analyst at Guggenheim Securities LLC, tellingly put it: “There is not a silver bullet, other than the most obvious (raise the gas tax and index to inflation).”
There’s little argument among policy experts that those who drive on America’s roads should pay more to prevent them from falling further into a state of disrepair, and study after study has suggested that raising the gas tax is the easiest way to do that in the immediate future. In 2008, the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, a congressionally created blue-ribbon transportation panel, proposed a 40-cent bump to the federal gasoline tax, along with the increased use of tolls and other user fees. A second congressionally created panel, the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission, echoed those finding the following year, backing an increase to federal fuel taxes followed by a transition to a system where Americans are charged for every mile they drive.
Support for a gas tax hike isn’t reserved for policy wonks either. It also has the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, as well as environmental organizations and climate hawks that see it as a way to curb greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.
Presidents in particular have a long history of being against a gas tax hike until they ultimately sign one into law. Months before Ronald Reagan signed on to a 5-cent increase to the then-4-cents-a-gallon tax, he famously declared that it would take nothing short of a “palace coup” for him to do so. George H.W. Bush eventually attempted to sidestep his “no new taxes” pledge to raise the tax another 5 cents, although that ultimately crashed head-first into Newt Gingrich and his fellow House Republicans.* Bill Clinton, too, bashed the idea of an increase while on the campaign trail in 1992, before later signing his own 4.3-cent-per-gallon tax hike in his first year in office.
But more recent history suggests such days of good policy winning out over good politics are behind us. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta quietly pushed for a series of 2-cent increases beginning in 2005 but ultimately was rebuffed by President George W. Bush. Obama’s first Transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, learned a similar lesson but had the misfortune of being taught it in public. Early on in his Cabinet tenure, the former Republican congressman told reporters that it was time for lawmakers to consider either raising the gas tax and tying it to inflation or charging Americans on a per-mile-traveled basis. That suggestion was quickly slapped aside by the White House. “It is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration,” then–White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters.
The White House declared this week Infrastructure Week in hopes of drawing attention to the nation’s transportation woes. As part of the effort, Obama will give a speech near New York’s Tappan Zee Bridge, where he is expected to renew his calls for more funding while studiously avoiding any mention of raising the gas tax.
As for LaHood, he ultimately learned to keep his mouth shut, but his views never changed. “If Congress would have indexed the gas tax in 1993 when it was raised, we wouldn’t be having this problem now,” he said earlier this year. “We’d have the money.”
Update, May 16, 2014: This post has been updated to clarify Newt Gingrich's role in blocking President George H.W. Bush's bid to raise the federal gas tax. (Return.)