It doesn’t happen often, but Washington is now debating an important issue on which the United States Chamber of Commerce, Senator James Inhofe, R-Okla., Fox News pundit Charles Krauthammer, and a growing posse of assorted right-wingers are right — and President Barack Obama is wrong.
Those voices on the right, along with many on the left, are urging consideration of an increase in the federal gasoline tax, sorely needed both to maintain America’s transportation infrastructure and to reduce greenhouse gases. Yet for reasons best known to him alone, the president is resisting that excellent idea.
As every sentient American adult knows, the price of gasoline at the pump has fallen precipitously in recent months. Filling a 20-gallon tank today costs about $30 less than buying the same volume of gas cost last summer. To raise the federal gas tax by 15 cents per gallon would only recoup 10 percent of that consumer bonanza — and would bring tax revenues roughly in line with inflation since the last time an increase passed in 1993.
Since then, of course, America’s roads, bridges, tunnels and transit systems have continued to decay, without sufficient funding or will to keep them in decent condition. Congressional revulsion at raising taxes, thanks to the mania enforced by Grover Norquist at the misnamed Americans for Tax Reform, has left the Highway Trust Fund on the brink of bankruptcy since last year. A modest gas tax increase would begin to solve the problem, at least for the transportation sector. (The rest of the nation’s infrastructure — everything from airports and dams to state universities, public buildings and water mains — is falling apart, too, but that will require bigger solutions.)
Were we inclined, as a nation, to consider what we owe both our ancestors and our descendants, Washington would have embarked on a program of national reconstruction years ago, to take advantage of negligible interest rates, an idled labor force and under-utilized capital. No comparable opportunity to rebuild cheaply and efficiently, while creating the kinds of jobs that support families, has existed since the Great Depression.
And much of what we now take (and use) for granted was built in those years, and in the early postwar decades, when public works were widely seen as a public good.
But the ideologues that now dominate our politics under the rubric of “conservative” are not in the business of conserving anything — not our natural resources, not our environment and certainly not our infrastructure. Their frothing opposition to government and taxation has actively encouraged decay. Today, the radicals represented by the tea party and Americans for Prosperity (another misnomer) will seek to block even a very modest gas tax increase, as they are doing on the state level in Iowa — without any plausible proposal for essential infrastructure repair.
Ask for their alternative solution to financing infrastructure, and the geniuses at the Heritage Foundation, for instance, demand an end to transit spending and a cut in construction wages. Others on the right simply mumble about “reducing waste.” What they don’t propose is a plausible, equitable, sustainable way to rebuild.
These people shouldn’t call themselves the tea party. With their strange urge to ruin the transportation systems that made this the strongest country in the world, they’re more like a Termite Party. Termite is also the proper term for Republicans in the House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner brags that he has never, ever voted to increase the gas tax. (After all, it doesn’t fund golf courses or tanning beds.)
The limits to such madness may be on the horizon, however. When a right-wing stalwart like Inhofe — a noted climate denier and stooge of the oil industry — acknowledges that a gas tax increase may be inevitable, then sanity could break out, even on Capitol Hill.
For President Obama to situate himself among irrational opponents of an increase is perplexing. Perhaps if enough Republicans and corporate leaders insist on a gas tax hike, he will abandon that position and join their ranks. And then at last, the “bipartisan” approach he still cherishes, against so much evidence, might produce something of value to this country.