When he meets with Democratic congressional leaders Wednesday, a key question will be whether President Donald Trump backs an increase in the federal gas tax the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been pressing him to support.
Trump reportedly backed an increase in private meetings before, but the 2020 election could be a reason for hesitation.
He is not alone there. Two Democrats leading in early polls in the race to oppose Trump wouldn’t tell CQ Roll Call if they support raising the gas tax either.
What’s the gas tax?
Almost everyone, across both parties, agrees that America’s infrastructure needs fixing. But the hang-up, as with most things in U.S. politics, is finding ways to pay for it.
The federal gas tax, which is currently 18.4 cents per gallon, doesn’t raise enough to cover the cost of infrastructure spending. And the revenue it generates isn’t going as far as it used to because the cost of infrastructure projects has gone up and fuel efficiency has increased.
Forty-six percent of Americans thought raising the federal gas tax to pay for repairs to infrastructure was a good idea in a February 2018 Quinnipiac poll. About half of Republicans and half of Democrats supported it. But it hasn’t been raised in 26 years.
More than half of states, however, have raised their own gas taxes since the last federal increase. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who’s also running for president, recently proposed a tax on fossil fuels that would raise the state’s gas tax by 18 cents a gallon, according to estimates from his administration.
There’s also a push for an increase at the federal level. Groups as different as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO are backing a federal gas tax hike of 25 cents a gallon over five years. Trump hasn’t said publicly what he thinks of increasing the gas tax. But he was open to the idea of a higher tax rate, at least according to Democratic lawmakers who met with him last year on infrastructure.
White House advisers have tried to downplay the gas tax idea. But the agenda for this week’s infrastructure meeting remains vague. Democrats have wanted Trump to come to the table with funding suggestions that will be palatable enough to congressional Republicans, who are typically wary of raising any taxes.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer has said that Trump should consider rolling back part of the GOP’s 2017 tax overhaul first, arguing that the plan benefited the wealthy, whereas an increased gas tax would hit poor people the most. But that’s likely a non-starter in Congress, where Republicans have championed their tax cuts as a signature legislative accomplishment.
To raise or not to raise?
President Ronald Reagan raised the gas tax in 1982 to pay for transportation funding, arguing it was a “user’s fee.” President George H.W. Bush tried to raise it again in 1990 as part of a deficit-reduction bill, but conservatives in the House objected. Three years later, when President Bill Clinton signed off on a gas tax increase, it was part of a deal intended to balance the federal budget.
No Republicans in Congress supported that measure. It passed the the House 218-216, with Sanders, an independent, joining with Democrats in supporting the legislation. It passed the Senate by a similarly close vote, 51 to 50, with Vice President Al Gore casting a tie-breaking vote. Biden sided with the majority of his party in backing it. Only six Democrats voted against it.
The Biden and Sanders campaigns did not respond to numerous requests for comment about where the two presidential candidates currently stand on increasing the gas tax, or how they would propose paying for an infrastructure plan.
Sanders made the case that he supported the 1993 gas tax because it was part of a broader “progressive tax proposal.”
“The truth is that Clinton’s 1993 budget included a largely ‘progressive’ tax proposal which fell disproportionately on the wealthiest people in the country,” Sanders wrote in his 1997 book “Outsider in the White House.” But he felt the 4.3 cent increase in the gas tax was a regressive part of that budget deal.
“That’s about $30 a year for the average Vermonter, not much but still regressive in that it hits the average working stiff who travels a hundred miles a day to and from work,” he wrote.
In 2008, eight years before his first presidential bid, Sanders called for suspending the federal and state gas tax for six months, proposing that the money be made up with a tax on the profits of oil companies. The gas tax was becoming a political issue that year because of a spike in gas prices, with presidential candidates from both parties calling for a gas tax suspension for the busy summer travel months.
Republican John McCain and Democrat Hillary Clinton called for temporarily suspending the tax. They argued it was hitting the lowest-income Americans the hardest. Clinton’s campaign ran ads playing up the difference on the issue between her and Barack Obama, who called the idea of a suspension an election-year gimmick.
After winning the White House with Biden as his running mate, Obama was steadfast against raising the gas tax. Ray LaHood, a former Republican House member tapped to be Obama’s Transportation secretary, wanted to raise the gas tax early in the administration, but the White House quashed the idea.
Several years later, after he’d left the White House, LaHood again encouraged Obama to raise it, but he was rebuffed by a president worried about the 2014 midterms. Despite a bipartisan proposal from Connecticut Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy and Tennessee GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander, the idea also had little support on Capitol Hill that summer ahead of the midterms.
“If people are afraid that the electorate is going to heap some kind of retribution on them if they raise the tax, they need to look at cities and states that have done it, where it has passed,” LaHood said at a January 2014 event. He testified before Congress in favor of raising it again this year.
Back in 2014, Vice President Biden, too, seemed interested in a gas tax increase, even though the White House wasn’t. Speaking at an event about the border crisis that August, he said, “Hell, Congress can’t even decide on a gas tax to keep the highway system going.” After Biden had come out ahead of the White House on same-sex marriage, the comment was interpreted as him charting his own course and not following the policy directions of the White House.