"The state of our transportation system affects our commerce, our economy and our future.... (The nation's) network of highways and mass transit ... has enabled our commerce to thrive (and) our country to grow. Common sense tells us it will cost a lot less to keep the system we have in good repair than let it disintegrate and have to start over from sctatch. Clearly this program is an investment in tomorrow that we must make today."
Sound like the empassioned battlecry of some out-of-touch liberal? Actually, those words belong to President Ronald Reagan, as featured in a recent radio spot produced by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, which also features President Bill Clinton. The spot merges quotes from the two former presidents -- along with a nod to the Constitution and the "Founding Fathers" -- to make the case for passing a new transportation bill.
The juxtaposition of conservative and liberal icons is politically striking today, with the not-so-subtle message that in the not-too-distant past, at least, national politicians of both parties actually agreed on something. The particular something happens to be investing in (i.e., increasing spending on) transportation infrastructure, which both Reagan and Clinton clearly considered not only wise, but a political winner. Viewed through the prism of today's debt-ceiling debate, though, this looks like ancient history.
But the pairing of the two past presidents isn't false advertising. That's because both Reagan and Clinton supported and signed into law two of the last three increases in the federal gas tax. (The third was enacted by President George H.W. Bush.)
Actually, the history of those increases -- which readers can read about in excruciating detail at the Federal Highway Administration's history of the gas tax -- is telling, and politically timely.
First, in January, 1983, as part of the Surface Transportation Act of 1982, Reagan signed into law a whopping 125% increase in the federal gas tax, increasing it from 4 cents to 9 cents. Weird, huh?
More interestingly, the next two increases were done, in part at least, to help reduce the deficit. In 1990, President Bush approved the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990, which boosted the gas tax by another 5 cents, with half going to the Highway Trust Fund, and the other half aimed at reducing the federal deficit. Huh. (Though Republicans claim this legislation is what made Bush a one-term president, and they're not going to fall for that trick again.)
Next, President Clinton signed into law the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 -- which every Republican in Congress voted against -- that, among other things, increased the federal gas tax by 4.3 cents. This time, according to FHWA, the 4.3-cent increase went entirely to deficit reduction. Four years later, the 4.3 cents was redirected to the Highway Trust Fund.
Today, the gas tax is 18.4 cents -- another 0.1 cent was added in 1986 -- or more than four times its value before President Reagan first signed into law the 1983 tax increase.
Judged against that history, now might seem like the perfect time to raise the federal gas tax again. The Highway Trust Fund has lately required a steady infusion of funding from general revenue just to stay solvent; a federal deficit is in sorry need of solutions; and the nation is in deep need of jobs, jobs, jobs -- jobs that could be created by an increase in transportation spending.
Of course, the reality we currently inhabit makes talk of a gas-tax increase sheer lunacy. Even President Obama -- whom some say is increasing taxes left and right but actually can accurately be described as lowering taxes almost every chance he gets, as PolitiFact attests -- is totally against such a ghastly idea. Since Obama mostly seems to err on the side of decreasing taxes rather than raising them, that's at least consistent.
Instead, as ENR's Tom Ichniowski reports, we get Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and his $230-billion outline of a potential six-year plan. A steadfast and longtime transportation advocate, Rep. Mica deserves praise for his plan. But he's also a steadfast Republican, and a limited plan is all that is politically feasible today.
According to Ichniowski's report, the funding total for Mica's plan -- which features several items that industry advocates appreciate, such as a significant expansion of a federal loan program for road projects -- is nevertheless about 20% lower than the last transportation package, which provided $286 billion in funding over a six-year period. And there's little talk of trying to bridge that gap. Instead, the guiding doctrine is the "Roadmap" proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which aims to cut federal spending to 2008 levels.
As Ichniowski writes: "There ... is widespread opposition in Congress to bolstering the trust fund with a hike in the federal gas tax. Mica said he would love to have had a larger funding total, but added, 'We have to deal with the cards that are dealt.'"
ARTBA, promoter of that Reagan-Clinton bravado, appreciated Congressman Mica's efforts, but Pete Ruane, the association's president and CEO, issued a statement that made the group's opinion more than clear, as Ichniowski notes further.
"We realize it's difficult to write such an important and far-reaching bill under the constraints of false budget choices," Ruane stated. "But every member of the House needs to clearly understand that any highway and transit program bill constrained by the existing revenue stream into the Highway Trust Fund—as proposed in the Ryan budget—would be a sure-fire job killer. The Ryan approach would also ensure further significant declines in system performance which will negatively impact U.S. business productivity and international competitiveness."
Raising the federal gas tax is a reasonable idea, if you look at history. What if the tax were boosted by, say, an average of the last three increases, or about 4.8 cents? I doubt it would be much of a hardship for most people, as it's never really been before. The industry could even suggest past precedent, and allow for either a portion of the tax to be directed to deficit reduction, or for the full amount to be temporarily directed to general revenue, with a promise for redirection at a predetermined point in the future.
This isn't crazy stuff, folks. It's been done before, by conservatives and liberals alike, and it makes sense to do it again. Now. (Here's another argument for an increase, from the Washington Post, based on comments in favor of the idea from Daniel Akerson, the president and CEO of General Motors.)
Instead, as another article from the Washington Post asserts, Republicans across the land stand "hypnotized" by Grover Norquist, the anti-tax advocate who forces GOP politicians to sign his anti-tax pledge -- apparently unaware that their conservative icon, Ronald Reagan, was "never afraid to raise taxes," according to historian Douglas Brinkley, editor of Reagan's diaries.
With no one brave enough to argue for such a wise investment today, we're instead stuck with the sad situation of tumbling infrastructure spending and further evaporation of jobs. Think of all the jobs that a major boost in much-needed infrastructure spending could deliver.
To again quote the Gipper: "Clearly this program is an investment in tomorrow that we must make today."
To have such a vital need, and not be able to have the political fortitude to make it happen is a pretty depressing situation.
I'm almost afraid to ask, but I will: What do you think? Go ahead: Let me hear it!