Gas Tax Gotcha

Thursday, May 1, 2008

IF THE United States had a sensible energy policy, a higher federal excise tax on motor fuels would definitely be a part of it. Few measures would more efficiently accomplish more worthy goals -- strategic, social and environmental. The Congressional Budget Office has calculated that a 50-cents-per-gallon increase in gasoline taxes would contribute more than $300 billion to deficit reduction over five years, while reducing traffic congestion, dependence on Middle Eastern oil and greenhouse gases. Actually, the federal gas tax has been stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, which means that, considering inflation, it has been shrinking for the past 15 years.

Of course, enacting any gasoline tax increase, let alone an increase of half a buck, would be politically difficult in normal times. Today, when the price of regular is creeping toward $4 per gallon, it is obviously a non-starter. The best we can hope for is that politicians, especially presidential candidates, will avoid exploiting the issue for short-term political advantage. Alas, that hope was not warranted in the case of Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has followed Republican John McCain in recommending a suspension of the federal gas tax from Memorial Day to Labor Day. This would let Americans go on vacation without that one modest additional incentive to conserve. A nonpartisan budget watchdog organization, Taxpayers for Common Sense, estimates that a typical family would save just $18 per car. And, as we explained in an editorial last week, at a time of cramped supply, prices would probably bounce back to where they were with the tax, and refiners would pocket the difference.

We do not underestimate the impact of high fuel prices on families that need their cars to get to work and school. But the gas tax is one component of the per-gallon price that comes back to benefit the motoring public, in the form of funding for road construction and maintenance. Much of the rest leaves America, going to such places as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Ms. Clinton proposes a windfall profits tax on U.S. oil companies to recapture the revenue forfeited by her proposal. Similar ideas have failed in the Senate because of oil-state objections; this one undoubtedly would, too. We have to agree with Sen. Barack Obama, the only candidate who has refused to play this game. "It's not an idea to get you through the summer," he said. "It's an idea to get them through an election." His opponents no doubt hope that Mr. Obama's stand will prove to be political suicide. We think it qualifies as political courage.

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