By Alec MacGillis and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 1, 2008
A growing chorus -- including a top congressional Democrat -- labeled Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's proposal for suspending the federal gasoline tax ineffective and shortsighted yesterday, even as she continued to paint Sen. Barack Obama as insensitive to drivers' woes for not endorsing the plan.
The Democrats' clash on the issue has emerged as a flash point in the week before the presidential primaries in Indiana and North Carolina and is emblematic of the broader contrast that the candidates have presented: Clinton says she would make immediate bread-and-butter fixes for struggling Americans, while Obama portrays himself as a truth-teller who would bring a new kind of politics to Washington and produce more lasting change.
Backing up Obama's position against Clinton's proposal to suspend the 18.4-cent-per-gallon tax for the summer is a slew of economists who argue that the proposal, first offered by Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, would be counterproductive. They argue that cutting the tax would drive up demand for gas at a time when the supply is tight, which would mean that the price at the pump would drop by much less than 18 cents per gallon.
The tax suspension would, as a result, cut into the highway trust fund that the tax supports, a loss of about $9 billion over the summer, but also result in fatter profit margins for oil companies. Clinton says she would replace the lost revenue by raising taxes on the oil industry.
Harvard professor N. Gregory Mankiw, who has written a best-selling textbook on economics, said what he teaches is different from what Clinton and McCain are saying about gas taxes. "What you learn in Economics 101 is that if producers can't produce much more, when you cut the tax on that good the tax is kept . . . by the suppliers and is not passed on to consumers," he said.
Clinton has an ad running in North Carolina and Indiana that attacks Obama for his opposition to lifting the tax. Yesterday, she added visuals to her pitch by joining a sheet-metal worker on his ride to work, stopping with him at a gas station to fill up the pickup truck he was driving as her motorcade's SUVs idled nearby.
"I'm willing to give you a little more relief on a short-term basis," Clinton said. In Apex, N.C., her husband chimed in by telling voters, according to ABC News: "There's a difference between the two candidates here. Her opponent says, 'Well, she's just pandering to voters.' That's not true. Look, folks, there are people out here who are choosing every week now between driving to work and having enough food for their kids, between driving to work and paying their medicine bills."
Obama, who as a state senator supported temporarily suspending the Illinois gas tax in 2000, cast Clinton's proposal as a ploy that would, according to an estimate by the Congressional Budget Office, save the average family about $30 for the summer -- or, he said yesterday, "30 cents a day, which is less than you can buy a cup of coffee for at 7-Eleven." He began running a 60-second ad showing a clip of him responding to what he calls the "Clinton-McCain proposal" at a rally.
"That's typical of how Washington works. There's a problem, everybody's upset about gas prices -- let's find some short-term quick fix, that we can say we did something even though we're not really doing anything," he says in the ad. "We cannot deliver on a better energy policy unless we change how business is done in Washington. . . . That's what you need from a president -- someone who's going to tell you the truth."
Obama is proposing to reduce the cost of driving by suspending purchases for the country's Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Over the long term he would also tax windfall oil profits and cap carbon emissions to provide rebates for low-income Americans and money to invest in renewable-energy research.
He supports ethanol, which is a boon to his state's corn growers but has driven up food prices.
Leonard Burman, director of the Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, said the laws of the market argue against a tax suspension. "Every summer, the refiners are running full out. If the price fell, people would want to drive more and there would be shortages," he said. "It's a basic economic principle that if the supply is fixed, the price is going to be determined by demand."
Joining in the criticism was House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who said that the Democratic leadership of Congress has no intention of pursuing the summer tax suspension that Clinton touted. The move "would not be positive," he said. "The oil companies would just raise their prices."
Clinton stresses that she, unlike McCain, would push for a windfall-profits tax on oil companies to offset any benefit to them and replace the revenue loss to the highway trust fund. Burman called this "utterly incoherent," saying that a windfall-profits tax would over the long term only exacerbate the supply problems caused by lifting the gas tax, because it would discourage the exploration for and development of new sources of petroleum. "So a policy intended to lower prices, but which won't do that, will be offset with a policy that's likely to raise prices over the long term," he said.
Environmentalists noted that suspending the gas tax also would undermine efforts to curb global warming because it would increase the use of gasoline, a fossil fuel that contributes to climate change. It would also reduce incentives for buying fuel-efficient vehicles and developing alternative fuels. Relying on a windfall-profits tax to replenish the highway fund would leave less to invest in renewable energy, which is what Clinton had previously said a windfall tax would go toward.
More generally, they said, stoking ire about the cost of gas undermines efforts to build a case for limiting carbon emissions, which could raise prices at the pump. "It sends a confusing message," said Kevin Knoblauch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "What's more helpful is if [politicians] help consumers understand that this isn't about near-term gas prices, it's about a comprehensive and smart approach to energy policies."
That leaves the question, though, of whether the proposal will score points on the campaign trail. In Kokomo, Ind., last week, Kathy Spier said the rising cost of gas is to blame for the 50 percent drop-off in sales at her three exotic lingerie stores. "They don't have extra money to spend on frivolous things," she said.
Political consultant Carter Eskew, a former Al Gore adviser, said that if he were advising Obama, he would have said: "If you want to oppose this . . . you're going to have to spend a lot of time and energy explaining.
"I don't think it's brilliant economics; unfortunately, it may be good politics. The smart people say 'It's stupid,' and the people who aren't as schooled say 'At least it will do something for me,' " he said. "I don't know that anyone connects the dots: that there have been a series of politically expedient decisions . . . that have added up to an economic picture that is not at all rosy and in fact fairly disastrous."
Staff writers Perry Bacon Jr. in North Carolina, Peter Slevin in Indiana and Jonathan Weisman in Washington contributed to this report.