IN CASE THERE IS anyone around who is still not convinced of the hold the automobile and the highways have on members of Congress, we would like to refer him to the press conference held Monday by the chairman of the newly re-named House subcommittee on "surface transportation." This chairman, James J. Howard, unveiled what he called a "House inititiave for new mass-transportation and highway legislation." It is, if we may say so, quite an initiative. It consists of higher taxes on gasoline, a 50 per cent increase in federal spending on highways, and the creation of a mass-transit trust fund to be financed by a corporate-profits tax.
For sheer audacity, Rep. Howard must be congratulated. His program is one of the most absurd legislative packages trotted out for public inspection in years. It makes sense only if you believe in the inalienable right of highways to continual improvement, the inherent inability of Congress to handle money and the holy inviolability of the law that ear-marks gas-tax revenues for the highway trust fund.
Indeed, if there is any rationality in this package at all, it escapes us. We find it hard to believe that increasing the federal government's spending on highways to about $10 billion a year is a logical response to the clearly demonstrated need to reduce gasoline consumption. We find it impossible to square Rep. Howard's rejection of the President's gas-tax proposal as "regressive" with his proposed increase in the same tax. And we dare you to try to find the kind of linkage between the corporate-profits tax and a mass-transit trust fund that Congress has established between other trust funds and the taxes that support them.
To put it bluntly, Rep. Howard's proposal is simply a new cover for preserving the "untouchable" status of the gasoline tax and the highway trust fund that it largely supports. And that is precisely the opposite of what needs to be done with that fund and the other transportation trust fund (for airports). They should be abolished. Trust funds by their very nature deny Congress the flexibility it ought to have to determine how money is raised and spent. If Congress, in its wisdom, decides the gas tax ought to be raised, then the tax should be raised regardless of what the revenue generated is spent on. And if Congress decides the highways need another $3 billion a year, it should appropriate the money outright and not have it locked in a trust fund where it will be spent sooner or later regardless of any need. If mass transit deserves more money - as it does - Congress ought to make it available, but not by tying how much can be spent to a percentage of the corporate-profits tax.
Surely the shortcomings of this "House initiative" will be fully exposed during the year-long hearings Mr. Howard said his subcommittee will hold. In the meantime, however, we suggest that the subcommittee should revert to its old name: "roads." Roads - not "surface transportation" - are clearly what is on its chairman's mind.