The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats propose foolish policy with little political benefit

A man gasses up his vehicle in Alexandria. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Every member of Congress up for reelection is a prisoner of forces outside their control. You can serve your constituents with skill and compassion, but if you’re up for reelection in a bad year for your party, you could be in trouble. On the other hand, if your election comes when everyone is mad at the other party, you can be an outright nincompoop and get swept triumphantly into office.

Which is why it’s easy to sympathize with Democrats now casting about for some way to show the voters that they’re doing something about inflation. If that’s what people are hearing about on the news every day and seeing at the grocery store, then you’d want them to think their senator is tackling the problem.

So it is that some Democrats in the Senate are advocating a federal gas tax holiday, an idea that is likely to be both substantively foolish and politically ineffectual.

The idea started with four Democrats facing reelection this year in swing states: Mark Kelly of Arizona, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, and Raphael G. Warnock of Georgia. It would suspend the 18.4-cent-per-gallon tax through the end of the year, and replace the revenue lost to the Highway Trust Fund — as much as $20 billion — with general funds.

They’re not the only ones doing this — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) wants a similar holiday of the state’s gas tax — but that just shows how tempting, and empty, this idea is.

Would this make a difference in your family’s finances? Even if you buy a lot of gas — say 20 gallons a week — that means you’d save at most a whopping $3.60 a week, and probably less. It’s not exactly going to change your life.

Still, this impulse among lawmakers is understandable. Your constituents are demanding you do something about inflation, and the truth — If I could eliminate inflation, I would, but I can’t — isn’t very satisfying. So what can you do? You’re a lawmaker, so you propose a law.

This paragraph from The Post’s article sums up the problem well:

Behind the scenes, top [Biden] aides have debated whether it would provide meaningful relief — or ultimately serve to benefit the producers of gas more than the consumers of it. Some senior officials also fear the policy might be difficult to end later, since no politician would want to be seen as raising prices, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the discussions.

That’s all true. And not only that, before Election Day the price of gas will go up and down approximately 267 times, because that’s the number of days between now and then. Maybe prices will be higher in November than they are now, and maybe they will be lower; no one knows for sure.

So even if you get a day’s worth of positive coverage about how you cut the gas tax to give folks some much-needed relief, people are likely to forget about it, if they ever hear about it in the first place.

That’s true of a lot of what lawmakers do, and they might figure that even if their constituents just get a fleeting warm feeling about them, it wouldn’t hurt. And in the scope of less-than-worthwhile proposals, this is nowhere near the most harmful; it’s not as if they’re advocating banning books or privatizing Social Security, and you can find more appalling demagoguery in Congress any day of the week.

So the real villain here isn’t the legislators trying whatever they can to convince voters they’re, well, trying whatever they can. The problem is that inflation, and gas prices in particular, are complicated challenges that aren’t amenable to quick and easy fixes.

They’re driven by global markets and complex systems. They’re affected by many variables. No informed person could think that their senator can solve inflation. And if the senators were honest, they’d admit that a big part of their work involves confronting futility — much of the time, the most important problems are the ones that are the hardest to solve.

But that’s not what voters want to hear. They don’t reward thoughtful labor and slow progress. “I did what I could, but that isn’t much” doesn’t get them rushing to the polls.

Which makes it hard to get angry about something such as a gas tax holiday; the electorate gets as much pandering as it deserves. But we don’t have to call it anything else.