The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How bad policy became a political winner

President Biden speaks about gas prices in the South Court Auditorium at the White House on June 22. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

President Biden’s proposed federal gas tax holiday for three months (along with encouragement for states to suspend their own gas taxes) is not a reasonable remedy for inflation. Gun legislation moving through the Senate (and then the House) falls pathetically short of what’s needed to address gun violence. Yet both may pass, affirming that Kabuki theater is often Washington’s response to complicated problems.

On Wednesday, Biden declared: “I fully understand the gas tax holiday alone is not going to fix the problem. But it will provide families some immediate relief — just a little bit of breathing room — as we continue working to bring down prices for the long haul.”

It’s not clear that the gas tax holiday will do even that — and in fact, it might make matters worse for a couple of reasons. For starters, gas companies might not pass the savings on to consumers. Moreover, since high prices are a signal to reduce demand, the move hurts the marketplace’s ability to find price stability. In effect, a gas tax holiday does nothing but subsidize high prices for an extended period of time. It will also increase federal deficits, which Democrats have claimed is related to inflation.

The reason for pushing forward on the gas tax holiday is obvious: The public overwhelmingly — and wrongly — thinks the president can control inflation. A recent Quinnipiac poll found: “Nearly 7 in 10 Americans (69 percent) think a president has a lot (36 percent) or some (33 percent) control over inflation, while 31 percent think a president has only a little control over inflation (22 percent) or none at all (9 percent).” And Republicans keep claiming Biden is failing to control rising prices, so Biden feels compelled to “do something” so that voters think he is addressing the problem.

Follow Jennifer Rubin's opinionsFollow

Frankly, the best result for Democrats might be that it doesn’t pass, and Republicans have to explain why they voted against a tax cut (or suspension). In all likelihood, that is precisely what the White House wants.

On gun legislation, the magnitude of the problem — the regular mass murder of Americans with weapons of war — dwarfs the puny response in the bipartisan agreement. The bill would expand background checks and would allow for more thorough reviews for 18-to-21-year-olds to buy guns. It would also encourage states to allow access to juvenile records as part of the background checks; close the so-called boyfriend loophole; increase funding for (but not mandate) state “red flag” laws; increase penalties for straw purchases; and provide ample funding for mental health and school safety (including treatment of school-based trauma).

Jason Willick

counterpointHow the gun talks expose the myth of an obstructionist Senate

To be clear, there is nothing bad in this. These are all positive measures. It would be churlish to deny a cheer or two for winning against the National Rifle Association. But let’s not pretend this represents significant headway.

Gun safety advocates applaud any breakthrough or sign of momentum with the hopes that this will be the first — not the final — measure in the ensuing decades. The problem is that the package will likely make little difference. That would allow Republicans to claim, “Told you so!” (i.e., gun safety laws don’t work, in their telling) and give them an excuse to take no further steps for another 30 years.

In other words, unlike the gas tax holiday, the gun bill is not counterproductive from a policy standpoint, but it might have significant political downsides. Nevertheless, Democrats are not about to turn down even minor “progress” on the issue, so it will pass. The White House and lawmakers will then celebrate it as an example of “bipartisan success.”

Is this the best we can hope for? That the bad gas tax holiday legislation doesn’t pass and that the weak-tea gun legislation does? Perhaps — and that should underscore the central dilemma in our democracy.

The inordinate power of a right-wing, largely White minority prevents overwhelmingly popular measures that would make a difference (e.g., an assault weapons ban) from becoming reality. Meanwhile, the cruddy state of our politics and political coverage incentivizes stunts among elected officials and discourages political realism among voters (e.g., the president cannot do much about inflation, and Republicans have no plan either).

The effect is to increase cynicism, which dampens participation in elections and perpetuates political dysfunction. The solution rests with the voters, who must inform themselves of the issues (it would help if the media spent less time on reciting false political attacks and more on substantive policy, including basic economics) and turn out in sufficient numbers to elect leaders who will reflect their values and address minority obstruction such as the filibuster. Yes, we’ve met the enemy of good government, and it is us.