The Highway Trust Fund is about to run out of money. Again. This manufactured crisis may be Washington’s most regular – and predictable – demonstration of failure. If Congress cobbles together another temporary patch, it will be the 33rd in the last six years. 33!
Politicians like a little urgency in their deliberations – it can grease the skids of compromise. But it also opens the door to half-measures and short-term patches. And predictably, that’s what this manufactured crisis is doing. The House voted yesterday to extend the trust fund’s financing for two months.
Supposedly, this patch will allow leaders to hammer out a long-term solution. “A short-term extension,” the White House said in a statement of administration policy, “will be necessary in order for the Congress to complete work on a long-term bill that increases investment to meet the Nation's infrastructure needs.”
I’m sure this extension will be much more successful than the previous 32 “necessary” patches.
What’s frustrating is that a permanent solution is not complicated: Just raise the gas tax. Lawmakers haven’t increased the levy – which provides most of the money in the trust fund – for more than 20 years. Since lawmakers pegged it at 18.4 cents a gallon in 1993, inflation has made construction more expensive, mileage improvements have reduced the amount of gas that consumers need to buy, and Americans are just driving less. As a result, the tax isn’t raising enough money to support the trust fund.
A few brave politicians have suggested raising the gas tax. But Republican leaders have ruled it out. Which is predictable, I guess, given the party’s hostility to any sort of tax increase. It’s also surprising, however, since the gas tax is a Republican tax, invented and perfected by a series of GOP presidents.
The first federal gas tax appeared in 1932, and it was not earmarked for roads. Instead, lawmakers used it to help shrink the budget deficit brought on by the Great Depression. Republican President Herbert Hoover signed off on the tax, as did his Treasury secretary, Ogden Mills.
The gas tax remained on the books throughout the 1930s and beyond, pleasing politicians by raising lots of revenue with minimal opposition from the taxpaying public. But it took another Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, to give the tax its modern form. In 1956, as part of the Federal Highway Act, Congress raised the tax to 3 cents per gallon and used it to fund the new Highway Trust Fund. The trust fund – and the highways it built—remains one of Eisenhower’s most tangible and important legacies.
I recognize that neither Hoover nor Eisenhower have much in common with today’s generation of GOP leaders, let alone the party’s more doctrinaire rank and file. But what about taking a lesson from every Republican’s favorite past president, Ronald Reagan?
In 1982 Reagan faced an infrastructure problem not unlike today’s. Many of the nation’s roads and highways were in need of urgent repair, and Reagan pressed lawmakers to do something about it. “The time has come to preserve what past Americans spent so much time and effort to create, and that means a nationwide conservation effort in the best sense of the word,” he said. “America can't afford throwaway roads or disposable transit systems. The bridges and highways we fail to repair today will have to be rebuilt tomorrow at many times the cost.”
Wise words. And Reagan backed them up with a specific funding solution:
- Common sense tells us that it'll cost a lot less to keep the system we have in good repair than to let it crumble and then have to start all over again. Good tax policy decrees that wherever possible, a fee for a service should be assessed against those who directly benefit from that service. Our highways were built largely with such a user fee -- the gasoline tax. I think it makes sense to follow that principle in restoring them to the condition we all want them to be in.
Reagan, the paradigmatic antitax Republican, soon agreed to a 5-cent increase in the gas tax. No big deal, until you consider that the existing tax was 4 cents. (Notably, the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 also provided that 1 cent of the increase should be devoted to mass transit.)
The gas tax is not perfect. Indeed, lawmakers should consider alternatives that better link road usage to taxes paid (something like the vehicle miles traveled tax).
But lawmakers can take their time with that sort of fundamental reform. In the meantime, they should stop fiddling with short-term patches that make planning impossible. They should raise the gas tax.
Just like Reagan did.