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Not even The Gipper can score this fuel tax

Dec. 4, 2014
“If you're explaining, you're losing” —Ronald Reagan Conjuring the image— even more so, the actions— of a deceased President of the United States to move a political football down the field is a play politicians love to call. Especially when the two-minute warning has sounded for a cherished piece of legislation.

“If you're explaining, you're losing” —Ronald Reagan

Conjuring the image— even more so, the actions— of a deceased President of the United States to move a political football down the field is a play politicians love to call. Especially when the two-minute warning has sounded for a cherished piece of legislation.

And so we had the spectacle yesterday of two esteemed Members of Congress being joined at their press conference on hiking the fuel tax by one Ronald Wilson Reagan— albeit in the cheesy form of a cardboard cutout.

Pres. Regan (rear) 'supporting'  push by Rep. Tom Petri (left) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer to hike the federal fuel tax by 15 cents over 3 years

Then again, himself ever the Irish wit (and often at his own expense), the fortieth President would’ve relished the Congressmen having the good sense to not only invoke a tax proposal he once took public, but to do so with a sense of humor.

And I suspect Mr. Reagan would agree with me that humor— that greatest of social lubricants-- is now seriously lacking in Washington yet is sorely needed to help break the partisan gridlock that has too often prevented passage of common-sense legislation.

And it was just that sort of bill that propelled Rep. Tom Petri (R-WI), a senior member of the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure (T&I), to share the stage with a Flat Stanley version of the GOP’s conservative icon along with one of their colleagues from across the aisle, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR).

Petri, whose Congressional term ends when the lame-duck session does, was there to announce that he is now a cosponsor of legislation that would phase in a 15-cent increase in the fuel over three years and be indexed to inflation.

The Update, Promote and Develop America’s Transportation Essentials (UPDATE) Act had been introduced by Blumenauer introduced exactly one year before. The bill would raise the tax from its current 18.4 cents per gallon to 33.3 cents per gallon by 2016.

As for The Gipper, the Congressmen gave him the ball for their Hail Mary pass by playing excerpts from his presidential address for Thanksgiving Day in 1982 that called on the incoming Congress to increase the fuel tax.

'The Gipper' knew better than most that politics is best played pragmatically-- and charismatically 

Back then, Reagan proposed upping the tax by 5 cents per gallon-- noting that it had not been raised for 23 years (sound familiar?).

In his remarks, the President forcefully argued that the highway program that would be funded by pumping up that revenue stream would create “real, worthwhile” jobs, improve highway safety and make truck transportation more efficient and productive for years to come.”

Petri said at the press briefing. that he was "cosponsoring Rep. Blumenauer's bill because we need a first-rate transportation system and the responsible thing to do is pay for it,

“… We have to ask ourselves what is the more fiscally responsible route to take-- budget gimmicks that fool taxpayers into thinking we have offset spending but that, in reality, put more debt in the hands of future generations?  Or, restoring purchasing power to the Trust Fund so we can meet our transportation needs now and in the future?

"Ronald Reagan supported raising the gas tax back in 1982 because he believed in funding American infrastructure in a responsible way,” Petri added. “I think he was right, and it's the best course of action we can take at this time.”

In his remarks, Blumenauer called Petri “a champion for common sense for many years in Congress.  Like President Reagan, he knows that that transportation funding was not, and should never be, a partisan issue.  We all use our roads, bridges and rail, whether we’re Republicans or Democrats, rural or urban.

“Reagan also knew that the gas tax is actually a user fee, which means that those who use the roads the most are the ones paying for them,” he continued. 

Blumenauer added that his bill “should be our last gas tax increase ever, as we look for fairer and more sustainable funding methods, but it’s necessary to bridge the gap and keep our country moving.”

Yet even with the heft of Reagan’s ghostly imprimatur applied, the push Petri gave to Blumenauer’s bill amounts to a truly prayerful Hail Mary pass given that it came so late in the game.

Consider that in the lame-duck session now winding down that, per a Politico.com blog post  by transportation reporter Heather Caygle, “key lawmakers are shooting down any move to attach a gas tax hike” to a measure that would renew “tax extenders” for one year.

Indeed, two proponents of a fuel-tax increase— Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) and Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN)-- have advised that “the idea is essentially dead until 2015 after being shot down by House leadership,” according to the post.

Caygle pointed out that Rep. Petri is the latest to join “a growing list of retiring Republican lawmakers who feel emboldened to voice their support for a gas tax hike on their way out the door.”

She also reported that another GOP Congressman who sits on the T&I Committee told Politico that he’d thought about supporting Blumenauer’s measure when it was first introduced. However, he ultimately determined not to in light of “how it would play with the voters back home.”

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