- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2000

With U.S. gasoline prices soaring to an average $1.70 a gallon, and hitting $2 in the Midwest, angry motorists may provide the pivotal issue in this year's themeless presidential election.

Many factors have boosted gas prices this steamy summer season. OPEC oil-producing countries have colluded to cut production, limiting supplies and thus driving up the cost of a barrel of oil. Demand has been driven up by a thriving economy as more vacationing Americans are hitting the road this summer. And stringent Environmental Protection Agency regulations have made refining more costly which is quickly reflected in prices at the pump.

And then there are federal gas taxes, pushed up to 18.3 cents per gallon of gas by the Clinton-Gore gang in their first year in office.

One of the administration's first actions was a budget plan that raised gas taxes by 4.3 cents per gallon. Republicans voted against that budget, but it squeezed through Congress, thanks to the Democrats and Al Gore who argued in his book, "Earth In The Balance," that higher gas taxes were good for us.

In that book, the vice president wrote that "higher taxes on fossil fuel" was "one of the logistical first steps in changing our priorities in a manner consistent with a more responsible approach to the environment."

Mr. Gore also wrote that the internal combustion engine was perhaps the single greatest threat to the environment an extremist message that may be the kiss of death to Mr. Gore's presidential ambitions in Michigan home of the nation's automobile industry. He should be doing well in this strong union state but he is in a dead heat against George W. Bush who is getting the support of 40 percent of union households.

The answer to higher gas prices is first and foremost to cut taxes on a commodity that is critical to our economy and to American workers who are forced to pay a regressive federal tax that is draining their wallets. This is especially so in the West and much of the Midwest where workers have to drive greater distances to get to work.

So why aren't the Republicans more aggressively attacking Mr. Gore and the Democrats for higher gas taxes?

When the OPEC oil production squeeze was in fully fury earlier this year, GOP leaders were pushing legislation to roll back the Clinton-Gore 4.3 cent gas tax for the rest of the year and to suspend it completely if gas prices exceeded $2 a gallon.

But the drive behind the bill lost steam when it appeared that OPEC's members would increase oil production and prices would be coming down. Months later, however, gasoline prices were climbing again and there was precious little leadership from Congress on this issue.

This week, though, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, bravely breathed new life into the anti-gas tax movement by calling for repeal of the full 18.4 cent federal tax, at least until the fall when gas prices are supposed to come down.

There is a great campaign issue here that voters would quickly embrace this year. A new Rasmussen poll finds 67 percent of all likely voters support gas tax cuts.

Moreover, the Clinton-Gore administration seems to have been caught flatfooted on the issue, offering little sympathy and fewer remedies for working-class Americans who are being bled at the pump by higher prices.

Mr. Clinton, who apparently no longer feels our pain, was defending the gas tax on Monday, telling reporters that any cut in the gas tax "would be modest compared to the price increases." Moreover, he said, it would deny funds for highway projects.

Don't believe it. A 10 cent cut in the gas tax is hardly modest for most Americans. A suspension of the entire tax would be a major booster shot for their household budgets, not to mention the entire economy.

As for denying needed funds for highway projects, what a laugh. President Clinton announced this week that the government's tax surplus will likely be more than $1.87 trillion over this decade, more than double the $746 billion the White House announced in February. And that does not count the $2 trillion plus surplus from Social Security taxes.

There is more than enough money rolling in to offset a reduction or full elimination of the gas tax for the next several months. And with the U.S. Treasury's coffers filled to overflowing, and the OPEC nations squeezing the West, is there a better time to cut or eliminate this hated tax?

The GOP's campaign war cry this summer should be "No Gore gas tax," or at the very least "Cut the Gore gas tax" until gasoline prices have come down significantly. And Mr. Bush should quickly and enthusiastically endorse Mrs. Hutchison's proposal.

In the meantime, Mr. Bush's call for incentives to step up oil production here at home to make us less dependent on foreign oil is a good long-term policy that makes sense a policy, by the way, that Mr. Gore has bitterly opposed.

"The Clinton-Gore administration has been there for seven years and we're more dependent now than every before on foreign oil," Mr. Bush said on the campaign trail this week. First, the administration raised gas taxes, then it imposed costly EPA regulations, then it fought the U.S. oil industry's efforts to develop more domestic oil. Al Gore has a lot to answer for in this campaign.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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