- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2003

One of the Democratic and French criticisms of the Iraq war was that Republicans supported the invasion simply to guarantee the flow of cheap oil to America. That is an unjustified charge on its face, but even more so given the news that Rep. Don Young, the Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee, is trying to force a gas tax increase into law. It’s a plan we think is driving down a dead-end road.

The powerful chairman has been critical of what he portrays as White House tightfistedness on infrastructure spending. Last week, he blasted administration budget outlays as “inadequate” to sustain the nation’s transportation network. He says that one-third of America’s roads, bridges, buses and urban rail cars are in poor condition. The deteriorating systems and lack of new expansion cost America at least $67.5 billion annually due to congestion and even more from car crashes caused by bad roads, according to Mr. Young. The Transportation Committee claims that 42,000 jobs are created or protected by every $1 billion the government spends on transportation, and that the proposed revenues from the gas tax increase would generate more than 1.3 million new jobs and add $290 billion to the GDP over six years.

Those are all impressive figures. But we do not think the causal relationship between higher taxes and job growth pans out, and the economic history of our country has shown that an economic boost would be greater if the funds were left in the private sector, which tends to waste less and invest wiser than government bureaucrats. The $128 billion increase in spending Mr. Young wants would come from a 5-cent to 10-cent-per-gallon increase in the gas tax. When this proposed increase is added to the gas tax increases in many states, the result is a big hit to commuters and businesses, particularly truck drivers.

Stephen Moore, president of the supply-side Club for Growth, told us yesterday, “Don Young is going in exactly the wrong direction. We should be cutting the gas tax, not raising it.” He points out that federal transportation bills increasingly stick states with expensive mandates and low-priority projects, such as underused light railways. They are also increasingly pork-laden: The 1982 bill had only 24 earmarked pork projects; the last bill had approximately 1,000. A better plan would be to scale back the gas tax, use what is left for maintenance of the interstates and provide states with more control over their roads and funds.

Limiting transportation spending is a difficult task in any Congress. With billions of dollars at his disposal, the committee chairman has tremendous power to assign — or kill — lucrative projects in congressional districts across the country. Former House Transportation Chairman Bud Shuster was famous for rolling leaders who tried to rein him in but couldn’t scrape up the votes to go against him. Legislative procedure also eases passage of plans such as Mr. Young’s, as a gas tax increase would not affect the budget resolution because revenues go directly into the Highway Trust Fund and do not take away funds from other revenue or spending schedules. It would have to pass through the Ways and Means Committee, however, and there is no indication that Chairman Bill Thomas is ready to sign off on this tax increase before an election year.

Americans do not need new taxes. President Bush has worked hard to get tax cuts through Congress. The House shouldn’t undermine his progress by passing a gas tax increase to underwrite a pork-filled transportation bill.

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