- - Monday, February 19, 2018


Repairing the nation’s highways is a good idea. Paying for it with a uuuuuuuge increase in the federal gasoline tax is not a good idea. Donald Trump has had some good ideas over his first year in the White House, but socking it to motorists is not one of them.

The president suggests adding 25 cents to the 18.4 cents already federally imposed on a gallon of gasoline, and that’s bad economics, and, worse for a president in an election year, risky politics. When Michigan tried that with a referendum a few years ago 80 percent of the voters said no, and even in California, where hunting down taxpayers to abuse is never out of season, Gov. Jerry Brown is trying to enact a gasoline tax increase of 12 cents a gallon and has stirred such anger that the proposition is on life support.

If Republicans want to lose the House this year, raising the federal tax on gasoline is a sure-fire way to do it. In some states such an increase would raise the gasoline tax to 75 cents a gallon. A fill-up could cost motorists $10 a gallon in taxes alone.

The federal tax on gasoline, which was last raised, by 18.4 cents in 1993, was first imposed to pay for the Interstate Highway System during the Eisenhower administration. The Interstate system was essentially finished 30 years ago, but, as Ronald Reagan famously said, a federal program (with the taxes to pay for it) is the closest thing to eternal life that anyone will see on this earth. The federal tax on gasoline endures, and thrives.

The loudest voices for raising the federal tax are from the road-building lobby, the civil-engineering companies, the unions, the various Chambers of Commerce, and other denizens of the swamp. President Trump should make it clear that he doesn’t propose to drain the swamp just to crisscross it with a vast new network of roads and highways. He should keep the tax-paying motorists close on this one.

The Interstate Highway System has transformed America, shrinking distances and stitching the nation together in unforeseen ways, most of them to the good. With millions of motorists on the road, every one of them paying heavy taxes on every gallon of gasoline they burn, millions of dollars accumulate in the public till. These dollars are the sugar plums that dance in the imaginations of bureaucrats in every nook and cranny in Washington. There’s never enough sugar plums to satisfy appetites. The idea of a tsunami of cash on the horizon sets bureaucratic hearts all a-tingle.

The good news is that Mr. Trump might not be entirely serious about pushing an enormous tax increase in this election year. “My first thought was,” Marcia Hale, president of Building America’s Future and who supports raising the tax on gasoline, tells the Hill, the Capitol Hill political daily, “will this [proposal] last 30 minutes, or 3 days or 30 days?”

Mr. Trump’s enthusiasms, however boldly tweeted, sometimes have the shelf life of a shrimp. “It doesn’t cost him anything to say ‘we’re looking at everything,’ ” Grover Norquist, president of the Americans for Tax Reform, tells the Hill. Indeed, the president sometimes seems unfamiliar with how toxic new taxes are with Republicans, particularly with Republicans in the House of Representatives. Such taxes are sometimes called a third rail of politics, dangerous and deadly.

The newly arrived in Washington, observes Mr. Norquist, “come in and say, ‘What’s the third rail do? Let me touch it and see.’ “

But even if the president’s 25-cent tax increase on gasoline is more than the musing of a president looking for money to pay for something he holds dear, it’s likely to be dead on arrival in Congress. Mr. Trump is said to have spoken warmly of such a tax increase several times in a meeting with congressional leaders, but others described his remarks as more off-the-cuffs remarks, of the kind which the president is known to make on occasion, than a serious policy proposal. Others, including The Washington Post, report that the president even talked about a 50-cent federal gasoline tax increase.

In an interview with Bloomberg News last spring, Mr. Trump suggested he was open to raising the federal tax on gasoline, though his administration, more attuned to the harsh politics of raising taxes, quickly “adjusted” his remarks. Adjusted or not, such talk is idle, as it should be.

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