Congress Puttering Forward with Federal Gas Tax Discussion

As the average national cost of gas descends to $2 per gallon, a congressional discussion has reignited over the possibility of raising the federal fuel tax to meet shortfalls in the Highway Trust Fund.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee’s junior Republican senator, announced a bipartisan proposal in June to increase the federal gas tax by 12 cents over two years, and index it to inflation so “it remains viable into the future.”

The legislation, co-sponsored by Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, “would provide enough funding to offset current MAP-21 spending levels over the next 10 years,” as well as replace “the buying power” the tax has lost since last raised to 18.4 cents per gallon in 1993.

Corker’s plan also calls for tax relief to offset the burden for Americans. Corker wasn’t specific about what the relief will look like, but a press release indicates it could include “permanently extending” tax breaks included in the “tax extenders” bill, or “another bipartisan proposal” to cut taxes over the next decade by “at least the amount of revenue” the fuel tax raises.

Over the past several years, Congress has approved several short-term fixes to the fund — transferring $54 billion from the Treasury Department’s general fund since 2008 — and the fund will face another shortfall in 2015.

“Growing up in Tennessee as a conservative,” Corker said in the release, he learned something important enough to have was important enough to pay for. “If Americans feel that having modern roads and bridges is important then Congress should have the courage to pay for it.”

However, the two-term senator also said whether or not Congress’s solution amounts to a tax increase, he’d like to see a permanent fix to the highway trust fund by May.

Although the proposal was met with lukewarm response last Summer when gas was around $3.50 a gallon, the recent sharp decline in fuel costs — influenced in part by the U.S. oil boom and OPEC’s refusal to cut production — has emboldened the former Chattanooga Mayor to again take up the issue.

Other senators — including Republicans John Thune of South Dakota and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, chairmen of the Senate committees on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and Environment and Public Works, respectively — have recently said they won’t rule out a fuel tax hike. Similarly, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said last week “It’s a small price to pay for the best highway system in the world.”

However, the proposal has been met with more skepticism in the U.S. House.

Speaker of the House John Boehner, an Ohio Republican in his third term as speaker, said that while a new highway funding bill is a priority for this year, he isn’t hot on the idea of raising taxes.

And Marsha Blackburn, a Republican representing Tennessee’s 7th Congressional District, said on Fox Business this week that while raising taxes may be “a quick fix,” it’s “the wrong step to take.” Instead she suggested legislators look at the structure of the trust fund, and fix the root of the problem.