Gas price debate complicates Dems' case against short-term highway bill

The political debate over gas prices appears to be complicating Democratic efforts to compare the standoff over federal transportation spending to last year’s shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration.

With gas prices on the rise, some Republican strategists think voters might welcome at least a temporary 18.4 cent-per-gallon break on the cost of filling up their gas tanks.

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“A stalled highway bill could cause short-term relief from gas price pain for millions of Americans who aren't thinking about the ramifications,” former Senate Republican Conference Chief of Staff Ron Bonjean said in an email.

Few people in Washington are arguing that Congress should eliminate the gas tax altogether. But if lawmakers do not agree on at least a temporary extension that is what would happen on March 31 until lawmakers end their logjam.

Most observers expect the impasse will end before it gets to that point. But in the run up to the deadline, Democrats have been raising the specter of an interruption and blaming Republicans for the possibility.

Democrats argue that a gas tax interruption would be worse than the temporarily shutdown of the FAA in 2011 because the gas tax generates $100 million per day for the federal government, which is used to fund transportation projects across the country. The FAA shutdown, which lasted two weeks, was projected to have cost the federal government $30 million per day in lost sales taxes on airline ticket purchases.

Republicans counter the Democratic argument by saying they are acting responsibly by passing a continuing resolution while they tried to craft a passable version of their own transportation bill. 

Earlier this month, the Senate passed $109 billion transportation bill that would fund transportation projects for two years. Instead of taking up that measure, House Republicans want to pass a short-term extension and are likely to do so next week.

In the backdrop of the debate, the GOP has spent the past month blaming President Obama for increases in gas prices. According to the AAA Auto Club, the national average price for a gallon of gas on Friday was $3.88, up from $3.57 a month ago.

Bonjean said because House leaders are proposing a temporary measure it’s harder for Democrats to repeat their argument from the 2011 FAA funding fight – that Republicans are job killers.

“This issue over jobs becomes more salient if the bill were to drag out for months, but with an extension it's harder to make that argument," Bonjean said.

That reality did not stop Democrats this week from trying to paint Republicans as anti-construction worker for their desire to pass a short-term extension.

"It's the FAA shutdown on steroids," Senate Environment and Public Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said in a news conference about the potential for an interruption in the collection of the federal gas tax.

"The FAA bill created and protected about 200,000 jobs," Boxer said. "We're talking about 3 million jobs."

Cooler heads prevailed in the standoff over FAA funding and Congress eventually passed a multi-year funding bill for the agency. Republicans are arguing that passing a short-term extension of the transportation bill would allow for similar results.

“The Senate had passed a bill first. We had to go forward with an extension, maybe two, to get it done,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said this week. 

One of the reasons for the GOP’s confidence in their position on the short-term highway bill extension may be the debate over gas prices.

The federal government has taxed gasoline at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. Transportation advocates have often noted that the gas tax does not provide as much money as it used to for transportation projects, in part because cars are much more fuel-efficient now than they were 20 years and also because the rate of the tax was not indexed to inflation.

But the idea of raising the gas tax has been politically-toxic for a generation. Politicians in both parties are trying now to get ahead of rising gas prices in an election year.

With the Republicans in power in the House, some observers speculated on the heels of the FAA shutdown last year that Tea Party conservatives in the lower chamber would seek to eliminate the gas tax next by preventing passage of what was then an eight short-term extension.

The conservative group Americans for Prosperity has opposed efforts by states like Maryland to increase their individual gas taxes, but the intensity of the group’s campaign against the fuel tax has not risen to the same level federally.

"AFP believes that ultimately both the tax and spending authority on most transportation projects should be devolved to the states,” AFP spokesman Levi Russell said in a statement. “The current proposals being debated and voted on would institutionalize the bailout-general fund transfers we've seen in recent years.”

But Russell did not include the federal government’s authorization to collect the gas tax in a long list of concerns he said the AFP had about the current transportation bills being debated in Congress.

“Surface transportation spending should be reduced by removing mass transit, beautification, trails, and other non-essential expenditures until the spending levels can be met through the internal funding mechanism," he said.