GOP leader: Gas tax hike 'politically impossible'

Getty Images

A gas-tax hike is dead on arrival in Congress, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Tuesday.

Transportation advocates have pushed to increase or index to inflation the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax as lawmakers scramble to come up with a way to pay for an extension of an infrastructure funding measure that is scheduled to expire on May 31. 

McCarthy said Tuesday that lawmakers are not willing to ask drivers to pay more at the pump to finance new transportation projects. 

“I think passing a gas tax is politically impossible,” he said, pointing out that he just paid $3.20 a gallon to fill up his car in his hometown of Bakersfield, Calif.

The gas tax has been the traditional source of transportation funding since its inception in the 1930s. The tax has not been increased since 1993, however, and improvements in auto fuel efficiency have sapped its purchasing power. 

The federal government typical spends about $50 billion per year on transportation projects, but the gas tax only brings in approximately $34 billion annually at its current rate. 

Some lawmakers have discussed the idea of passing a one-time increase in the gas tax or indexing it to inflation as the average price of gas in the U.S. has fallen in recent months. 

McCarthy said Congress wants to approve a long-term transportation bill, even though the gas tax hike is a non-starter on Capitol Hill. 

The California lawmaker said Congress may have to tackle a short-term patch to replenish the depleted Highway Trust Fund in order to reach a longer-term solution. 

“The ultimate goal is to do a long-term [bill], five to seven years. The best way to get to a long-term one is to probably do a short-term one first,” McCarthy told reporters at a news briefing in his office.

“It may be the case that we have to do a short term to be able to do the long term.”

A short-term patch would extend funding for highways but not longer than the end of this year, McCarthy said. Federal funding for highways and bridges will run out in July unless Congress acts, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has said.

McCarthy, the No. 2 House GOP leader, said he likes a bipartisan tax-reform proposal known as repatriation, which backers say would encourage corporations to return to the U.S. and generate trillions in tax revenue for transportation and infrastructure projects.

—Keith Laing contributed to this report. 

This story was updated at 2:53 p.m. to correct an earlier version.