Trump talk riles advocates on both sides of gas tax
President Trump has delighted transportation groups and infuriated conservatives with his latest show of support for a federal gas tax, but advocates on both sides of the issue say they aren’t taking his calls too seriously.
They say the president’s tendency to flip positions on a dime — and the tough political reality of raising the gas tax — suggests it would be foolish to put too much faith in the White House putting significant political weight behind the issue.
“My first thought was, will this last 30 minutes or 3 days or 30 days?” said Marcia Hale, president of Building America’s Future, who supports raising the gas tax.
“It doesn’t cost him anything to say we’re looking at everything,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, an influential anti-tax group that has enormous sway over the Republican Party.
Trump’s latest endorsement came during a bipartisan meeting Wednesday at the White House, where Trump said he could get behind a 25-cent gas tax hike to pay for his newly released infrastructure plan.
Trump’s apparent willingness to touch what has long been considered the “third rail” in politics has baffled some on Capitol Hill.
Raising federal fuel taxes — which hasn’t been done in over two decades — would be a herculean lift in Congress, where conservatives have repeatedly drawn a red line over the issue.
Yet Trump, who has bent the GOP party to his own will on other issues, has repeatedly entertained the idea.
He first signaled openness to a gas tax hike in an interview with Bloomberg last spring, though the administration was quick to walk the comments back.
Trump also mused about a 50-cent gas tax during a private meeting with lawmakers a few months ago, according to The Washington Post, while his economic adviser Gary Cohn has pitched a lower increase to some members of Congress.
Most recently, Trump said “several times” during a meeting with lawmakers that he could back a 25-cent fuel tax increase, according to Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who attended the meeting following the White House’s infrastructure roll out. Others familiar with the meeting said the suggestion was more of an off-the-cuff remark than a serious policy position.
But that didn’t stop a flood of conservative groups from blasting out letters and sounding alarm bells over the possibility all week.
Some transportation advocates say it’s hardly surprising that Trump would keep a gas tax hike on the table. For one, it’s an obvious way to pay for his massive infrastructure proposal. The program has long been a top priory for Trump, but there aren’t many easy options to pay for it.
An increase also would help fix the ailing Highway Trust Fund, which is due to run out of money at the end of 2020 and will be a sticky issue Trump will eventually have to face during his presidency anyway.
Proposals to raise federal fuel taxes have long been championed by the business community, truckers and other groups that have Trump’s strong backing. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently endorsed a 25-cent boost in the federal gasoline tax — the same figure cited by Trump this week.
“Look at who the U.S. Chamber represents,” Hale said. “I think that probably had a real impact on [Trump].”
It’s also beneficial for Trump to appear bipartisan and show a willingness to be flexible, even if the White House is not serious about pushing hard for a tax increase. Trump outlined a blueprint for his infrastructure plan, but largely left it up to Congress to actually craft the bill.
Trump also doesn’t come from a political background, so he has far less history with the politically toxic subject of a gas tax hike than other Republicans, making it easier for him to throw the idea around.
“New people come in and say, “What’s the third rail do? Let me touch it and see,’ ” Norquist said. “These things are wildly unpopular and people need to be reminded of that.”
Trump has been known to freelance in bipartisan meetings before — including an immigration meeting earlier this year where he almost agreed to a clean immigration bill before Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) interjected to remind Trump that he needed border security measures.
But even if the president truly supports a fuel tax increase, conservatives say it has nearly zero chance of passing the Republican-led Congress, especially in an election year where the GOP majority is hanging in the balance.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who is retiring after this year, even admitted that Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is not “warm and fuzzy” about a gas tax hike.
Norquist said he would have been far more worried if the White House had proposed a tax increase in the document outlining Trump’s infrastructure plan, which instead envisions repurposing existing funds.
“The fact that they wrote out what they wanted to do and it wasn’t in there is a clear signal,” Norquist said. “He’s smart enough to know this is not happening. I’ve talked to folks in the administration, and they know what a red line this is.”