Grover and the Gas Tax


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Congress is on the verge of passing a five year transportation funding package built around a strange mix of revenue sources.  As many observers have pointed out, a more coherent and long-term solution would have been to increase and reform the nation’s largest source of transportation revenue: the federal gasoline tax.  Unfortunately, this option has been kept off the table for over 22 years.

Why is that?

An article in The Washington Post linked the lack of Congressional interest in the gas tax to “a pledge inspired by the conservative activist Grover Norquist, promising never to raise taxes.”

Similarly, the former head of the National Association of Manufacturers recently said that “the Norquist anti-tax pledge” is the primary reason that Congress has not taken the “obvious” step of raising the gas tax.

And Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) indicated that a gas tax increase was not seriously considered this year because the “majority party … signed a pledge to a Washington lobbyist.”

Without a doubt, anti-tax attitudes in Congress have been a major factor in keeping gas tax increases off the table since 1993.  And Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) has done quite a bit to shape and maintain those attitudes.

But when it comes to his “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” it appears that Norquist’s reach is being exaggerated.

The full text of the 57 word pledge (PDF) signed by members of Congress is as follows:

I, ___________, pledge to the taxpayers of the state of __________, and to the American people that I will:

ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and

TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

Clearly, there is no language in this pledge that is designed to prevent signers from voting for a gasoline tax increase.  Only income tax rates, deductions, and credits are mentioned in the federal pledge (the state-level pledge is another matter).

Of course, the folks at Americans for Tax Reform should know this better than anyone.  But when asked about the significance of the pledge during debates over the gas tax, the group is inevitably coy.  Politico, for example, reported earlier this year that ATR “did not say whether it would consider a gas tax hike this year a violation of its anti-tax pledge.”

In reality, Politico did not need to bother asking.  Anti-tax attitudes have certainly played a role in keeping overdue gas tax reforms off the table.  But Grover Norquist’s pledge is very clearly not a factor.

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