Gas Tax Holiday: Are Voters That Dumb?

Washington Matters

Gas Tax Holiday: Are Voters That Dumb?

There's new evidence that voters are smarter than politicians give them credit for. Two admittedly unscientific polls and plenty of anecdotal evidence suggest that Americans see proposals for a summer gas tax moratorium for what it is -- a cheap political trick that is actually antithetical to our national and public interest.

We were quick to dismiss the gas tax holiday idea when John McCain first suggested it two weeks ago. But we were wrong to think it had no legs. We didn't figure on Hillary Clinton seizing hold of McCain's idea as a way to appeal to the blue collar workers whose support has kept her chances alive.

Only Barack Obama is giving voters the straight-talk they deserve, rightly dismissing the idea as a short-term ploy that does more harm than good. First, the idea of a tax holiday sends the wrong message: that energy prices are temporarily high and an age of affordable gas will soon return. The truth is that demand is skyrocketing while resources are getting scarcer. Gas and oil prices may decline some, but the message to drivers can't be, you need cheaper gas. It has to be, drive less and drive more efficently. Given escalating oil prices and the need to cut emissions that contribute to global warming, we need a sound energy policy. Conservation has to be part of it. Many economists believe that drivers should be discouraged from driving by making gas taxes even higher, and then offering tax relief in a different way to help people cope with the extra costs.

Second, suspension of the 18.4 cents-a-gallon tax for four months would, at most, save the average motorist the cost of about one tank of gas. More likely, it would lead to a drop in prices for just a few days, then demand would increase (or greed would) and prices would climb back up and eliminate the savings, but with the extra money going into the pockets of the oil companies, not the blue collar workers McCain and Clinton are trying to please. In the meantime, the highway trust fund would lose $9 billion that is sorely needed to repair roads and crumbling bridges -- not to mention the loss of jobs and other economic impacts that would be caused by scrapping projects.

McCain, who wouldn't offset the lost revenue, defends it as a way to give hard-working voters a break. Clinton proposes to make up the lost revenue by repealing tax breaks for energy companies, an idea she knows can never pass Congress, in part because McCain, President Bush and other Republicans would block it. 


Members of Congress would love to do something for motorists in this election year, but Democratic leaders are rejecting the moratorium as unworkable. And it doesn't hurt that the highway lobby and members who want their share of district road spending are all against any loss of revenue for the trust fund.

But that hasn't stopped Clinton from hammering Obama, trying to use his honesty as more evidence that he doesn't understand the concerns of blue collar workers. Fortunately, initial signs suggest the strategy isn't working that well. An unscientific Internet poll on CNN yesterday and one by The Wall Street Journal today find voters overwhelming opposed to the tax holiday. Let's hope those polls accurately represents the general view.