To fix America's crumbling roads and bridges, Tennessee GOP Sen. Bob Corker says he's willing to do what's become unthinkable for most congressional Republicans: raise taxes.
Together with Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, Corker unveiled a proposal on Wednesday to hike the federal gas tax by 12 cents over the next two years, raising it by six cents each year. It would then index the gas tax to inflation going forward to close a funding shortfall that's estimated to grow to $160 billion over the next decade.
The Murphy-Corker plan is the first bipartisan proposal to the hobbled Highway Trust Fund—and a rare Republican endorsement of higher taxes. The plan would permanently fix what Corker describes as "one of the largest budgeting failures in the federal government." Since the last gas tax hike in 1993, the fund has been chronically running dry. "The purchasing power of the gas tax is approximately 63% of what it was in 1993, and continues to decline," the senators said in a statement.
“In Washington, far too often, we huff and puff about paying for proposals that are unpopular, yet throw future generations under the bus when public pressure mounts on popular proposals that have broad support," Corker said in a statement. "If Americans feel that having modern roads and bridges is important then Congress should have the courage to pay for it," he added."
It's the first time in recent memory that a Republican has come forward to endorse a higher gas tax with a Democrat, says Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress. "I think this is huge," says DeGood. "From our perspective this is real leadership. It is so hard to propose something like this, especially in an election year."
The fund is currently facing a $50 billion shortfall, and it's slated to expire in September. Federal highway and road projects will soon begin to slow down unless Congress makes up the funding, and Washington's inaction is already backing up traffic across the country.
But Corker's support for a higher gas tax also comes with some strings attached: The plan requires tax cuts that are equivalent to the amount that the gas tax is raised. It proposes to do so by permanently extending tax breaks that would disproportionately benefit large corporations and wealthy individuals, though the senators say they'd also consider other bipartisan proposals to cut taxes by the same amount.
Murphy and Corker want to attach a gas tax hike to a group of tax breaks known as "extenders"—another chronically expiring policy that Congress has been forced to relitigate every few years. While there's broad bipartisan support for many of the giveaways—which include a R&D tax credit—Democratic leaders have opposed House Republicans' push to make them permanent without paying for them as part of a broad tax overhaul.
That doesn't mean that either party is going to be particularly happy with the Corker-Murphy compromise. Democrats are likely to resist corporate tax breaks paid for by tax hikes on ordinary American drivers. Republicans are still allergic to higher taxes of all kinds. And neither party has been a fan of hiking the gas tax in particular—a politically touchy tax that Congress hasn't raised since 1993.
And anti-tax conservative have already pounced.
"All the proposal does is double down on the same failed federal model," says Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action, a conservative advocacy group. "States should be making transportation decisions on everything ranging from revenue source to project authorization."
“This is a $164 billion dollar tax increase, plain and simple. A gas tax hike would be both bad policy and terribly anti-growth,” Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said in a statement. “It’s not an example of political courage to avoid reforming a broken system. Instead of standing up to the special interests who feast on the chronically bankrupt Highway Trust Fund year after year, Senator Corker and Senator Murphy have essentially decided that throwing more money into a black hole is a good path forward."
Congress has floated other proposals to fix the infrastructure fund, but the search for alternatives hasn't been easy. House Republicans are thinking about paying for it by stopping US Postal Service delivery on Saturdays—a plan that conservative groups have derided as a "bailout." The Senate Finance Committee is looking at "extending a 'gas guzzler' excise tax to light trucks, scaling back a tax credit for hybrid electric vehicles, and paring depreciation allowances for large trucks," according to Politico.
And in an election year, with a gridlocked Congress, no one's really expecting a breakthrough before November. So for now lawmakers will likely end up doing what everyone says they don't want to do again: Come up with a temporary fix that doesn't do anything to address the long-term problem.