Looking for a case study of our hyper-partisan politics? No need to search any further than your local gas pump.
The ongoing debate in Washington and in many state capitols over a gas tax holiday has become a classic example of our toxic partisan politics. When Democrats propose one, Republicans reflexively oppose it. And when Republicans ask for one, Democrats reject the idea out-of-hand.
On the merits, opponents of suspending the gas tax are right. At best, drivers see no more than a few pennies of relief while the rest of the benefit goes to oil producers and gas station owners. And rather than fighting inflation, reducing the tax only increases demand for a product where supply is limited. That drives price up. But this fight really isn’t over the merits. It is about supporting your team.
Whose team are you on
On the national level, we saw it last month when President Biden proposed suspending the federal gas tax for three months. Republicans, who almost never see a tax cut they don’t like, flatly rejected this one.
Biden said his proposed three-month gas tax holiday would provide consumers with “just a little bit of breathing room.”
Within minutes, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell called it “an ineffective stunt….” Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) went even further. He called it “treacherous.”
It is worth noting that as recently as 2018, Lee, along with fellow GOP senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced a bill to cut the federal gas tax from 18.4 cents per gallon to 3.7 for five years. That was then.
Partisanship in the states
Then, there are the states.
In Virginia, Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin proposed suspending the state’s 26 cent-per-gallon gas tax. His plan was overwhelmingly backed by Republicans in the legislature but killed by Senate Democrats.
Using language almost identical to Biden’s, Virginia Republican lawmakers insisted the tax holiday was needed to help hard-pressed drivers. Democrats said it would cut much-needed funding for roads.
In Connecticut, Democratic Governor Ned Lamont, sounding much like Republican Youngkin, pushed for an extended gas tax holiday. Unlike Youngkin, he got his legislature to agree to suspend the tax until December 1. Republicans went along, since the gas tax cut was included in a larger budget package. But Senate GOP Leader Kevin Kelly pronounced himself “disappointed and underwhelmed by the delayed and limited tax relief” in the budget plan, including the gas tax holiday.
The story was reversed in Georgia. Republican Governor Brian Kemp used his executive authority to extend and then extend again a gas tax holiday from the end of May through mid-August. That’s roughly three months—the same length of time as Biden’s proposed holiday.
Democrats, including gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, took a different tack from their Virginia brethren. Sounding almost like Republicans, they blasted Kemp for not continuing the gas tax holiday through the end of the year.
Then, there is California. There, Republicans in the state legislature are demanding a gas tax holiday. State Sen. Brian Jones, who chairs the Senate Republican Caucus, calls high gas prices “an emergency” and says Democrats who oppose the idea are “greedy and somewhat arrogant.”
Democrats mostly are against it. But at least two senior congressional Republicans want more than a mere gas tax holiday in the Golden State. GOP leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) contributed $300,000 to a ballot initiative aimed at repealing the state’s gas tax. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), gave $25,000. Both, unsurprisingly, oppose Biden’s proposed holiday.
There are exceptions to the hyper-partisanship. Some national Democrats opposed Biden’s proposed holiday, which helps explain why the idea may already have sunk to the bottom of the policy lagoon. Some California Democrats support a state holiday there. New York enacted a gas tax holiday with bipartisan support.
But, in general, when it comes to a gas tax holiday, it is all about which team you are on, not what you actually think about taxes on motor fuels.