Do you wish gas prices were as cheap as they were in the "good old days" of the 1950s? If so, you might be surprised to learn that you would be hoping for an increase in gas prices. After adjusting for inflation, Americans now spend some 35 cents less per gallon of gasoline than they did in 1950.
The Bush administration and Congress are searching for ways to reduce the deficit during their continuing budget summit meeting. One of the best solutions would be to boost significantly the current 9.1 cents per gallon federal tax on gasoline. This single action would simultaneously have four beneficial effects - reducing the budget deficit, strengthening U.S. national security, helping the balance of trade and improving the environment.Yet raising the gasoline tax, perhaps even more so than increasing income taxes, has traditionally been viewed as politically risky. When I introduced legislation more than a decade ago calling for a 30-cent per gallon gas tax, not one senator joined as a co-sponsor. But times may be changing. A new NBC News poll found that, if new revenues are needed, 44 percent of Americans favor raising the gas tax, as opposed to only 26 percent in January.
While America did not capitalize on this opportunity 12 years ago, we can now. Current gas prices are relatively stable, and taxes as a percentage of the pump price are low.
In fact, the percentage of gas prices attributable to federal taxes has decreased by 35 percent since the early 1960s. The amount Americans paid in federal gasoline tax for each car they drove has declined from an average of $108 in 1960 to only $52 in 1986, in 1989 dollars. Furthermore, the United States has the lowest total state and federal taxes as a percentage of gasoline prices of the major industrialized countries - 33 percent, compared with 45 percent in Japan and 66 percent in West Germany.
What benefits would flow from enacting a 50-cent gas tax today (roughly the same after inflation as the 30-cent proposal of 1978)? Gasoline consumption could be expected to drop by 10 percent in the short term - twice that in the long run - with 250 million fewer tons of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere each year. The federal treasury would gain about $40 billion annually.
Since a 50-cent tax hike would be a significant change, it could be phased in over the next five years to give both consumers and the economy time to adjust. With or without a phase-in period, however, the new tax should be indexed to inflation to ensure that revenues are not eroded over time, as they have been in the past.
To be sure, any new gas tax is difficult, both for political leaders and their constituents. But if federal officials are serious about tackling the deficit, trade and environmental problems, they must increase the gasoline tax by more than just a few cents.
Increasing the gas tax is good economic, energy and environmental policy. Each day we delay raising gasoline taxes makes future options that much more painful.