Is Obama Opposed to the Bipartisan Gas Tax Proposal or Just Noncommittal?

Yesterday, The Huffington Post ran this headline: “White House Appears More Open To A Gas Tax Hike.” Minutes later, The Hill published this one: “White House opposes gas tax hike to fix transportation funding.” So, which is it?

Josh Earnest, on his first day as White House press secretary, said the president "would not support" a gas tax hike. But other officials have softpedaled the question. Photo: ##https://www.facebook.com/topic/White-House-Press-Secretary/108184749201716##Tamara Keith/Facebook##

Josh Earnest, on his first day as White House press secretary, said the president “would not support” a gas tax hike. But other officials have softpedaled the question. Photo: Tamara Keith/Facebook

The Hill’s headline was based on a statement by new White House press secretary Josh Earnest, who said about a gas tax increase: “That’s something that we’ve said a couple of times that we wouldn’t support.” But HuffPo got a different quote, which gave them a different perspective.

“The Administration has not proposed and has no plans to propose an increase in the gas tax,” White House spokesman Matt Lehrich told HuffPo. “It is critical that we pass a bill that not only avoids a short-term funding crisis but provides certainty and lays the groundwork for sustained economic growth. So we appreciate that members on both sides of the aisle continue to recognize the need for a long-term infrastructure bill, and we look forward to continuing to [work] with Congress to get this done.”

HuffPo also reports that Ryan Daniels, a Department of Transportation spokesman, said that while the “Department has outlined a plan involving pro-growth business tax reform,” it was “open to ideas that Congress comes up with.”

Non-committal at best. But, it’s a far cry from Earnest’s claim that the administration “wouldn’t support” a gas tax increase. Earnest made that statement on his first day on the job — perhaps he overstated the case.

President Obama has come out in support of a convoluted plan to close corporate tax loopholes and repatriate some offshore profits as a means of paying for transportation — though such a scheme would upend the “user pays” ethic that has undergirded transportation policy for decades and would only pay for a four-year bill.

Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Bob Corker (R-TN) have proposed raising the gas tax by 12 cents over two years and then indexing it to inflation — a common-sense and realistic idea, muddied somewhat by the fact that they propose to raise $164 billion in new revenues through the gas tax and surrender $190 billion in revenues by permanently extending some tax cuts.

Meanwhile, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) has proposed an upstream oil fee of $6.75 per barrel. Despite the fact that Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has endorsed a similar idea in the past, DeFazio’s plan doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, though one assumes that administration spokespeople would probably give it similar treatment to the other plans: that the president prefers a different option but is open to working with Congress.

Indeed, nothing the administration has said about the gas tax is any friendlier than the administration’s statement about the House Republicans’ idea of offsetting transportation expenditures by limiting Saturday mail delivery. “All along, we’ve said that if there are other ideas that emerge… we would be willing to consider those ideas,” U.S. DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx said about that plan a few weeks ago. “And I suppose that’s where we are.”