Does George W. Want Your Gas Bill To Rise?

The possible impact of gas prices on the presidential race is more subtle than either George W. Bush or Al Gore would have you believe. Bush has been calling for repeal of the 1993 “Clinton-Gore gas tax,” which added a pathetically small 4.3 cents per gallon to the cost of filling your tank. The tax was a fallback after the Clinton administration failed to pass its more substantial BTU tax, which might have helped it make meaningful progress reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that are presumed to be a principal cause of global warming. Gore isn’t talking about that now, because a BTU tax would be even more unpopular today.

Gore, quite sensibly, refuses to support a rollback of the 1993 gas tax. Gore campaign spokesman Douglas Hattaway told the Washington Post   that repeal was a “half-baked non-solution that would not have much of an effect on prices at the pump but could force increases in state taxes and leave our roads and highways in disrepair.” If Gore is the committed environmentalist he claims to be, he should be secretly glad that oil prices are above $30 per barrel, because high gas prices mean less gas consumption, which means less emission of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. (High oil prices also make investment in cleaner alternative energy sources more economical.) This would argue in favor of keeping the tax. Alternatively, you could argue that Gore should secretly hope that America’s highways do fall into disrepair, since that would cause fewer people to drive on them. This would push him toward repealing the tax. Since Gore is running for president, he’s most likely sorry gas prices have risen so high, because it’s making consumers angry at the party in power (that’s him) and may eventually cause a recession. (He can’t be a pro-environment president without first getting elected.) Repealing the gas tax wouldn’t help lower gas prices much, because it’s so small.

A recession would be good for Bush, because it’s much harder for the party in power to win re-election when the economy is in recession, or just recovering from a recession. (The 1991 recession helped defeat Bush père in 1992 and was what James Carville referred to in his brilliant campaign slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.”) Logically speaking, Bush should favor keeping the “Clinton-Gore gas tax” if it really were contributing meaningfully to the price of gas. Perhaps, secretly, he does. (It’s considered bad form for a presidential candidate to root openly for economic recession.) More likely, Bush knows its impact is negligible, but he’s flogging the issue anyway.

Another factor getting little attention in this debate is that Bush is a Texan, and Texans like high oil prices because they’re good for the Texas economy. (Bush is also a former oilman.) To the extent that Bush is governed by his campaign contributions, that also tilts him in favor of higher oil prices. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Bush has received nearly $2 million in contributions from the “energy/natural resources” sector; Gore has received only $235,095. (To view the chart, click here.) The oil industry doesn’t like gas taxes, because they depress consumption. That’s another reason for Bush to oppose the “Clinton-Gore gas tax.” In truth, though, this tax is so small that its impact on consumption is negligible.