Congress is Fiddling While America Crumbles

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.

Ezra Klein complains that tax jihadism is ruining us. Our inability to properly fund roads and highways is Exhibit A:

We used to have a straightforward way to fund infrastructure in this country: the federal gas tax. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower raised the tax from 1.5 cents a gallon to 3 cents to help pay for the creation of the interstate highway system. In 1959, he increased it from 3 cents to 4 cents. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan raised the gas tax to 9 cents. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush raised it to 14 cents, with half of the increase going to reduce the deficit. In 1993, President Bill Clinton raised it to 18.4 cents.

In other words, from 1956 to 1993, there was a bipartisan consensus on the federal gasoline tax: Both parties agreed that it occasionally needed to be raised in order to help pay for the nation’s infrastructure. But since 2000, there has been a bipartisan consensus against raising the federal gasoline tax.

In 2005, the Bush administration joined with congressional Republicans to support a big transportation bill. But rather than raise the gas tax, the law just exhausted the Highway Trust Fund. In 2009, that law expired. Since then, Republicans and Democrats have failed to pass nine — nine! — short-term extensions, in large part because they can’t agree on how to fund infrastructure. But they do agree on one thing: Neither party intends to raise the gas tax.

Actually, as bad as Ezra makes this sound, he still doesn’t do it justice. It’s not that we used to have a bipartisan consenus to occasionally raise the gasoline tax. We used to have a bipartisan consensus to keep it at the same level. The chart on the right shows the evolution of the gasoline tax adjusted for inflation: back in 1956 Eisenhower set it at 25 cents in current dollars. Since then it’s bounced around within a few cents of that level all the way through the end of the 90s. And then it didn’t. Adjusting for inflation now counts as “raising” taxes, so the gasoline tax has steadily drifted down to 18 cents. And there’s no end in sight.

Recently, of course, this has been made even more acute by the fact that we’re driving less, which means we have both less gasoline to tax and a lower tax rate. Thanks to the tax jihadists, we’re not even willing to spend the same amount on infrastructure that we’ve spent for the past half century — through administrations both Republican and Democratic. We’d rather watch our country crumble away instead.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest