LaHood goes under the bus on mileage tax

Transportation Secretary Roy LaHood got tossed under the bus by his boss after suggesting that the Obama administration would roll out a mileage tax on American drivers.   The White House hurriedly denied any intention of pursuing a mileage tax, which would require massive intrusion into privacy and set up a Big Brother-like mechanism to track the movement of citizens (via Michelle):

President Barack Obama on Friday rejected his transportation secretary’s suggestion that the administration consider taxing motorists based on how many miles they drive instead of how much gasoline they buy.

“It is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters, when asked for the president’s thoughts about Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s suggestion, raised in an interview with The Associated Press a daily earlier.

Gasoline taxes that for nearly half a century have paid for the federal share of highway and bridge construction can no longer be counted on to raise enough money to keep the nation’s transportation system moving, LaHood told the AP.

“We should look at the vehicular miles program where people are actually clocked on the number of miles that they traveled,” the former Illinois Republican lawmaker said in the AP interview.

LaHood apparently didn’t check with Obama before shooting off his mouth.  It’s another amateurish stumble after Steven Chu’s sudden discovery that energy policy falls under his aegis as … Secretary of Energy.

The mileage tax as a replacement for the gas tax is a bad idea on several levels.  First, collection of the gas tax is relatively easy and uncomplicated; it’s levied at the pump and requires no particular compliance for tens of millions of drivers nationwide. It costs the federal government very little to collect and its enforcement is limited to the much lower number of fuel stations, rather than all of the drivers and autos in the US.

LaHood’s suggestion would be an enforcement and logistical nightmare.  A mileage tax would require the installation of GPS equipment on every motor vehicle and an enforcement bureaucracy to ensure that drivers didn’t disable it.  The cost of the devices would run to the billions just on the initial rollout.  The Obama administration would have to spend more millions, if not billions, tracking the mileage on all of these cars.

The privacy implications are the worst aspect of the idea.  The government would have a database tracking all of our movements, at least those made in personal vehicles, for their use.  At the end of the year, when we had to account for this tax, we would have no practical way of challenging the government data on which we’d be taxed.  Can you imagine having to produce a record of every single car trip you took in 2008 for an audit?  The tax burden would only come at the end of the year, in a balloon payment.

The wonder of this isn’t that the White House rebuked its own Transportation Secretary.  The wonder of this is that LaHood didn’t get canned.

Update: I wrote “Treasury” when I meant “Transportation”.  My apologies, and thanks to those who pointed it out.