“The gas tax hasn’t been increased for 20 years. There’s a reason for that,” Obama said. Told of the president’s remarks, Blumenauer—a man known for biking around Washington in a bow tie—practically jumped through the phone in frustration. “That is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy!” he snapped. He and other advocates argue that the political impossibility of raising the gas tax has long been overstated. The issue already has an impressive array of outside backers, including labor unions and environmentalists as well as erstwhile GOP backers like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Blumenauer also pointed to public support for fuel-tax increases at the state level, including in places like Wyoming and New Hampshire that have historically been hostile to higher taxes. “It’s just not true that it’s too politically difficult,” he said.
The most politically promising alternative to raising the gas tax would use revenue from repatriated corporate profits to fund infrastructure projects. Multinational companies are estimated to be keeping $2 trillion in overseas accounts to avoid the high corporate tax rate in the U.S., and repatriation would offer them a tax break in exchange for bringing the money home and investing it domestically in infrastructure bonds. Obama has suggested linking a broader corporate tax overhaul with new infrastructure spending, and the repatriation idea was included in a proposal from the chief House Republican tax-writer, Dave Camp, last year. But unlike a tax rate indexed to inflation, that plan would only cover the Highway Trust Fund for a few years. A permanent change to the gas tax, LaTourette said, is “the only way you’re going to sustain [the fund] into the future.”
As for the Republicans who will be taking power in January, at least one in the Senate, Bob Corker of Tennessee, supports increasing the fuel tax. In the House, however, the new chairman of the Ways and Means Committee—which has jurisdiction over taxes—is Paul Ryan, the venerated conservative policymaker and 2012 GOP vice-presidential nominee. Ryan wants tax reform but has never advocated for a hike in the gas tax, and a spokesman wouldn’t comment on his position. Asked whether he had any hope that Ryan would come around, Petri harkened back once again to 1982: “Well, he’s expressed admiration for Ronald Reagan in the past.”