A pair of bipartisan senators wants to solve Congress' next big fight in the easiest — yet most politically unpalatable — way possible.
Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) and Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) on Wednesday introduced a plan to shore up the Highway Trust Fund, a transportation and infrastructure fund that finances thousands of road, bridge, transit, and infrastructure projects around the nation.
The fund is projected to run out of money sometime this summer, prompting warnings from the White House about Congress' next self-inflicted disaster as it struggles to come to a solution.
Corker and Murphy think they have the solution: Raise the federal gas tax.
It's widely viewed as the simplest fix to solve the potential crisis. But in a midterm-election year, no one has even floated the possibility until now. Tax hikes in general are broadly unpopular, and a gas-tax increase would hit a huge number of Americans where it would hurt most.
But Murphy said the tough choice would pay dividends for the fund in the long run, and Corker said it was an "embarrassment" that no one has spoke about this potential solution already.
"In Washington, far too often, we huff and puff about paying for proposals that are unpopular, yet throw future generations under the bus when public pressure mounts on popular proposals that have broad support," Corker said in a statement.
"Congress should be embarrassed that it has played chicken with the Highway Trust Fund and allowed it to become one of the largest budgeting failures in the federal government."
Corker and Murphy are proposing to lift the gas tax by 6 cents over each of the next two years — 12 cents in total. Their proposal would also index the gas tax to inflation, so it would rise automatically in the future to keep up with inflation. The federal gas tax has not been raised since 1993, which the senators consider to be a major factor of the current looming crisis.
To offset the revenue raised from raising the gas tax, Corker and Murphy said Congress should pass the expired tax extenders, which they said would provide close to $190 billion in tax relief for businesses and families in the next 10 years.
"For too long, Congress has shied away from taking serious action to update our country’s aging infrastructure," Murphy said in a statement. "We’re currently facing a transportation crisis that will only get worse if we don’t take bold action to fund the Highway Trust Fund."
It's not yet clear what kind of support the plan will have in the Senate — where one-third of members are facing re-election bids — or in the House. But it has picked up support from groups like the Chamber of Commerce and AAA.
"The American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) welcomes the common sense, fiscally-sound and bipartisan proposal from Senators Murphy and Corker to provide a long-term sustainable funding solution to fix the Highway Trust Fund," says Pete Ruane, ARTBA President & CEO.
“Congress has patched the trust fund four times since 2008," he continues. "Every short-term fix requires more money. The fund’s structural deficit now requires $16 billion in additional revenue every year just to maintain current investment for highway and public transportation improvements. It is time to stop pretending this problem will solve itself. Senators Murphy and Corker have provided one potential path forward."