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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Gas Tax Holiday
distributed 5/2/08 - ©2008

About two weeks ago, in mid-April, US Presidential candidate John McCain floated a proposal for a "gas tax holiday" between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The idea seems to have hit a resonant popular chord in a time of rising gasoline prices. The ongoing debate among the three candidates has been a prominent part of the political news.

This one policy proposal shows the intersection between economics (both household and national), energy (fuel supplies and corporate control), environmental issues (climate change and policies such as auto fuel efficiency), media influences in the formation of our community conversations, and the functioning of political processes (in legislatures and on the campaign trail). A simple -- or simplistic -- idea has revealed complexities and conflicts that often are hidden.

I am both intrigued and disturbed by what has been brought to light in this one strand of the political news. My musings today will only touch on a few of the many and complex layers of the situation. I hope that my thoughts might stimulate more depth and diversity in the discussion of both this headline news, and of much longer-term issues.

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My scripture text for the day is a familiar passage from the New Testament letter of James, Chapter 2, verses 15-17:

If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

The three Presidential candidates are arguing about details of a gas tax holiday -- whether it would really provide economic help to those who need it, and how the government's lost revenue should be covered. But there is no viable proposal in Congress to actually enact this temporary waiver of federal taxes.

The "holiday" is supposed to start in just over three weeks, and there is nothing working its way through the legislative process that stands a chance of being enacted. Even if there were a strong political will to move this proposal, it seems ludicrous to think that it could work its way through committees, be passed by both houses of Congress, signed by the President, and put into place in less than a month.

Legislation has been introduced by Senator McCain to carry out his version of the policy (S.2890). It is now sitting in the Committee on Finance with only 9 cosponsors. Senator Clinton has not introduced a bill to implement her proposal. On the House side, the Democratic leadership has made it clear that any gas tax proposal is "dead on arrival."

Candidates McCain and Clinton are stirring up their constituents with promises that simply cannot be fulfilled. They are gaining political support by arguing for a change in gas taxes that will never be implemented. To my mind, they fall into the "if it has no works" condemnation of James. Popular words about economic relief that have no legislative follow-through are "dead".

I am astounded that there has been so much reporting about the political bickering with no questions being asked about whether this proposal -- on a purely functional level -- can be implemented this summer. I am deeply concerned about the candidates who continue to promise what cannot be delivered. I also have profound concerns about the media which has spent weeks featuring the ratings-boosting spats between campaigns. The news media is only now starting to provide substantive analysis of the proposals, and they do not seem to be able to name the truth that a "gas tax holiday" cannot be established this summer, however popular the voters might find it.

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The reality of economic class in the US has been a prominent part of what keeps this discussion going. In speeches, ads and news reports, the topic has so much passion because of the fact that $4 gas is painful for a lot of people, but it is only an inconvenience for others. The split between those who genuinely are hurt and those who can manage higher prices is at the heart of the political positioning.

Senator McCain recently acknowledged that his proposal "does not solve our dependence on foreign oil. It gives low-income Americans -- who drive further with older automobiles and are bearing the brunt of this -- a little bit of a break for the summer."

Senator Clinton, campaigning in Indiana this week, said, "I find it frankly a little offensive that people who don't have to worry about filling up their gas tank or what they buy when they go to the supermarket think that it's somehow illegitimate to provide relief for the millions and millions of Americans who are on the brink of losing their job." [Personal note: the "losing their job" phrase seems like misplaced hyperbole in the context of a gas tax issue.]

Those who criticize the "gas tax holiday" -- which includes Senator Obama, most economists, and a growing number of newspaper editorial boards -- have brought a rational critique of whether the tax change would actually lower prices, and whether any price difference would be significant for those most in need of a break. The continuing presence of the proposal in campaigns and the news indicates, though, that the debate has little to do with actual economic outcomes, and a great deal to do with public sentiment.

High energy prices are a legitimate and urgent issue of economic justice, but the "gas tax holiday" proposals show how difficult it will be to deal with those complex questions. A rapid rise in the cost of gas gives us a first look at the sort of economic equity factors that will have to be addressed if the US moves toward carbon taxes. It is essential that new policies to reduce energy use and to slow global climate change be structured to lighten what could be a heavy financial burden on the poor. To be effective, though, such provisions will probably have to be complex and targeted. "The poor" who face unjust costs will have to be identified, and appropriate relief provided to that specific group. That means, of course, that other groups will have to bear even larger costs.

A blanket proposal to hold down energy costs -- which provides "relief" equally to rich and to poor, and which ends up encouraging even more energy use -- does not take a strong stand on economic justice. It does not move us in the right direction on climate change. We must find a better way to deal with the very real matters of economic justice as we move quickly and strongly toward new energy and climate policies.

A few days ago, Al Gore repeated a consistent theme in his campaign to address global warming. He said, as he has said many times before, that everything required to make environmental progress was in place, "with a possible exception of political will". The way that this three-month "holiday" from an 18 cent gas tax is playing out makes me very fearful about the ability of our political system to address such hard realities.

If it is impossible for candidates to have an honest and civil conversation about a proposal that will have a $30 impact on the average family, how will they take on policies that will rearrange entire sectors of the national and global economy? If it is politically impossible for a candidate to speak the truth about the likely outcome of this "holiday", than other voices must fill the gap.

Politicians feel that they must play to the short-term interests of their voters and contributors. The media find more benefit in electoral conflicts than in investigative reporting. Businesses -- legitimately -- are concerned more with their profits than with social equity. Who can speak and provide guidance?

Churches, other religious bodies, and similar non-profit agencies have a calling and an ability to advocate for the common good, and to speak an often difficult message of moral and practical truth. Let's start practicing that role by speaking out about what is really involved with the "gas tax holiday".

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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