U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s name came up during Thursday’s debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
It happened an undecided voter asked the president if he agreed with Secretary Chu’s repeated assertion that it’s not the Department of Energy’s policy to help lower gas prices.
President Obama didn’t’ quite answer the question, instead launching into a rehearsed pitch for his overall energy policies. Mr. Romney did the same, with decidedly less fondness for the president’s energy policies.
And because both want to occupy the Oval Office next January, neither was willing to tell Americans what they needed to hear: that America would be better served if the price of our gasoline — hovering between $3.50 and $4 a gallon — were 50 cents or even $1 more expensive.
As both President Obama and Mr. Romney know, presidents have little control over oil prices. They’re largely determined by the global market. They rise and fall with demand, which is why when the global economy is humming, demand — and the price — rise.
What elected officials do have some control over are the taxes on a gallon of fuel. And those, lamentably, seem untouchable. The federal gas tax, 18.4 cents a gallon (24.4 cents per gallon for diesel) hasn’t been raised since 1993. Nationwide, the average in state and federal taxes per gallon is 48.9 cents. Kansas is slightly below the average with a combined state and federal tab of 43.4 cents a gallon.
Raising the gas tax at either the state or federal level is intensely unpopular. Federal lawmakers — often quick to call for investigations and seek scapegoats when bridges collapse or substandard highways contribute to traffic fatalities — ought instead to be making motorists understand that higher gas taxes are essential if we are to restore the integrity of our transportation infrastructure.
Higher gas taxes would almost certainly result in less driving, which, though it also would reduce gas tax revenue, would have the salient effect of easing the pressure on our environment.
Higher gas taxes would impose a hardship on low-income Americans, but there’s no reason that rebates or other provisions to offset the burden couldn’t be included in the legislation.
Our crumbling infrastructure, which has been well documented, isn’t the only problem our leaders have found more convenient to ignore than to confront. Others, of course, include Medicare, Social Security and our federal debt. Unfortunately, postponing solutions will only make their ultimate price — and pain — more acute.