Kirk Landers: Lobbyists, lawyers and taxes

Lobbyists, lawyers and taxes


By Kirk Landers

Several of the people I admire most in the world are lobbyists. I know, that’s a shameful admission in today’s America, where lobbyists rank with lawyers, slightly above people who have committed violent crimes against humanity and slightly below fraudulent bankers.

            The lobbyists I admire have been working the halls of Capitol Hill for years, educating senators and representatives and their staff members on the issues of the highway and bridge industry. What I admire about them is that they haven’t lost their belief in democracy and our political system, even though they see the worst side of politics quite regularly: to wit, “The Congressman/Senator/President knows roads are important and jobs are important, but right now that’s not important because something less important to the country is more important to him/her right now.”

            Those who participated in the Transportation Construction Coalition (TCC) fly in last May got a brief taste of that bitter pill as they moved from one office to the next to drum up support for a new, expanded federal transportation program to replace the SAFETEA-LU program that ends this fall.

            In the strange world of Washington, D.C. diplomacy, you were not supposed to talk about it out loud, but the elephant in the room during every meeting was the fact that House Republicans had made it known they would oppose an increase in the fuel tax.

            The other imposing figure in every room was that of President Barack Obama, author of trillions of dollars of deficit spending — and author of repeated public statements that his Administration opposes any increase in the fuel tax.

            If this doesn’t drive you to despair, or at the very least, to drink, let’s review just a few facts:

  • The fuel tax has not been increased since 1993, so the Highway Trust Fund that it endows has lost billions of dollars of spending power due to inflation. During that time, highway usage has increased at an exponential rate compared to highway capacity increases.
  • Many leading Republicans criticized the Obama stimulus package because it didn’t have enough road and bridge money in it.
  • President Obama spoke eloquently about the need to modernize our dilapidated highways when he was pushing the stimulus package.

            So the Democratic leadership in the House is planning to propose an expanded transportation program that will be funded by, uh, “other revenue sources.”

            You hope when you hear that expression the “other revenue” source will be that classic political ploy, a tax increase that isn’t called a tax increase because even though it raises taxes it can be called something else. Such as, perhaps, indexing the fuel tax retroactively.

            I know, arguing for any kind of tax increase in today’s America is worse than hobnobbing with lobbyists and lawyers, and maybe just as bad as committing crimes against humanity.

            Who knows how many promising lives would be lost if the average American motorist had to cough up an extra, say, $300 in fuel taxes a year. That’s the equivalent of five or six cartons of cigarettes in many states, or maybe a hundred really sugary coffee drinks with five or more words in their names. It could mean the average American would have to give up hundreds of fast-food meals, losing maybe 400 calories per dollar spent.

            We could waste away to nothing.

            But the fuel tax is worth lobbying for. Because it is a user fee. Because it’s the fairest tax we have: every cent of the federal fuel tax goes into transportation.

            And raising the fuel tax is worth lobbying for because our transportation system is dying from underinvestment.

            So to our lobbyists, I say, keep fighting the good fight. And to you, I say the same thing. This is America. This is American politics. If you want something, you have to keep telling the story.