|GAS TAX DEBATE|
May 7, 1996
JIM LEHRER: We go first tonight to the gas tax debate. The 4.3 cent tax was part of the 1993 budget bill which a then Democratic Congress passed without any Republican votes. Now with gas prices lurching up in recent weeks, the gas tax is back on the political agenda, and here to debate the issue are two Senators, Republican Trent Lott of Mississippi, the Senate Majority Whip, and Democrat Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. Senators, welcome. Senator Lott, where do things stand tonight? Is there going to be a vote on the gas tax, and, if so, when?
SEN. TRENT LOTT, Majority Whip: Well, we certainly hope so, and we will try it again tomorrow to bring it up as a part of a bill that would provide some additional relief for taxpayers called the taxpayers relief bill No. 2. You know, it's interesting that this is the tax freedom day. This is the first day of the year that people are able to work and get to keep their money. Up until now they've been having to pay taxes, so we're trying very hard to repeal this gasoline tax that we don't think was fair, and it's not just gasoline. It also applies to diesel and jet fuel. The Majority Leader will make another proposal on the next day on Wednesday that will allow us to get it up, and I believe that we will reach a point where we do get a vote to repeal the gas tax, and it will pass the Senate.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Senator Dorgan, are the Democrats going to go along with it tomorrow?
SEN. BYRON DORGAN, (D) North Dakota: Well, I mean, this is another campaign stop on the floor of the Senate. That's what this is all about. I mean, you know, we have the attention span of a house fly around here. I thought the subject was to reduce the federal deficit, and we've taken some tough steps to try to do that, and now the price of gas spikes up twenty or thirty cents a gallon, and having nothing to do with the 4.3 cent gas tax that was imposed several years ago, all of a sudden the subject is a 4.3 cent gas tax. Why not the dime gas tax that was supported by Sen. Dole in the 1980s and early 1990s? This is all politics, and, you know, we probably won't have a vote on repealing the gas tax. I assume at some point they can force that. 'We're suggesting that we also ought to have a vote on some other things that are important to us, adjusting the minimum wage, which has been frozen for five years.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Lott, why not have just simple up or down votes on these things? Democrats want to vote on the minimum wage, you all want to vote on the gas tax, but everybody keeps adding other things to it. Why not just have one on each and go home?
SEN. LOTT: Well, first of all, I want to go back to the gas tax a second.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
SEN. LOTT: I'll answer your question directly. But, you know, the thing that offended me the most about the gas tax when it was passed in 1993 was that that money all went into general treasury. It didn't go into the highway trust fund to build highways and bridge which we do, in fact, need. That 4.3 cents a gallon gas tax, it may not be big, but it is a little relief that people can enjoy from the spike in gasoline taxes. I mean, they have gone up 20 to 30 cents a gallon in the last couple of months. This is a tax we should never have put on gasoline. We have over 14 cents a gallon federal gas tax in addition to this. And we should give the people this relief. That's all we're saying, but it may be politics, but it's also I think good judgment. It's good for the people, the working people, and let me answer your other question--
JIM LEHRER: I'll tell you what. We'll come back to my political question in a minute.
SEN. LOTT: All right.
JIM LEHRER: Let's stay on the gas tax.
SEN. LOTT: All right.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Dorgan, what about that? Why not give people the relief?
SEN. DORGAN: Well first of all, it was done to reduce the federal deficit. The federal deficit has been cut in half in the last three years, but the point is the price spiked up 20 or 30 cents a gallon, and, you know, that had nothing to do with the gas tax. We ought to investigate the oil industry, find out what has caused the price increase. It's a little like driving a car down the road and it starts to overheat, and you've got steam coming out of the hood, and so you pull the car over and decide to fix your tire. I mean, there's no relationship here, and I guess I would hope that all of us in the Senate would decide that the first agenda here is to reduce the federal budget deficit. Now, when they talk about the gas tax, it's interesting, Dick Armey over in the House of Representatives, the Majority Leader, said, well, let's cut the gas tax and we'll pay for it by cutting education. I can't think of a worse idea. I can't think of a single worse idea than doing that. So I hope we'll get back to basics here. We ought to have an up or down vote on a range of these things. I don't want to retreat on dealing with the federal deficit. This federal deficit's coming d down because we've taken some hard choices, made some tough decisions.
JIM LEHRER: And your point, Sen. Dorgan, is that if you remove the 4.3--the 4.3 cent gas tax, that money has to be made up somewhere else--
SEN. DORGAN: Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: And it'll increase--well, Senator Lott, what about that?
SEN. LOTT: We will have offsets where it won't add to the deficit. We do have a couple of provisions in our bill that would do just that. I don't, again, the Democrats always say the way to deal with the deficit is by raising taxes. I maintain the best way to deal with the deficit is by controlling spending and by giving some incentives for growth in the economy. That's the way to deal with the problem.
JIM LEHRER: Do you--Sen. Lott, do you support Congressman Armey's proposal that, that the offset be in education spending?
SEN. LOTT: No, I don't support that, and I don't think he made any specific proposal in that regard but regardless of that, I don't support that.
SEN. DORGAN: Well, the point is, Congressman Armey this weekend, who's an enthusiast for cutting the gas tax at this moment, apparently because the price of gas is spiked up by the oil industry, he says, well, we could make this up by cutting education. And my point is I think that's a fundamentally dumb idea. Education is an investment in our country's future. So I mean--I--
SEN. LOTT: I would like to say that the gas tax increase going in the general treasury was a fundamentally dumb idea too, but, you know, we talked about--
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Lott, what will happen if this 4.3 tax is, is repealed? Will that automatically go out and reduce the price of gasoline by that at the pump?
SEN. LOTT: I don't think it's necessarily automatic, but there's no question that retailers are not going to, you know, refuse to take action when they see the Congress actually bolts to reduce a repeal that 4.3 cent gasoline tax, it will come down, and it does provide some relief to people. They may say in Washington, oh, it won't provide much help, but a person that has to drive long distances in North Dakota or Mississippi to get to work, you know, fifty or seventy-five dollars a year does make a difference.
SEN. DORGAN: But I think that's a key point. The point is they can reduce the gas tax tomorrow morning at 9 o'clock in the morning and there's no guarantee at all that the large oil companies are going to pass that through to the consumer. In fact, the--you know, the folks that drive up to the gas pumps and pump gas, I'd like to say to them if you're going to reduce the gas tax, let's guarantee it goes in the right pocket. We've got small pockets and big pockets in this country. Let's make sure this benefits the drivers.
JIM LEHRER: How would you do that? How would you do that?
SEN. DORGAN: Well, they've done it in their piece of legislation. They've put a sense of the Congress resolution. Why did they do that? Because they can't provide the guarantee that this is going to go anywhere other than the pockets of the big oil industry.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Lott.
SEN. DORGAN: So I'm going to offer an amendment on it, by the way--
SEN. LOTT: Well, one thing will be for sure, that we will have instead of 18.6 cents a gallon or whatever it is federal taxes, we'll only have 14 cents. I do think we should have an investigation by the Justice Department and by Congress why we had this big jump up in prices. But while we're finding out why we had the big jump, we can at least provide relief to working Americans by giving them this 4.3 cent federal tax back. It will get to the people, and the price will come down as a result of it.
JIM LEHRER: What about Sen. Dorgan's point, Sen. Lott, that there's no connection between this 20 cent hike and the 4.3 cent tax?
SEN. LOTT: Well, there's no immediate connection, but there's no question that that tax is on there and we can provide some immediate relief to the workers of America that are having to drive to work by rolling back a 4.3 cent gasoline tax which we should never have passed in the first place.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Let's go to the politics. Sen. Dorgan said, Sen. Lott, that all this is, is the Presidential campaign being played out on the Senate floor. Is that--is he right?
SEN. LOTT: (laughing) Politics in the Senate? I mean, look at what's going on. We made an offer this afternoon to have a straight vote on the gasoline tax and a straight vote on the minimum wage tax and a vote on what is known as the Team Act. It allows for employer/employee communications and working together in the work place, and they rejected that. They've been saying they're worried about the working Americans when we gave them a chance to get a vote on repealing the gasoline tax and a minimum wage vote. They rejected it because the labor bosses don't want employees and employers to be able to work together.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Dorgan.
SEN. DORGAN: Well, with all due respect, they control the floor of the Senate these days, and they couldn't organize a two-float parade. The fact is, uh, we can easily deal with these issues one by one as you implied with the previous question, bring it up for a vote and see what happens.
SEN. LOTT: Let me tell you--
SEN. DORGAN: But, instead, we're involved in this convoluted procedure to try to prevent things from coming to the--
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Dorgan--
SEN. DORGAN: --Senate floor.
JIM LEHRER: But Sen. Dorgan, aren't you Democrats playing the same game by, by adding minimum wage to everything in order to force that vote?
SEN. DORGAN: Yes, but we wouldn't do that at all if they'd simply give us an opportunity to offer them at any other time. We're simply saying to them, give us an opportunity to offer the things we think are important, and we'll back off any amendments to anything.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Sen. Lott, why won't you all do that?
SEN. LOTT: They want to run the Senate. They are in the minority. We are in the majority. Let me tell you what would happen. We would get a straight vote on the minimum wage, which would more than likely pass, a straight vote on repealing the gasoline tax, which will probably pass, and then when we got to the one allowing employer-employee relations to, to exist, they would filibuster it. They would filibuster it and block a direct vote on the issue so--and tell me that's not politics.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Dorgan, is that politics? Would you do that, first of all, and if you would do it, is it politics?
SEN. DORGAN: Well, he knows a lot about filibusters because his party spent the better part of a decade filibustering in the Senate, so it's not--it's not exactly a new device, but our point is this. Our point, we don't want the Senate to, to collapse in bickering. We want to advance public policies that we think are good for this country. It's not good public policy to say let's cut the gas tax and pay for it by cutting our kids' education. That's not good policy, so let's take that to the floor and have a vote on it--
SEN. LOTT: That's not in our proposal.
SEN. DORGAN: --if that's what's being offered.
SEN. LOTT: That's not in our proposal.
SEN. DORGAN: Well, it's what the Majority Leader of the House proposed, and it doesn't make any sense.
JIM LEHRER: Well, starting with you, Sen. Dorgan, are you too concerned about what this looks like to the average voter out there? You've got a situation where you just said, both of you agree, that when minimum wage comes to a vote, it's going to pass, when repealing the gas tax comes to a vote, it's going to pass, and each in your own way are forbidding that from happening.
SEN. DORGAN: Well, look, I don't want to prevent either from happening. The dilemma we have, as you know, for the first time in history the Majority Leader of the Senate is running for President against an incumbent President, and the floor of the Senate looks like a political convention these days, and you know, I'm not suggesting that the political system shouldn't have some politics in it, but the American people expect a lot better of us. They want us to solve problems for this country.
JIM LEHRER: Are you saying, Sen. Dorgan, that if Sen. Dole were not the Republican nominee for President you'd already had your up or down vote on minimum wage?
SEN. DORGAN: Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: And you would--and the Democrats--
SEN. LOTT: No, they wouldn't have.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Lott.
SEN. LOTT: No, they wouldn't have. Absolutely not.
SEN. DORGAN: We wouldn't have the gas tax proposal on the floor.
SEN. LOTT: There would be others of us that would block the way they're doing this. What they're doing--you talk about politics--this whole thing, both in opposing the employer-employee relationship and also pushing for minimum wage is a payoff for 35 million dollars by labor unions into Democratic campaigns. That's what that's all about. Now, having said that, I do think the best thing for us to do in the Senate is try to work together as we have earlier this year on telecommunications reform, the Farm Bill, on immigration reform. When we come together, we don't get everything we want, but we get results to the American people.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Lott, what about--what is your answer to the question I just answered--just asked Sen. Dorgan about what this looks like to voters? Here are two clean issues, yes or no, and for some reason you all won't, won't do it.
SEN. LOTT: We offered the Democrats the opportunity to have clear votes on those issues today, and they objected to it. We're going to try again on Wednesday.
JIM LEHRER: What I mean is one at a time, not altogether, in two or three--
SEN. LOTT: We offered for a clean, straight vote on minimum wage, and a vote on the repeal of the gas tax, coupled with a Team Act, but no reason why we have to couple the Team Act because the Democrats will filibuster it, drag out the debate. We won't be able to get a vote--
SEN. DORGAN: And I think you just heard the answer. The fact is they didn't offer clean votes on two things--
SEN. LOTT: We offered a vote, a clean vote on what you said you wanted, minimum wage.
SEN. DORGAN: What we should have in the Senate is a set of public issues that come to the Senate, we debate them, and then we cast a vote, and the winning side wins. The American people are treated to a spectacle of bickering about a whole lot of things that are not at the top of their list for what we need to do in this country for its future.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Lott, you said at the very beginning that Sen. Dole was going to come up with a new proposal tomorrow and break this. What is that going to be, sir?
SEN. LOTT: Well, basically that we would have as a base bill the gas tax bill and we would have a clean vote on the minimum wage, a clean vote on the employer-employee--
JIM LEHRER: One at a time? One at a time?
SEN. LOTT: One at a time. One at a time. And then if they both pass or one passes and the other one doesn't, that would be added to the base bill. The gas tax repeal would go to final passage, and that would be it.
JIM LEHRER: You'll buy that, Sen. Dorgan?
SEN. DORGAN: Well, this is kind of make up your own rules as you go game. I'm not sure they know what they're going to bring to the floor tomorrow.
SEN. LOTT: I'm telling you--
SEN. DORGAN: They didn't know what they were going to bring today but we'll see. We're willing to be reasonable. Anything they want to do that gives us an opportunity to advance good public policy we're for that.
SEN. LOTT: I've got the proposal right here, I have put it in the hand of Sen. Kennedy, that would give straight, clean votes on those three issues, and all they have to do is say yes, just say yes, we can deal with these issues, and move on to other issues.
JIM LEHRER: Are you going to say yes, Sen. Dorgan?
SEN. LOTT: Well, you know, we've seen what they've written before that doesn't turn out quite the way we've written it--
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
SEN. LOTT: But I hope this gets resolved tomorrow. If they give clean votes on all these issues, I think that we'll resolve them and we'll have the votes.
JIM LEHRER: Well, we've got to say goodbye. Thank you both very much. We'll see what happens tomorrow.