Gas Tax And The New GI Bill

With gasoline averaging $3.60 a gallon, not surprisingly, President Bush says he's willing to take a look at "any ideas" that Congress puts forth to help consumers, including a gas tax pause -- the same proposal that spokesperson Dana Perino said yesterday was a non-starter.

JOHN MCCAIN likes the idea; he's been hammering Barack Obama for allegedly being insensitive to the economic despair faced by average driver-Americans. To pay for it, McCain would divert money from "general revenues," which is a fancy way of saying that he'd find other federal programs to cut. Hillary Clinton supports a temporary tax pause, too. She's fund it with a tax on oil company profits above a certain amount. Of course, suspending the gasoline tax would probably help oil companies a bit given the inevitable rise in demand that accompanies such incentive tinkering. At $18 cents a gallon, a consumer might save two bucks a pop on gas -- enough for a newspaper and a stick of gum. The CBO concluded that the average consumer would save $30 bucks over the course of the summer, assuming they fill out about 15 times. Why doesn't Obama support this? For one, it didn't help the economy all that much when it was tried in Illinois in 2000. Two, he sees it as a gimmick that will give consumers the impression that Washington is fixing the problem while in point of fact not fixing or even tackling the real problem at all. His environmentalist allies oppose a pause because they don't want people driving more than they already do.

COMESTIC PANDERING is one explanation for what Clinton and Obama are doing. But on another, even more sensitive issue, it's hard to argue that McCain is taking the politically expedient route. He opposes the "Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act," essentially a GI Bill for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. Why? It can't be the cost -- about $4 billion a year, or less than one half of the cost of his gas tax pause. It can't be the company -- the bill is authored by Jim Webb and cosponsors include John Warner and Chuck Hagel. McCain's aides say he opposes the bill because the military fears that the incentives contained within it would persuade too many active duty soldiers to leave their service early and would, during a time of two wars, hurt overall readiness. (The U.S. military formally opposes the Webb bill.) McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham have sponsored a competing bill (though they insist it is complimentary) that would tie the level of benefits given to the amount of service rendered.

IN THE END, McCain will face enormous pressure to vote for the GI bill that Webb (and 56 other senators) will debate on the floor toward the end of the month. His Senate office wants to work with Webb to find ways to provide more incentives to those who stay in the military longer. The core proposals of the Webb bill are likely to reach the White House, with or without McCain's support.