Congressional Republicans will launch today Phase 2 of their coordinated attack on gasoline prices - an attack that has all the markings of a political campaign.
They will start with a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee, which will listen to car owners, truck drivers, bus operators and others who, not surprisingly, are expected to say they don’t like the high price of gas.
That, followed by news conferences and more hearings in the House next week, is designed to bolster the charge by the party and its beleaguered presidential candidate, Bob Dole, that a Democrat-approved increase in the federal gas tax three years ago is the reason gas prices shot up this year.
Republicans plan to approve a repeal of the 4.3 cent-per-gallon tax increase before Memorial Day, the start of the summer driving season.
In the Great Gas War of the 1996 election year, the first casualty has been facts. On both sides.
On the Republican side, Dole and his colleagues only talk about the 4.3 cents added to the tax by President Clinton and the Democrat Congress in 1993. They conveniently fail to mention the rest of the federal gas tax, particularly the 10 cents per gallon added by Dole and other Republicans.
On the Democratic side, Clinton wants to be seen as the activist leader who already turned back rising gas prices, by releasing 12 million barrels of government-stored oil. The Democratic National Committee rushed out statements lauding the heroic president for his “swift and decisive action” that “immediately caused a drop in prices.”
What the Democrats do not mention is that it wasn’t really the president’s decision to sell the oil. It was a federal budget bill that ordered the president to sell the oil to help reduce the deficit - a bill passed by the Republican Congress.
And neither party likes to mention that oil prices actually had peaked several weeks ago and already were coming down when the politicians discovered they had gone up.
“It’s a feeding frenzy,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at Claremont College near Los Angeles.
The jump in gas prices proved irresistible for the Dole campaign and the rest of the Republican Party.
For weeks, they had languished, as Clinton and the Democrats pushed for an increase in the minimum wage. It was a move, Democrats said, desperately needed by hard-pressed working people. Democrats sidestepped questions about why they said nothing about this desperate need during the two previous years when they controlled the White House and Congress.
“Dole needed something, he was grasping around for something that would separate him from Bill Clinton, to counter the minimum wage,” Jeffe said.
That was easy enough. Blame the 1996 increase in gas prices on the 1993 tax increase.
As a political move, it’s a twofer.
“It gives Republicans an opportunity to remind people that Clinton raised taxes … and to push their ‘no tax is a good tax’ position,” said Barbara Sinclair, a political scientist at the University of CaliforniaRiverside.
In the meantime, local Republicans are massaging the message. Here, it is the Clinton gas tax increase. But in Minnesota, for instance, the state GOP is urging repeal of Democratic Sen. Paul “Wellstone’s 1993 gas tax increase.”
On Thursday, Laura Tyson, Clinton’s chief economic adviser, conceded that oil prices were already expected to come down when Clinton made the decision to execute the congressionally mandated oil sale now. Still, she said his action probably speeded the decline.
“Clinton dominated the headlines with his selfless releasing of all of this oil,” Jeffe said. “Three or four days later, it’s explained that it was largely symbolic, but he got the headlines when it counted.”