Laughing at Us, Not With Us
We the People Are the Punchline in the GOP’s Joke
We have an infrastructure crisis, and the Republicans are offering a pretend answer. On consumer protection, they aren’t even pretending.
Two items in Monday’s news cycle show us different but complementary sides of how the Republican Party is doing to this country what Donald Trump did to Stormy Daniels, except without the bribe. Alas, they also show us why it can be so hard for Democrats and liberals to explain the truth to people.
Item one is infrastructure. As you’ve heard, it’s “Infrastructure Week.” Again. The last time the White House declared it Infrastructure Week, it actually ended up being War on James Comey week. So who knows, maybe this will end up being Defend Wifebeaters Week.
But for now anyway, it’s Infrastructure Week. So the Trump proposal is billed as being a “$1.5 trillion” plan. But it’s actually a $200 billion plan, in terms of commitment of federal money. The rest is supposed to come from state and local governments, which are broke, and the private sector, which will only build highways it can make money on through tolls. It’s a joke. It’s a joke on the American people.
There’s one way to finance infrastructure that’s far, far better than all the others. Doesn’t require this game-playing, this lying. Raise the gas tax. May I say it again? Raise the gas tax.
The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents a gallon. It hasn’t been raised since 1993. The raise was tucked into Bill Clinton’s first budget—the one, you may remember, that not a single Republican in either house of Congress voted for. It was a big budget bill, so they had many other reasons to vote against it, but the gas tax increase loomed large. When he ran for president in 1996, Bob Dole even campaigned on repealing the modest ’93 increase.
Why is the gas tax the right mechanism to fund infrastructure? Well, because it’s chiefly the gas tax that fills the coffers of the Federal Highway Trust Fund, and logically enough, it’s through the Federal Highway Trust Fund that we do most of our spending on highways (and bridges, and even mass transit, too). And it’s broke. Broke, broke, broke.
If the gas tax had been indexed to inflation in 1993, it would be 31 cents today, and we’d be in far better shape. But it wasn’t and we’re not. And it’s all pretty much one man’s fault. Grover Norquist and his awful anti-tax pledge that nearly every Republican in Congress has signed makes it impossible to pass a tax increase. Republicans won’t even discuss it.
As it happens, Democrat Chuck Schumer last fall also came out against a gas tax increase, while speaking to my Beast colleague Sam Stein. Schumer believes infrastructure can be paid for through repatriation of tax dollars that we’ve let flow overseas. Maybe. But I was chagrined to read this because, in addition to just getting the money in a clean and simple way, a gas tax increase would also help break the back of the pledge. Democratic priorities aren’t going to do very well on Capitol Hill until they beat the pledge. It’s been enormously destructive.
But—and here’s why this is a tough one for Democrats politically—it’s hard for them to say this. I can say whatever I want. I write a column, I’m not seeking votes. But those seeking votes feel they still have to be careful about being for a tax. And it’s true, it’s not that I’m enthusiastic about asking working people to pay more at the pump. But it’s been 25 years. Here’s a timeline of gas tax increases. There was one 24-year interregnum, from 1959 to 1983. This one is now the longest.
So while a tax increase is verboten at the federal level, what’s happening instead? States are raising their gas taxes! Because they’re broke, and they need to fix roads. Since 2012, more than half the states have raised gas taxes, and look at which ones: Alaska, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arizona, Texas, and Alabama are among the biggest tax hikers.
Trump administration officials, interestingly, say they’re open to a gas tax hike. But they say that in part because they know it’ll never happen. And it’s also an admission that they know their financing is a scam. If it weren’t, why would they need to be open to more funding mechanisms in the first place?
So that’s item number one. Even if they pass something, it won’t come close to doing the needed job. It’s a pretend bill. We have a crisis, and the Republicans are pretending.
Number two involves the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, started under the Dodd-Frank bill thanks to Elizabeth Warren’s efforts. The CFPB has saved consumers trillions of dollars in various forms of usury and outright robbery. Trump named his OMB director, Mick Mulvaney, the interim head of the CFPB. Mulvaney, a former congressman, has long been on record as hating the bureau.
NPR’s Chris Arnold got his hands on a memo saying that the bureau will now “fulfill its statutory responsibilities but go no further.” It adds that the bureau should act “with humility and moderation.”
So now the CFPB will stop pursuing a case against Golden Valley Lending, a notorious payday lender. Arnold’s report named a Detroit woman who borrowed about $900 from Golden Valley and ended up paying the firm $3,735. In other cases it charged people as much as 950 percent interest.
Question: Who could possibly be against a government agency preventing shyster companies from charging people 900 percent interest? Seriously. Who could be against that? No ideology supports that. It’s criminal activity. There is no remote “conservative” basis for defending this. No actual, honest conservative could oppose this. But we know that someone who took $62,000 from the payday lending industry could, since Congressman Mulvaney did.
But here’s the kicker, and why I say it’s hard to get the truth out. That Detroit woman above? She voted for Trump. “To be honest I’m really mad, really pissed, because I actually voted for Trump,” Julie Bonenfant says. “So knowing that his guy threw out this case that affects people like me, I feel kind of like stupid—just kind of like betrayed.”
Well, Julie, I sympathize with your situation, I do. And I hate to say it, but you should feel a little stupid. The Republican Party is the party of payday lenders. Has been for years. It’s also the party that has made actual infrastructure repair impossible—again, for years. It’s the party that’s been blocking a minimum wage increase for years. It’s the party that’s been transferring money from people like you to people like the guy who runs Golden Valley Lending and who ripped you off. The Republicans have been the party of those people for years.
But, you know—her emails. God help us.