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Time to consider raising the fuel tax, U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO says

By John D. Schulz, Contributing Editor
October 27, 2011

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas J. Donohue said the nation must spend more on infrastructure and mildly endorsed the need to increase the federal fuel tax, which stands at18.4 cents on gasoline, 23.4 cents on diesel and has been unchanged since 1993.
   
“We haven’t had an increase in the federal fuel tax in 18 years,” Donohue said Monday at the annual meeting of the North American Transportation Employee Relations Association (NATERA) in St. Pete Beach, Fla.. “Eighteen years! We’ve got to do something there.”
 
The highway bill is stalled in Washington, although the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., recently backed a six-year, $230 billion bill. That six-year length sits well with Donohue and transport lobbyists.
 
“All of this can be done with private money if we can get a highway bill, not for six months, but six years,” Donohue said.
 
The clock is ticking, however. Barbara Hahn, chairman of Hahn Transportation, New Market, Md., and immediate past chairman of the American Trucking Associations, said unless the highway bill passes Congress by early next year, the 2012 elections will halt any work on it next summer.
 
“If we don’t have it done by next March, I don’t think it will happen at all next year,” Hahn predicted.
 
The nation needs to drive economic growth in the transportation area just like in every other business, Donohue said. He said that if economic growth could grow from 2.5 to 3.5 percent (in Gross Domestic Product), the nation could create more jobs.
   
“I’ve spent a great deal of my life in transportation, logistics and supply chain management,” said Donohue, who ran the American Trucking Associations for 13 years before reviving the Chamber’s influence in Washington. He’s been Chamber president and CEO for nine years.
 
“You can leave the trucking industry, but you can never leave truckers,” Donohue said. “I have one of the five best jobs in America but my wife, Liz, always says to me, ‘You had more fun with the truckers.’”
 
Although the official unemployment rate is 9.1 percent, Donohue said “the real figure” is closer to 14 or 15 percent. That’s why he says construction of projects like the Trans-Canada pipeline would not only help the nation’s energy problem but would produce jobs in all 50 states. That’s because that’s where components for the pipeline are produced.
 
“I was trying to figure out what Hawaii sells,” Donohue said. “Maybe it’s postcards.”
 
As far as using shale to convert to oil and natural gas, Donohue said the Trans-Canada pipeline is a two-fer—relieving the nation’s dependency on foreign oil and providing badly needed U.S. jobs.
 
“Maybe we ought to dig it up and sell it [oil],” Donohue said. “We need to be in a big hurry to create millions of jobs.”

To underscore its jobs commitment, the Chamber’s headquarters in Washington, which sits across Lafayette Park from the White House, has 26-foot high banner that reads “J-O-B-S.”
 
“We put that up so that [President] Obama would see it every morning,” Donohue said. “Don’t tell us about jobs. We were talking about jobs before anyone.”
 
Donohue said companies are sitting on cash because they are worried about the cost of regulations related to the new health care law and other red tape.
 
“Until we [resolve that], we’re not going to spend money,” Donohue said.
 
Donohue’s main priorities at the Chamber have been jobs, passing free trade agreements, less regulations, greater infrastructure spending, adjustments in entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, “serious” tax reform, amnesty for U.S. companies’ income earned overseas and more tourism with less red tape concerning visas and security.
 
“We’ve done a good job about security, but we don’t have to be jerks about it,”

Donohue said he questioned the motivation of the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters, although he said the nation needs a more even distribution of wealth for people at the lower rungs.
 
“Some of these folks, with serious frustration, have gotten a little bit off the track,” Donohue said. “I am personally worried about people who would like to divide this country right down the middle.”
 
The President recently appointed a 12-member “super committee” to find $1.4 trillion in savings over 10 years by Thanksgiving. That’s going to be next to impossible without entitlement reform or cuts in defense spending.
 
“I get into a little trouble because I call them the 12 apostles,” Donohue quipped. “That’s because I think they’re looking for Judas.”
   
In videotaped remarks delivered at the conference, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said this is a “watershed” period in U.S. history. If Republicans take control of the Senate in 2012, Hatch is in line to become chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
“If that happens, we’ll be looking at a far different agenda than what is being pursued by the Obama administration,” Hatch said.
 
Hatch said Big Labor “is fanning the flames of discord” in order to advance its agenda. He said he doesn’t blame people for believing nothing gets done in Washington amid the overheated rhetoric of both parties.
 
Donohue said presidential politics “will affect and color” virtually every issue coming up. He joked the nation needs to shorten its election cycle
 
“I am prepared to be the most hated man in Washington if that’s what it takes to take a pro-growth agenda in Congress,” Hatch said. “I am fully committed to this effort.”
 
Donohue said he was heartened by the prospect of Hatch taking control of the influential Senate Finance Committee with current chaiman Max Baucus, D-Mont., relegated to ranking minority member.
 
“That’s a team that I could get excited about,” Donohue said.

About the Author

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John D. Schulz
Contributing Editor

John D. Schulz has been a transportation journalist for more than 20 years, specializing in the trucking industry. He is known to own the fattest Rolodex in the business, and is on a first-name basis with scores of top-level trucking executives who are able to give shippers their latest insights on the industry on a regular basis. This wise Washington owl has performed and produced at some of the highest levels of journalism in his 40-year career, mostly as a Washington newsman.


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