"It was a carpet bombing," Stephen Moore, an economist with the libertarian Cato Institute, told the National Journal. Moore, who advocated the gas tax repeal in response to rising gas prices, added: "Within 24 hours, it seemed that our whole effort had been decimated."
BRIEF EXPLANATION OF SITUATION:
In response to rising motor fuel prices, protests from hundreds of truckers who descended on Capitol Hill last February and advice from pollsters who saw an opportunity to score political points with voters in an election year, leaders in the U.S. Senate made three serious attempts in 2000 to cut the federal motor fuels tax. This user fee, however, is the source of 40 percent of all highway capital improvement funding in the United States.
The American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) whose members put the gas tax to work improving the nation’s roads and bridges, launched—as described in the above quote by the Cato Institute—aggressive direct and grassroots lobbying, media relations and advocacy advertising campaigns to successfully defeat three floor votes in the U.S. Senate to cut the federal gas tax during 2000.
Established in 1902, ARTBA is the only national association that exclusively represents the collective interests of the U.S. transportation construction industry before Congress, federal agencies and the executive branch. ARTBA advocates strong federal investment in transportation infrastructure to meet public needs and demand. Its 5,000 members include construction contractors, professional engineering firms, heavy equipment manufacturers, materials and traffic safety suppliers, firms specializing in public‑private transportation ventures, state and local government transportation entities and universities.
Each time motorists fills their auto’s gas tank, they pay an 18.3 cents‑per‑gallon federal gas tax, or user fee, that is deposited in the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) to be used solely for transportation improvements. The 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA‑21) law, which authorized record federal transportation investment levels, directly links federal highway investment to incoming HTF revenue.
Reducing the federal gas tax would violate TEA‑21 and potentially halt thousands of transportation improvement projects around the country. It would also have ripple effects on highway safety and cost hundred of thousands of American jobs. Since the federal gas tax had nothing to do with the increase in gasoline prices experienced during the first six months of 2000, there was also no guarantee that a cut would even be passed on to consumers. In short, it was a perhaps well‑intentioned, but misguided approach to deal with a larger energy supply problem.
OBJECTIVES & POLITICAL OPPOSITION:
ARTBA's goals for the public affairs campaign were simple: to educate the public and elected officials that a gas tax cut would provide little relief at the gas pump, but would have devastating impacts on highway safety, mobility needs and jobs all across the nation. If ARTBA was successful in achieving these goals, it would be supporting its mission to protect the publicly-funded transportation construction market on which its members rely.
The challenge was to overcome the efforts of the Senate Majority leader and several other leading Republican senators, conservative radio commentators such as Rush Limbaugh, anti‑tax groups and the trucking industry who were the primary advocates of a gas tax cut. Since this issue was also being driven by politics, it was essential to get the two leading presidential candidates to either oppose the gas tax cut or remain neutral in the debate.
PLANNING & EXECUTION:
The association implemented a direct lobbying, grassroots, media relations, coalition building and advocacy advertising campaign to build opposition to a gas tax cut. It also included empirical research and analysis to support legislative positions, and most importantly, an around‑the‑clock presence on Capitol Hill. Target audiences included elected officials and the general public to a lesser degree.
Literally within hours of the announcement of the first gas tax rollback bill in February, ARTBA had reframed the policy debate by producing and sending to all Senate offices a state‑by‑state economic analysis (attached) that showed the enormous impact such a rollback could have on individual state highway programs. Senators quickly realized that hundreds of millions of federal highway dollars for their states would be jeopardized.
Within 48 hours, ARTBA was running full‑page print ads (attached) in Capitol Hill and Washington, D.C., publications that tied a loss in state highway to public health and safety concerns. The ad campaign was supplemented by media relations activities. ARTBA sent two background packages on the proposed motor fuels tax cut to transportation and political reporters at news services and top 100 daily newspapers, editorial writers, syndicated writers and news talk radio stations.
As a result, ARTBA's message was featured in hundreds of national newspapers around the country. According to The USA Today: "Joining [Bud] Shuster, the chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, in opposing the repeal ... a powerful trade association ... the American Road & Transportation Builders Association." The Wall Street Journal wrote: “Meantime, lobbyists representing highway and road interests are pleading with GOP leaders to keep the tax in place. ‘These proposals would have little or no immediate impact on the price consumers pay at the pump,’ said ARTBA President Pete Ruane. ‘They would, however, dramatically decrease federal highway funding for all 50 states and threaten badly needed transportation projects.’”
ARTBA President Pete Ruane penned an op‑ed (attached) for Knight Ridder news service opposing the repeal, which appeared in dozens of papers across country. An Associated Press article citing ARTBA also ran in more than 350 major newspapers. Through the news media, ARTBA's message about the negative impact of the gas tax repeal was resonating with the general public and Congress. Headlines saying: "...GOP cools on gas tax rollback" and "Republicans back off on suspension of gas tax" became common.
ARTBA and its state contractor association leaders contacted the Bush and Gore campaigns to explain the impact of a gas tax cut on the nation’s highway program. Within several days, both candidates came out in opposition to cutting the tax.
More than a dozen legislative proposals were introduced in the House and Senate to repeal or suspend the federal motor fuels tax in the following weeks. ARTBA members led the direct lobbying efforts during the attack on the Highway Trust Fund. More than 400 transportation construction executives attending ARTBA's annual convention stormed Capitol Hill March 24 to urge their congressional representatives to oppose any efforts to cut federal gas tax.
The association also issued a dozen legislative "action alerts" asking its members to call their elected officials and urge them to oppose these efforts. To further bolster grassroots support, ARTBA heavily utilized its toll‑free Information Highway‑Action Hotline phone service to provided industry activists with audio updates and a direct phone patch‑through to the White House and all congressional offices. The Hotline complemented ARTBA's advocacy services available through its Internet web page, ARTBA InfoStructure Online (www.artba.org). During the entire debate, ARTBA logged more than 4,500 documented phone calls, faxes, e‑mails and letters to Congress from its members in opposition to the gas tax cut.
To sustain these grassroots activities, ARTBA kept its members informed of the day-to-day developments through its daily Washington FAX Updates and its weekly Washington Newslines.
ARTBA worked closely with key transportation leaders in the House and Senate during the seven-month seige to rollback the gas tax. ARTBA's government affairs team held regular meetings with congressional staff to discuss the status of gas tax repeal legislative proposals and conducted telephone conference calls with other construction industry groups to coordinate lobbying activities and maintain vote count “whip reports” that were shared with our allies on Capitol Hill. ARTBA also managed and initiated the lobbying activities of the Transportation Construction Coalition, comprised of 27 national construction associations and labor unions, to serve as another industry voice in opposition to a gas tax cut.
On three separate occasions—April 6, April 12 and July 12 (timeline attached)—a bipartisan Senate voted overwhelmingly against cutting the federal gasoline tax.
In evaluating the campaign, the old cliché that "the proof is in the pudding" is applicable. Despite a highly politicized climate and populist appeal surrounding the issue, the Senate voted three separate times against cutting the gas tax. ARTBA successfully executed a public affairs campaign that protects the Highway Trust Fund and ensures transportation improvements that improve safety, reduce congestion and strengthen the economy in the best interests of the American people will go forward.