“But he hasn’t got anything on” a little child said.
Hans Christian Andersen, The Emporer’s New Clothes
Only a politician would have thought of it and having thought of it, only another politician would have abandoned it. And who better to have thought of it than the majority leader of the United States Senate.
While people in this country are suffering gas pains because of, among other things, its price, Senator Dr. Bill Frist, (who demonstrated his medical skills a year ago by diagnosing Terry Schiavo’s medical condition from pictures he saw on television) came up with a prescription to ease those pains. His prescription was to give every man woman and child in the country who drives a vehicle with a 33-gallon gas tank in a town where gas costs $3.00 a gallon or more, ONE FREE FILL UP. The less fortunate who drive cars with only 16-gallon gas tanks were not to be penalized for their choice of vehicle. They were to get two free fill ups.
Many readers thought there was some kind of a catch as there is with the earned income credit. That credit is unavailable unless a family’s income is below a certain level. That’s not the case with Mr. Frist’s proposal. The only people who would have been disqualified from receiving the free tank of gas were the super rich among us. Under Mr. Frist’s proposal, single persons were cut off from the free gas only if they had income in excess of $149,950. Married couples were cut off only when their gross incomes exceeded $218,950. That means the great majority of my readers could look forward to receiving their free gas notwithstanding high incomes.
As welcome as this news seemed to be, some wondered how much this would cost the federal government and how it proposed to pay for this extraordinarily generous gesture. The answer was it would cost next to nothing to provide this benefit (together with a short term temporary suspension of the 18.4 cents per gallon retail gasoline tax that was also being proposed by the Republican leadership). Republican spokespeople estimated it would cost less than $20 billion for the two programs and that’s not much to pay to, among other things, put one tank of gas in an entire nation’s cars. The U.S. national debt that, together with the dead and wounded in Iraq promise to be Mr. Bush’s most important gifts to the American people, is $8,368,095,161,215.31 as of April 29th, according to the U.S. National Debt Clock. According to the Clock, the national debt increases at the rate of $2.06 billion daily, so an additional $20 billion is only another ten days added to the debt. That’s hardly noticeable.
Furthermore, Mr. Frist had figured out a way to pay for it that might avoid increasing the size of the national debt. The money was to come from opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. In addition to the revenue generated thereby, opening up the Artic refuge meant increased domestic oil production and more oil production means lower prices and lower prices help all who buy gas.
A logical question at this point was, “What about the poor people who don’t have cars and have no use for free gas?” For them there was good news. Although I said that the Frist proposal was to give everyone free gas, I just said that to provide an example of how Mr. Frist’s proposal might affect a typical citizen. Mr. Frist’s actual proposal was to send each and every one of us a check for $100. If you had just filled up your car with gas when the check arrived, it would be all right for you to take the $100 and buy food for your family.
The White House doesn’t recognize other people’s nutty ideas because it has so many of its own on which it focusses. Therefore, Mr. Frist’s proposal was warmly greeted by the administration. U.S. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman said: “It certainly has merit. Whenever you have a proposal of that sort there’s always the question of unintended consequences, so we will be doing analysis.”
Mr. Frist’s colleagues went home for the weekend and quickly learned that it lacked merit. Their constitutents saw what the White House and Mr. Frist didn’t see. They told their Senators what they saw. What they saw was that Mr. Frist’s proposal made him look more like the Senate’s Chief Fool than its majority leader. Upon returning to Washington, House majority leader, John Boehner of Ohio said: “I just think that trying to satisfy voters with a $100 voucher is insulting. Over the weekend, I heard about it from my constituents a few times. They thought it was stupid.” Senator John Kyle of Arizona described it as “a silly idea.” He got it right. Mr. Frist got it wrong. That’s not a first-at least not for him.