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Palace Coup: President Ronald Reagan and the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982

The Palace Coup

Despite this setback, Lewis would convince the President in late 1982. A key factor was that the Nation still was in the severe recession. Through the year leading up to off-year congressional elections in November, the economy deteriorated, as did Reagan's popularity. Reagan's approval ratings dropped as deficits increased, interest rates rose as high as 20 percent, unemployment reached 10 percent, even higher for minorities, and the Rust Belt of declining industrial States suffered near-Depression conditions.

Critics compared him to his Republican predecessor, Herbert Hoover (1929-1933), whose actions in the early years of the Depression only worsened conditions. Cannon summarized the situation as it deteriorated in 1982:

Reagan, whose jaunty optimism rekindled memories of Franklin Roosevelt, was compared in these hard times to Herbert Hoover instead. Arriving at a Minneapolis political fund-raiser in February 1982, Reagan was greeted by a banner proclaiming "Welcome President Hoover." In June, organizers for the homeless pitched a ramshackle "tent city" in the shadow of the White House and conducted similar encampments in fourteen other cities. The tent cities were called "Reagan ranches" and were intended to evoke memories of the Depression shantytowns known as "Hoovervilles." The White House dismissed the protest as a publicity stunt, but disillusionment with Reagan's leadership was evident in the public opinion polls. Reagan's approval ratings, stratospheric after the assassination attempt [on March 30, 1981, as the President emerged from a luncheon address to the AFL-CIO at the Washington Hilton Hotel] and high throughout the spring and early summer of 1981, tumbled with the economy. When the nation edged into recession in midsummer, Reagan's approval rating stood at 60 percent. It fell to 49 percent by year's end and continued dropping. By the end of 1982, only 41 percent of Americans said they approved of Reagan's governance, a substantially lower rating than his four elected predecessors had received after two years in the White House. [Cannon, p. 196-197]

By fall 1982, the off-year election season was underway, with the entire House and one-third of the Senate up for reelection. On September 25, 1982, President Reagan had discussed the election in his weekly radio address. He described the dire situation he inherited when he took office in January 1981, proclaiming that his Administration was "winning the war the experts said was hopeless." Inflation had been cut in half, down to 5.1 percent. As for jobs, unemployment had been "averaging 7 percent since 1976." He explained:

Rising inflation pushed up interest rates in the late 1970's, and together they hit us like a one-two punch, sending shock waves through the economy . . . . To make matters worse, as high inflation and interest rates were crippling the economy's ability to provide jobs, they were forcing more families to seek a second income. Well, this all came home to roost in 1980, when inflation reached double digits for the second straight year and interest rates soared to 21½ percent—their highest peak in more than a century.

Pointing out that he inherited the economic situation he had just described, he continued:

I don't believe that it follows that those who took us to the edge of economic Armageddon are automatically best qualified to lecture us now on the most fair, effective way to end the crisis. And when those same individuals charge our administration fights inflation by putting people out of work, I say they're exploiting helpless people for their own political gain. It's the most cynical form of demagoguery.

Creating jobs, he said, "can only come from continued progress against inflation." Interest rates were down to 13½ percent, but he would continue to fight to lower them because "if the public senses we're giving up the fight against inflation, those who lend money will demand higher interest rates, and we'll be right back in the soup with even higher unemployment." One point he wanted to make clear:

There's only one major cause of our economic problems: government spending more than it takes in and sending you the bill. There's only one permanent cure: bringing government spending in line with government revenues.

He opposed efforts by liberals who wanted to eliminate the third year of the tax cuts he had approved the previous year:

This will only give government more money to spend, weaken savings, and hurt those who need help most—lower- and middle-income taxpayers, the backbone of this country. We're not going to let them do it. We need less spending.

He endorsed "an historic measure" that had been approved by the Senate and "supported by 80 percent of the public," namely a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. The measure was stalled in the House. "It's tragic at this late date that those who controlled the Congress for so long and spent us to the brink of bankruptcy are still playing politics with these problems and the suffering they caused." He hoped they would realize that "much more than an off-year election is at stake."

President Reagan took a strong position on taxes during a press conference on September 28, 1982, in response to a question from Helen Thomas, White House Correspondent for United Press International:

Q. Mr. President, your aides are currently at work on a new budget that you'll present to Congress next year. Knowing of your great distaste for taxes and tax increases, can you assure the American people now that you'll flatly rule out any tax increases, revenue enhancers, or specifically an increase in the gasoline tax?
The President. Unless there's a palace coup and I'm overtaken— [laughter] —or overthrown, no, I don't see the necessity for that. I see the necessity for more economies, more reductions in government spending. And I can't say anything about the 1984 budget, because in 3 days we come to the beginning of the fiscal 1983 year, and we still don't have a budget. I haven't had a single appropriation bill to sign as yet, and they're all going to go home in a few days.

On November 2, 1982, voters left the Senate in Republican hands, with no change in the balance between Republicans (54) and Democrats (46). However, the Democrats retained control of the House of Representatives, gaining 26 seats to increase their numbers to 267 members compared with 168 Republicans.

The following day, the President held a news conference in the Rose Garden to express his satisfaction that Republicans had retained control of the Senate, while the losses in the House were less than the average for the first off-year election following a change in President. When a reporter asked if the President was "going to stay the course with high deficits," the President replied:

Are we going to stay the course with high deficits? We're going to stay the course, because the best way to reduce the high deficits is to continue the reduction of unnecessary Federal spending and the necessity of restoring the economic base, because the high deficits have come about through several factors. But one of the most important is the high unemployment, which has taken people off the tax rolls and at the same time has increased the output for subsistence for those people who are penalized by unemployment. So, when we can get the economy back working again, that will take care of the revenues that are necessary to help us reduce those deficits.

That month, the Administration was finalizing details of its budget proposal for FY 1984. Stockman was trying to convince the President that under the proposal as drafted, "the already frightening deficit would soar to $2777 billion by 1986." The President resisted tax increases to reduce the deficit because he was convinced budget cuts would suffice. Stockman had an idea to break through the President's optimism about budget cuts:

By the end of 1982, the fiscal situation was an utter, mind-numbing catastrophe.

To convince the President it really was as bad as I was saying, I invented a multiple-choice budget quiz . . . . The quiz divided the entire budget up into about fifty spending components and gave him three spending-cut choices on each, ranging from a nick to a heavy whack . . . .

The President enjoyed the quiz immensely. He sat there day after day with his pencil. He listened to his senior staff and the economic team discuss the relevant policy and political ramifications, then announced his choice and marked the appropriate box.

And rarely chose to make a whack. They were mostly nicks. "Yes," he would say, "we can't go that far." Or, "No, we better go for the moderate option or there will be a drumbeat from the opposition."

When the exercise ended, President Reagan was surprised by the grade Stockman gave him. "After making all his cuts, the five-year deficit remained at a staggering $800 billion." Moreover, "the total national debt would reach two trillion dollars by 1988." When discussion turned to taxes, Stockman recounted, the President banged his fist on the table. He said, "I don't want to hear any more talk about taxes. The problem is deficit spending!"

They continued developing the budget in December, finally convincing the President in early January to include a "trigger" tax increase of $50 billion in the FY 1984 budget. The increase would go into effect in 3 years if Congress made all the spending cuts he wanted, the economy was not still in recession, and recovery had not lowered the deficit to 2.5 percent of gross national product or less. Stockman described the scene when the budget was placed before the President for approval with the trigger tax in January 1983,

"You're telling me this trigger tax is actually going to happen, aren't you?" The President sounded crushed.

"Yes," I answered, "I don't see how it can be avoided."

"Oh darn, oh darn. It just can't be. I never thought it would come to this." Slowly he took out his pen and scratched "RR" on the paper. [Triumph, p. 385-395, italics in the original]

While the President was enjoying his budget quiz, Secretary Lewis briefed the President and the Cabinet Council on Economic Affairs on November 10, 1982, regarding the proposal to increase the gas tax by a nickel to raise $5.5 billion a year for highways, bridges, and mass transportation. Senator Dole, the former Vice Presidential candidate who was Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, favored such a plan, while Representative Dan Rostenkowski (D-Il.), Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, considered the increase a near certainty. In addition, Democrats were developing a public works jobs bill involving roads, bridges, mass transit, and public buildings that they hoped to enact during the lame-duck special session of Congress that would convene on November 29.

Following the Cabinet session, White House Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes told reporters that the President had not decided whether to support the gas tax proposal. He wanted to make clear, though, that the President was not reversing his opposition to a tax increase for a public works program. Speakes explained that the gasoline tax was not a tax but a "user fee." Moreover, the program was needed to improve roads, bridges, and mass transit, and was not the 1930's style "make-work" public works program that the President opposed.

Secretary Lewis confirmed this explanation when he told reporters, "We have highways and bridges that are falling down around our ears—that's really the thrust of the program." News reports indicated that Budget Director Stockman, who "has previously argued that the administration should get out of the road-building business entirely," still opposed the proposal. [Hoffman, David, "President Hints Gas Tax Rise," The Washington Post, November 11, 1982]

With the meeting in the news, Helen Thomas again raised the topic during a November 11 press conference:

Q. Mr. President, at your last news conference you said it would take a palace coup for you to approve a five-cent-a-gallon increase in gasoline—build highways and create jobs. Have you changed your mind? And I'd like to follow up, if I may.
The President. Well, Helen, I don't think that I said it with reference to that. I said that on a general subject of tax increases, as such, it would take a palace coup.
Q. It was specifically—[ inaudible].
The President. But on the thing that we're talking about, this particular subject is under discussion. But it was under discussion a year ago, and at that time I asked the Department of Transportation, Drew Lewis, the Secretary, to hold off certainly for another year because of the economic problems that we face.
I don't view this proposal as, let's say, a job-creating program, although, obviously, there would be jobs created by going forward with that effort. But what we're talking about here is, also—and we have used the term to try and make people understand what it would be—that if we do it, it would be a user fee. It would be dedicated to the rebuilding of our highways and bridges. This is a problem that must be met sooner or later. I wish the economy were such that we didn't have to worry about it at all.
But it is still under discussion. No decision has been made. And if it is put into effect, it isn't anything that would in any way reduce the incentive features of our tax cuts, because the average individual's tax would only—for that purpose—would only go up about $30 a year.
Q. It sounds like you're leaning toward it . . . .
The President. Well, Helen, we're doing a number of things to help the people that are out of work . . . .

Later in the news conference, Kathy Lewis of The Houston Post tried to pin the President down:

Q. Mr. President, back on the gasoline tax. Secretary Lewis briefed you yesterday. Can you at least tell us what you see as some of the pros and cons of that proposal-particularly the mass transit aspect? And can you make it equitable for all States, or will some States bear an unfair burden of that tax?
The President. Well, again, as I indicated earlier, you'll have to wait on that one, because that one was just presented yesterday.
No decision has been made. It is under consultation and deep thought by all of us, and we are faced with the need, both at the local and State level and for our own interstate—the Federal highway system. And the program that has been proposed deals with both those problems. But you'll just have to wait and see if we make a—what decision we make.

On November 22, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, Jr. (D-Ma.) and Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker, Jr. (R-Tn.) announced that they would seek approval of a 5-cent a gallon gas tax increase during the lame-duck session of Congress. Their proposal was similar to Secretary Lewis' plan to use the revenue for highway and mass transportation projects. Although some pressure was being placed on them to hold the proposal until 1983, many Members of Congress felt pressure to enact a bill that would generate jobs in a tough economic period.

The Administration and Congress were still debating the concept, as well as how to describe it. In an article bylined November 22, The New York Times explained:

While the President has described the proposal as a highway repair program, the majority leader, Howard H. Baker Jr., Republican of Tennessee, called it a "highway jobs" program, and the Speaker, Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., said, "Our first priority must be to put the millions of unemployed back to work."

. . . Similarly, Mr. Reagan has termed the proposed method of financing a "user fee," while both Congressional leaders flatly called it a "gasoline tax."

Both Congressional leaders have said that they viewed the elections earlier this month as a mandate for Government action to reduce unemployment, now at 10.4 percent. White House aides have contended that such an interpretation implied the failure of the President's economic program, and they disputed that implication. [Tolchin, Martin, "O'Neill and Baker to Seek Tax to Aid Road Repair Plan," The New York Times, November 23, 1982]

The trucking industry was the main opponent of the proposal, which included higher taxes on heavy trucks. Lewis tried to secure support from trucking interests by supporting higher, uniform weight limits. The Times explained Lewis' message to the industry:

Get behind the program or he will not support Federal uniform size and weight limits, long a goal of the industry. Currently, states have varying weight limits, so interstate truckers must generally conform to the restrictions requiring the lowest weight. The industry favors raising the limits in states where they are now low.

The industry did not accept the tradeoff. In the view of the ATA's Kiley, the "relief" would be more than offset by the higher taxes on truck use. He said, "We will not accept the taxes he is proposing. They are confiscatory, and we will fight them in Congress." Kiley recognized that highway officials, the construction industry, and AAA supported the tax increase, "but we're the ones paying it." [Holsendolph, Ernest, "U.S. and Trucking Industry Fight on Tax Plan," The New York Times, November 23, 1982]

In Orlando, Florida, Lewis responded to the industry's views during a Keynote Address to the annual meeting of AASHTO on November 22. He outlined the basis for the proposed tax increase, noting that the increase was timely for three reasons. First, "There is a large and ever-growing need for the rehabilitation of our highways, bridges and transit systems." The second reason was that under current law, the Highway Trust Fund would expire at the end of FY 1983. "Third, the five cent increase we are proposing would generate 170,000 direct and indirect jobs in the construction industries, which currently have a 23 percent unemployment rate, and stimulate an estimated 150,000 jobs in other sectors of the economy."

Based on the cost allocation study, he said that proposals to increase taxes on the heaviest combination trucks addressed cost equity. Trucks as a whole would pay their fair share in 1985 under the current tax structure, but the heaviest combination trucks would pay only about 60 percent of their fair share. "The heaviest trucks, in other words, would be subsidized by the light and medium weight trucks," which is "contrary to the basic user fee principle."

In return for the increase, trucker efficiency would grow with elimination of "a patchwork system of differing size and weight standards" among the States. If the trucking industry was not willing to pay its fair share, the Administration would not support the shifts in size and weight standards. "We see no reason to allow trucks to rip up our highways and not pay their fair share," he told the transportation officials, a sentiment they applauded, according to news accounts. [Lewis, Drew, "Keynote Address," AASHTO Quarterly, January 1983, p. 5]

Protecting and Preserving the System

After the presentation, Secretary Lewis returned to Washington for a Cabinet meeting on November 23. Following the meeting, the President addressed reporters in the Briefing Room at the White House, at about 12:20 p.m. He announced that "we should move forward now with a program to repair the nation's major highways and bridges." He would support, he said, "the proposal that Secretary Drew Lewis has spent so many months developing," namely a nickel a gallon increase in the tax on gasoline, with one cent for transit. Secretary Lewis estimated that the proposal would create 170,000 direct jobs and 150,000 jobs in related industries—at an average cost of some $30 a year for the average motorist.

The President explained the need for the tax increase:

An estimated 10 percent of our Interstate Highway System—portions of which are more than 20 years old—need immediate resurfacing. We have 23,000 bridges in need of replacement or rehabilitation; 40 percent of our bridges are over 40 years old. Moreover, our cities face capital transit costs of some $50 billion as many buses and urban railcars need to be replaced or upgraded.

He concluded his prepared remarks by saying:

Our country's outstanding highway system was built on the user fee principle—that those who benefit from a use should share in its cost. It is appropriate that we rely on this same concept now. America has been blessed over the years with excellent transportation, and this program would provide us with a means of protecting and preserving this system.

Reporters (not identified in the transcript) had several questions for the President:

Q. Sir, is this a jobs bill, a highway bill, or a tax? Which do you prefer to call it?
The President. No. When this was first presented by Secretary Lewis over a year ago, he presented it with the idea and the real need of the highway system. But at that time, because of the economic situation we were faced with, I asked him to hold off for a while. In fact, I think I even mentioned, hold off a year. And he did and came back this year with it. In the meantime, we have gathered much more information about the real need for this, and this, if—
Q. You don't mind if it creates jobs.
The President. What?
Q. You don't mind if it creates jobs.
The President. No, there's no question but obviously there will be some employment with it, but it is not a jobs bill as such. It is a necessity. It's a problem that we have to meet, and we'd be doing this if there were no recession at all.

When a reporter mentioned the comment about a palace coup, the President again put his earlier comment in a broader context:

Q. Has there been a palace coup? You said something about not raising taxes.
The President. That was in the context, that whole discussion, of our tax bill. And it's true that a tax on gas was one of those that had been proposed as an excise tax to help with that tax package that we presented in the midcourse correction of our program. And that's what I meant that, I'd-no—would not use that as a source, as there were several other excise taxes that we wouldn't use as a source just for general revenue. And that's what I meant at that time . . . .
Q. But isn't concrete breaking around your feet?
The President. What?
Q. But isn't concrete breaking around your feet?
The President. No, not at all. I knew the need a year ago and asked him to wait for a year. As a matter of fact, I specified '84, and that's what we're talking about.

Consistent with the theme of the earlier proposal, the Administration proposed to focus the added revenue on the programs of highest national interest, especially Interstate completion and 4R as well as the bridge program, while still funding other programs with revenue from the existing highway user taxes.

The President used his weekly radio address on November 27, during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, to discuss the proposal. He began:

One of our great material blessings is the outstanding network of roads and highways that spreads across this vast continent. Freedom of travel and the romance of the road are vital parts of our heritage, and they helped to make America great . . . . But let's face it: Lately, driving isn't as much fun as it used to be. Time and wear have taken their toll on America's roads and highways. In some places the bad condition of the pavement does more to control speed than the speed limits.

He explained the need for his proposal:

We simply cannot allow this magnificent system to deteriorate beyond repair . . . . America can't afford throwaway roads or disposable transit systems. The bridges and highways we fail to repair today will have to be rebuilt tomorrow at many times the cost.

He would ask Congress to approve the new program to complete construction of the Interstate System and "get on with the job of renovating existing highways." He assured listeners the plan would not increase the Federal deficit or the income taxes they paid on April 15:

It'll be paid for by those of us who use the system, and it will cost the average car owner only about $30 a year. That's less than the cost of a couple of shock absorbers. Most important of all, it'll cost far less to act now than it would to delay until further damage is done.

After describing examples of bad roads justifying the program ("There's already a section of interstate highway in Illinois that's so far gone the truckers call it the only all-gravel interstate in the country"), he said:

Good tax policy decrees that wherever possible a fee for a service should be assessed against those who directly benefit from that service. Our highways were built largely with such a user fee—the gasoline tax. I think it makes sense to follow that principle in restoring them to the condition we all want them to be in.

Although the tax increase was needed to improve the Nation's roads and transit, it would have another benefit:

The program will also stimulate 170,000 jobs, not in make-work projects but in real, worthwhile work in the hard-hit construction industries, and an additional 150,000 jobs in related industries. It will improve safety on our highways and will make truck transportation more efficient and productive for years to come.

He concluded:

Perhaps most important, we will be preserving for future generations of Americans a highway system that has long been the envy of the world and that has truly made the average American driver king of the road.

On to Congress

In transmitting the proposal to Congress on November 30, 1982, President Reagan pointed out that it did not contain a Federalism turnback as in his earlier recommendation. He added:

However, the Administration remains committed to Federalism and will strive to return to State and local governments programs that are primarily of local interest and responsibility. The Administration is consulting with the Governors, affected State and local officials, and the Congress on a bill which will implement the appropriate turnback of highway programs and accompanying revenues.

He explained:

The primary objective of this legislation is to provide renewed investment to help rebuild our nation's deteriorating infrastructure. In addition to supporting the economic recovery by providing an effective transportation network that is crucial to commerce, this bill sets the framework for several other beneficial effects on the economy. For example, this legislation would create an estimated 320,000 jobs, 170,000 direct and indirect in construction industries and 150,000 more jobs "induced" by the construction.

The proposal, he said, called for "a reallocation of existing user charges to make the current user fee structure more equitable," in part by eliminating "the existing cross-subsidy from lighter to heavier trucks." It also included "changes to truck size and weight laws to help bring about uniformity and provide significant productivity benefits for the trucking industry." In addition to allowing heavier and longer trucks, the measure would end varying State weight limits. The trucking productivity measures were a payback for the tax increase.

(Barnhart had been adamant on this point, having seen trucks reach a State border only to unload enough cargo to meet weight restrictions in that State. The excess cargo had to be carried on a second truck. The cost to efficiency imposed by the barrier States was borne by shippers and, ultimately, consumers.)

Much of the new revenue, including 4 cents of the 5-cent increase in the gasoline "user fee" would go to roads, particularly rehabilitation of Interstate highways that would be subjected to new poundings from the heavier trucks. One penny of the increase would go to a new transit infrastructure program, while the bill proposed to phase out transit operating assistance by the end of FY 1984, consistent with the view of Stockman and other conservatives that such assistance was inconsistent with Federal responsibilities. The bill would also create a transit capital formula program of $8.914 billion for urbanized areas over 50,000 population. It would fund planning, acquisition, construction, deployment of innovative demonstration results, and improvement of facilities and equipment.

Although the Administration deferred some of its controversial proposals, including the Federalism turnback, the bill included several ideological measures. For example, the bill proposed to amend Section 4(f), a provision of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966 (codified as 23 U.S.C. 138) that required all projects funded by the Department to avoid "publicly owned land from a public park, recreation area, or wildlife and waterfowl refuge of national, State, or local significance . . . or any land from an historic site of national, State or local significance . . ." unless "no feasible and prudent alternative" was available and the program included all possible planning to minimize harm to the resource. The Administration proposed to restrict Section 4(f) protection for "historic sites" to "National Historic Landmarks." The section-by-section analysis transmitted with the bill explained the rationale for this change:

This minor change has been made to reduce paperwork burdens on State and local governments, and reduce a portion of the "redtape" [sic] involved in the current process.

Historic sites other than National Historic Landmarks have been eliminated from this section in order to simplify requirements and eliminate unnecessary duplication of effort which presently occurs when the official in charge of preparing the environmental impact statement prepares separate documents to meet the requirements of this section and section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.

The change would not "reduce the protection afforded historic sites," which would still be covered by the Preservation Act.

Another provision required the Secretary to consolidate environmental compliance procedures under NEPA and related policies and regulations into a single project development process to be coordinated by the Department. The section-by-section analysis explained:

The Secretary would establish procedures to ensure that adequate information is developed from a public hearing, if one is held, so that the record available to Federal decisionmaking agencies provides an adequate basis for them to make the necessary determination. As an example, if a public hearing is held, information on the needs of navigation interest would be developed so the Coast Guard could issue a bridge permit.

The goal of this change was "to minimize, to the maximum extent possible, duplication, needless paperwork, and delays in action" on highway projects.

Although the proposed gas tax increase had broad support, truckers opposed the President's bill, as expected. They continued to object to the tax increases, particularly the increase in the Heavy Vehicle Use Tax. The ATA argued that truckers would pay an additional $1.3 billion under the bill, with taxes increasing 200 percent on a typical truck. A spokesman said:

It will do no good to create jobs in the construction industry with one hand while eliminating jobs in trucking and related industries with the other.

Similarly, tire retreaders feared the cost of their product would increase by $2.50 a tire, costing them sales.

Environmentalists were upset by the change in Section 4(f). Alan Boyd, Chairman of the National Trust for Historic Preservation (not the first Secretary of Transportation, also named Alan Boyd), said, "It is disturbing that the administration has chosen this bill as the vehicle to accomplish their goal of gutting environmental protections." He called it a "blatant attempt . . . to weaken laws and regulations protecting historic properties." The Environmental Policy Center accused the Administration of having "hidden agendas" because the increased funding for roads would be used to finance some of the most expensive and controversial Interstate highway projects in the country.

While AAA objected to diversion of the highway tax revenue to transit, others objected to the proposal to phase out subsidies for transit. The Administration argued that transit-system wages and other day-to-day expenses should be paid by local governments. Because transit systems typically take in less via fares than the cost of operation, additional revenue is needed to keep the buses and trains moving.

Another problem for the bill was that Martin S. Feldstein, Chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisors, claimed that the proposal could raise inflation and cost more jobs than it would create, or at best would generate only a minor net increase in employment. Alice Rivlin, Director of the Congressional Budget Office, also challenged the jobs claims. [Brandt, Thomas D., "Gas Tax Bandwagon Hits Potholes," The Washington Times, December 2, 1982, and Edsall, Thomas B., and Feaver, Douglas B., "Highway Proposal Runs Into Opposition," The Washington Post, December 2, 1982]

Despite these objections, the House Ways and Means Committee approved the tax increase, with some modifications, on December 2. Representative Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) created controversy by proposing a "domestic content" amendment that would require half of all foreign buses bought with Federal funds to be made with U.S. parts, and would require 40 percent of all foreign-bought buses to come from countries without a U.S. trade deficit. Secretary Lewis objected to the proposal, which failed because of a jurisdictional dispute with the House Committee on Public Works.

On December 7, the House passed the bill by a vote of 262 to 143, but only after tense debates that threatened to derail the proposal. Opposition rose from those who questioned the projected jobs benefits, backed the trucking industry, feared the tax increase would impact the poor, and were unhappy with the amount of funds their State would receive. Some House liberals favored deleting the tax measures, while substituting revenue from the tax cuts approved in 1981 to pay for the bill.

During the difficult debate, Secretary Lewis made two concessions to secure support for the bill. One would allow States to defer their matching share for a year if they could not provide the funds. In addition, the Secretary worked out a deal during negotiations with Governors from States that contributed more to the Highway Trust Fund than they received under the Federal-aid highway program. Those States (California, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wisconsin) would be guaranteed a minimum return of 85 percent (85 cents for each dollar). [Barnes, Fred, "It's No Smooth Ride for Gas-Tax Boost," The Baltimore Sun, December 7, 1982, and "Concessions Offered to Enhance Gas-Tax Bill," The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 7, 1982]

Roadblock

As the bill moved to the Senate, new problems arose. Aside from the issues that had threatened the bill in the House, some Senators wanted to add a public works jobs bill to the measure, despite presidential opposition, while others wanted to replace the gas tax hike with increased income taxes on the well-to-do. The Senate also faced the threat of a filibuster from conservatives led by Senator Gordon J. Humphrey (R-NH) with support from Senators Don Nickles (R-Ok.), Jesse Helms (R-NC), and John East (R-NC). Humphrey, a first term Senator who would vote against every budget during his two terms (1979-1990) because they included deficits, said of the House action, "Last night the lame-duck Congress laid its first rotten egg." He called the bill "New Deal nonsense" and "Keynesian claptrap." He also accused Congress of panicking and succumbing to the temptation to "do something even if it's the wrong thing."

After the Senate Finance Committee and the Committee on Environment and Public Works approved their portions of the bill, debate began on the Senate floor on December 10. Senator Humphrey launched his filibuster. His proposal to defer consideration of the measure until the new Congress convened in 1983 was defeated (79 to 10), but the filibuster continued while Senator Baker warned that he would keep the Congress in session through Christmas week if necessary. Humphrey acknowledged that some Senators thought that he and his colleagues were being unreasonable:

But I would suggest that those who are trying to ramrod through this legislation are being unreasonable. If raising gasoline taxes by a nickel is a way to produce jobs and prosperity, why limit it to a nickel? True, the measure will create jobs in the construction industry, but it also will destroy jobs in other industries. [Tolchin, Martin, "Conservative Senators Begin Filibuster on Rise in Gas Tax," The New York Times, December 11, 1982]

Under Senate rules, a filibuster can be ended by a "cloture" vote of 60 Senators. Cloture was achieved on December 13 by a vote of 75 to 13. Technically, the vote limited debate on a parliamentary motion relating to the bill. A filibuster on the bill itself, according to opponents, was likely.

On December 14, the Senate resumed debate on the bill on a round-the-clock basis, in hope of adjourning on Friday, December 17. However, the four conservatives opened a new filibuster. They had added leverage because their actions were delaying approval of a must-pass omnibus stopgap bill containing 6 of the 13 regular appropriations bills funding eight Cabinet Departments, the others having been approved earlier. Unless the omnibus bill was approved, the President had threatened to shut down a large part of the government and furlough about 350,000 employees when spending authority expired after midnight on Friday.

In contacts with Senate leaders, President Reagan had insisted they keep the surface transportation bill on the floor. Some critical progress was made when the Senate approved an amendment setting a $1,200 ceiling on taxes for heavy trucks, compared with a ceiling of $2,000 in the House bill. However, a cloture vote to end the filibuster had failed by a vote of 50 to 48. Democrats who opposed the filibuster voted to continue it after Republicans tried to block a vote on amending the surface transportation bill to include 55 weeks of benefits for States with the highest jobless rates. After the benefits were approved by voice vote as an amendment to the surface transportation bill, Senator Carl Levin (D-Mi.) explained that, "Many of us had to vote against cloture in order to be heard; it's the only reason we got the extra benefits passed."

Late in the evening of December 16, the President agreed to pull the bill in the face of the stubborn resistance. Baked pulled the surface transportation bill at 10 p.m. to allow consideration of the spending bill. The Baltimore Sun's Nancy J. Schwerzler described efforts to convince the four conservatives to end their filibuster:

"We are not able this evening to work out further agreement," Mr. Baker said in taking the bill off the floor. Only moments earlier, he had met with leaders of the conservative filibuster revolt . . . in an unsuccessful effort to persuade them to give up their effort.

During that session, at least one of the conservatives indicated a willingness to stay in the Senate on Christmas Day and, even if it meant shutting down the government, to continue the fight against the tax increase, according to a Republican source.

Earlier, the conservatives resisted more than an hour of intense pressure by Republican colleagues in a closed-door meeting. They also refused to yield to a gambit by Mr. Baker to make them appear personally responsible for a government shutdown along with a possible delay in paying federal employees, Social Security recipients and members of the military.

But Mr. Humphrey, a freshman Republican who assumed the leadership of the conservative fight on the Senate floor, refused to budge, saying he would not shoulder the blame. "I'm not holding up consideration of that important piece of business [the stopgap spending bill] or any other," he said, suggesting that the Senate abandon the gas tax bill and move on to the spending measure.

Mr. Baker, at the president's request, refused to put the gas tax measure aside for several hours last night. But he finally yielded to the wishes of a majority of Senate Republicans, who voted in a closed-door caucus to move on to the spending bill if no gas tax agreement had been reached by last night.

With the surface transportation bill pulled from consideration, observers feared that Baker's action was a death blow for the measure. He insisted, however, that he was pulling the bill from the Senate floor only temporarily. News accounts reporting the action generally put the word in quotes ("temporarily") to emphasize the prospect that the move was likely permanent. The cloture vote having failed, Senate rules allowed leaders of the filibuster 3 more days to stall a final vote on the bill if they wished. They did intend to do so, because as Senator Nickles put it:

[It's] a bad bill for my state and a bad bill for the country. Lots of roads and highways need work in my state and throughout the country, but the problem is the states do not do enough under this program. It flies in the face of New Federalism.

[Schwerzler, Nancy J., "Senate Shelves Gas Tax, Turns to Spending," The Baltimore Sun, December 17, 1982; Cawthorne, David M., "Senate Accepts Truck Gasoline Tax Ceiling," The Journal of Commerce, December 17, 1982; and Hunt, Albert R., and Apcar, Leonard, "Senate Suddenly Drops Gasoline-Tax Bill as Snags Develop in Rush to Adjourn Soon," The Wall Street Journal, December 17, 1982]

According to The New York Times, Republican leaders in the Senate were enraged and frustrated by the success of the four conservatives in blocking a bill that the President, the House, and the overwhelming number of Senators supported. When the 54 Republicans met to "discuss strategy and berate the filibusterers in voices loud enough to be heard in an adjacent corridor," one lawmaker could be heard asking, "Are the egos in this place bigger than the institution of the U.S. Senate?" The article quoted Senator William S. Cohen (R-Me.) as saying:

I have never seen the kind of anger that is being expressed behind closed doors. People are perceived as having abused the procedures and failing to support the leadership. Normally, there is great deference around here toward people who seek to use the rules, but today tempers are very short. [Tolchin, Martin, "How to Stall Gas Tax Rise," The New York Times, December 18, 1982]

In pulling the bill, Republican leaders had said unanimous consent would be required to bring the measure back to the floor—an unlikely occurrence given the continued opposition of the four conservatives. On December 18, reported The New York Times, the leaders indicated they "had discovered the bill would return automatically for floor consideration." In addition, "there were parliamentary devices that could expedite the matter." Nevertheless, "the fate of the bill was in the hands of those conducting the filibuster because members of Congress are eager to adjourn for a Christmas vacation and a new Congress will convene in two weeks." [Tolchin, Martin, "Gasoline Tax Measure May Die, Leaders Concede," The New York Times, December 19, 1982]

For government agencies covered by the omnibus appropriations act, spending authority would expire at 12:01 a.m. on December 18, a Saturday. Because the expiration would occur during a weekend, it would not cause major disruptions initially. If the stopgap bill could be approved over the weekend or be reasonably assured of approval early in the week, disruptions could be kept to a minimum.

Helen Dewar of The Washington Post described the efforts to pass the two bills despite the continuing filibuster on the surface transportation bill. After speaking with President Reagan and the Republican caucus, Senator Baker launched "extraordinarily tough tactics" in a "last-ditch effort" to pass the surface transportation bill. The tactics included "brushing aside some of the niceties of normal Senate procedure to avoid time-consuming roll calls on as many as 400 amendments proposed by the filibusterers."

In a radio interview around noon the same day, President Reagan said that it was "ridiculous for a minority to stand in the way of this bill," while Senator Paul E. Tsongas (D-Ma.) reported that the wife of a colleague had said "this is not a lame-duck session but a lame-brain session." [Dewar, Helen, "Senate Republicans Renew Fight for Gas Tax Increase," The Washington Post. December 19, 1982]

Just when the spending bill appeared on the verge of passage, Senator East "started what appeared to be a lengthy discourse touching on both the spending bill and the gas tax, prompting Senator Baker and other leaders to leave the floor for consultations." It was the start of a filibuster of the stopgap spending bill as a tactic to prevent further consideration of the surface transportation bill.

For 4 hours, Senator Baker periodically asked Senator East if he would yield the floor. Senator East repeatedly responded, "Is the Senator willing to guarantee me that the gas tax will not be resurrected?" When Senator Baker replied "No," Senator East held the floor. While the filibuster continued, Senator Baker let most Senators go home after midnight.

Around 1 a.m., Senator East made a tactical error after looking around the nearly empty chamber by saying, "Mr. President, I would like to raise a point of order that a quorum is not present, and ask for a ruling of the Chair." (In a parliamentary system, a point of order challenges rulings by the presiding officer, with the Senate voting on each point.) Senator Frank H. Murkowski (R-Ak.), the presiding officer, ruled that the Senator had requested a quorum call, meaning he had to relinquish the floor. Senator East's protests that he had not asked for a quorum call were denied on grounds that debate was not in order while a quorum call was underway. [Tolchin, Martin, "Senate Ends Filibuster; Gas Tax Bill Alive Again," The New York Times December 20, 1982]

On December 19, the Senate voted to end the filibuster of the surface transportation bill, 89 to 5, with the lopsided margin reflecting widespread frustration over the delay. Secretary Lewis, watching from the VIP gallery, gave a double thumbs-up signal when the vote reached 60. (The fifth vote against cloture was cast by Senator William Proxmire (D-Wi.), who opposed the surface transportation bill.) Dewar explained the end of the filibuster:

Finally, by inadvertence or necessity, East appeared to utter the magic words that, under Senate rules, trigger a quorum call, after which the leadership could reclaim the floor . . . . When East slipped, the leadership, now fully awake, pounced, took back the floor, and mapped strategy for last night's vote to stop the filibuster. [Dewar, Helen, "Senate Ends ‘Trial by Ordeal' on Gas Tax," The Washington Post, December 20, 1982; Timberg, Robert, "Senate Vote Breathes New Life into Gas Tax-Road Repair Bill," The Baltimore Sun, December 20, 1982]]

Columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak illustrated the ill feelings by reporting on an incident that occurred in the Senate Republican cloakroom during East's filibuster:

While freshman Sen. John East of North Carolina was droning on through a filibuster blocking Reagan's nickel-a-gallon gasoline tax, one of East's aides seated in the cloakroom was subjected to a tongue-lashing from two esteemed senators—Utah's Jake Garn and Missouri's John Danforth. The shouting and (on Garn's part) profanity produced a scene seldom matched in that venerable political cockpit.

Bystanders heard Garn, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, tell the aide that East had broken his pick opposing Reagan's policy and that there was no way he could be reelected in 1986. The absence of fraternity among Republican senators was reflected when an overwrought Garn directed particularly harsh words at East.

The columnists added that the filibustering Senators "were subject to browbeating from the leadership in an extraordinarily plain-spoken Senate Republican caucus." They said:

The highly esteemed Sen. Paul Laxalt, the president's friend and the new general chairman of the Republican Party, joined Baker in reading the riot act. The recalcitrants were painted as betrayers of the party for obstructing higher gasoline taxes. If any doubt were left, 35-year-old Don Nickles was summoned to the White House, where counselor Edwin Meese instructed him to support his leader.

Helms, for one, was not intimidated:

Sen. Jesse Helms took the floor in a caucus, asking Baker how it was that he used such pressure to shut down conservative filibusters against higher taxes but not liberal filibusters against Helms's school prayer and anti-abortion measures. [Evans, Rowland, and Novak, Robert, "Season of Ill Will for Senate Republicans," The Washington Post, December 22, 1982]

(Cannon discussed the first months of the Reagan Administration, during which he and Administration officials focused on approval of his tax and budget cuts:

Social conservatives who had backed Reagan soon became restless. On March 26, [1981] the Senate Majority leader, Howard Baker, said that he had agreed to keep social issues like abortion off the floor for a year so that senators could concentrate on Reagan's economic program. Baker was promptly assailed by the favorite son of the right, Senator Jesse Helms. Asked about this deal in an interview with The Washington Post, Reagan sided with Baker. It was the last interview that Reagan would give for months, for he was shot by a would-be assassin on March 30, the bullet narrowly missing his heart. [Cannon, Lou, "Obama's Reagan Transformation," The New York Times online "100 Days" blog, January 28, 2009]

(With the economy in recession since July 1981, Baker continued to keep divisive social issues out of the way, including during the lame-duck session when the Senate had a limited time to achieve important goals before the new Congress began in January.)

Before turning to the surface transportation bill, the Senate approved the stopgap spending bill on December 20. With the bill on its way to the President, the four conservatives believed they had the advantage in blocking the surface transportation bill because many Senators wanted to go home now that the lame-duck session had completed work on the most important bill. Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) acknowledged as much, saying, "I'd like to see us get out of here. We shouldn't have even had this lame-duck session."

With the surface transportation bill once again on the floor on December 20, the opponents began a new filibuster. Late that evening, the Senate approved cloture by an 87-to 8 vote, but the conservatives continued to use every other parliamentary maneuver they could devise to delay action, including points of order as each amendment came up for consideration. In the end, the Senate approved the bill, 71 to 24, and sent it to a Conference Committee to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions, with the four conservatives vowing to block final passage. [Maraniss, David, "Highway Repair Bill Raising Gasoline Tax Endorsed by Senate," The Washington Post, December 21, 1982]

On December 21, President Reagan approved the Continuing Appropriations for Fiscal Year 1983 (Public Law 97-377), which kept all remaining government agencies in operation. To avoid a veto, Congress had backed down on its proposal to include a jobs program in the bill. He said, "While I continue to be deeply troubled by the budget-making processes in our government, I am pleased that the appropriations for the current fiscal year have finally been passed." He thanked the congressional leadership "for completing a challenging task under difficult circumstances."

Conferees completed their work quickly; they had begun reconciling the two bills before the Senate approved its version of the bill. An article in The Philadelphia Inquirer described the negotiations:

Negotiators began talks on the gas-tax measure . . . only hours before the House planned to adjourn . . . . [The] gas tax was the major business of the day that House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D., Mass.) and Senate GOP leader Howard H. Baker Jr. said they hoped would end the two-year Congress. And there was no objection when Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D., N.Y.) pushed for a fast compromise so "somehow we can get back to our families."

The negotiations had dragged into yesterday evening, with Transportation Secretary Dew Lewis shuttling between groups of House and Senate members. At one point, Rangel had declared: "I think this bill is dead"

Sources who asked not to be identified said that one sticking point was over the amount that excise taxes should be increased for large trucks. Whether to exempt gasohol [a blend of gasoline and ethanol made from grain] was another. Those were finally resolved by a decision to allow the use tax to rise gradually on heavy trucks to $1,900 a year in July 1988 for rigs weighing more than 80,000 pounds. Gasohol would receive a one-penny increase in its current 4-cent tax exemption. The gas tax itself would go from 4 cents to 9 cents.

"If we are fortunate, the lame-duck session will end today [December 21]," said O'Neill. ["Spending Bill Signed; Gas-Tax Debate Goes On," The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 22, 1982]

The House approved the revised bill on December 21 by a vote of 180 to 87, with many Representatives having departed for the holiday. Following the vote, the House adjourned for the year.

When the bill reached the Senate, Senators Helms and East began another filibuster. The increasingly bitter session reached a turning point shortly before midnight on December 21 when Helms vowed to keep the Senate in session over Christmas if necessary. In response, the Democrats, all angry, some opposed to the bill, held a caucus in which they agreed to stay for one final vote to end the filibuster. Senator Byrd said, "We ought to have a showdown or we ought to go home."

Seeing that the Democrats would stay for one last try, Senator Baker said, "That allowed us to show Sen. Helms we would take him to the nth degree, just as he had done to us." Baker filed a cloture petition. Senator Baker gave President Reagan a list of Senators to call, not including Helms, to lobby for the bill. The President had called Senator Helms the previous week without success, as Helms recalled:

I reminded the president that he once said it would take a palace coup for him to support a tax bill like this. "Mr. President," I said, "when did the palace coup occur?" Then I went down the provisions in the bill with him. "Do you like this?" I asked. And he said, "No." Do you like that?" I asked. And he said, "No."

He was not apologetic about delaying the Senators' Christmas holiday:

I really should not be the one making the apologies. The president should apologize, the people who pushed this measure on us during a lame-duck session should make the apologies . . . . This is a bad bill coming at a bad time." [Maraniss, David, "Sen. Helms: An Outcast in Senate," The Washington Post, December 23, 1982]

The Washington Post explained the extraordinary steps taken by Republican leaders to secure a vote:

President Reagan telephoned senators yesterday [December 22], offering Air Force transportation to some in an effort to keep them here long enough to win approval of his nickel-a-gallon gasoline tax increase, while the heavy-truck lobby fought to kill the package because of the high fees it would impose on 18-wheelers . . . . [Senator] Baker's office, the White House and the Department of Transportation were checking yesterday to see which senators have not left Washington and to make sure they will get votes considered "soft."

. . . The question facing the Senate "has become much larger than the gasoline tax," an administration official said in referring to Helms' filibuster. "It goes to the ability of the leadership to control the Senate and of the administration to pass legislation."

That realization, the source said, led to a substantially increased White House effort on behalf of the bill after Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis had carried much of the load in the early days of the lame-duck session before the measure passed the House.

Baker went to the White House yesterday with other congressional leaders and staff members to give Reagan a list of senators to be called by Reagan. "We're not going through a charade," a Baker aide said. "It will be a close vote, and there are enough uncertainties floating around out there to compel us to take it seriously."

The article also described efforts by the trucking interests to block the bill:

Bennett C. Whitlock, Jr., president of the American Trucking Associations, spent the day in meetings on strategy, counting votes and making phone calls. "We've talked to quite a few senators," he said. "We're asking them to vote against the conference report and to start over again in the next session of Congress in establishing new truck-use fees.

In a news release, Whitlock said the trucking industry "is appalled" at the increases in fees under the bill. The ATA figures that a typical 18-wheeler will pay an increase in total highway taxes on fuel, use and tires of $2,203 in the second year. [Feaver, Douglas B., and Maraniss, David, "Reagan Lobbies for Senate Votes on Gasoline Tax, The Washington Post, December 23, 1982]

The following day, December 23, the vote on cloture was overwhelming, 81 to 5. Senators Helms, East, and Nickles were joined by Senators Proxmire and James Exon (D-Ne.) in voting to continue the filibuster. Senator Humphrey, a member of the Armed Services Committee, was on a troop-inspection tour of South Korea and could not return for the vote.

Five Senators had been flown back to Washington on government planes for the vote. One of them, Senator Goldwater, had been recovering at home during the lame-duck session from triple-bypass surgery. Voting to end the filibuster, he said, "When you know you're whipped, you should quit." The airlift prompted Senator Helms to say, "The sky was dark with Air Force planes. Nobody knows what that will cost. It's another case where the poor taxpayer is required to finance his own misery."

In the final moments, many Senators had unkind words for Senator Helms. Senator Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.) said that the tactics employed by the two Senators from North Carolina had placed all future bills involving tobacco in "the greatest jeopardy." Senator Dennis DeConcini (D-Az.) said the Senate had been "tyrannized and immobilized by a handful of men." Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Ma.) said:

We are not debating war and peace, or a new world order, or whether all people are created equal. We are talking about the width and weight of trucks, the potholes in our country roads, and the failing subways in our ailing cities. That is the poor stuff of which this ridiculous debate is made, and we deserve all the ridicule we are receiving, because all our wounds are self-inflicted . . . . We have too easily permitted this historic chamber to become the laughing stock of the nation.

Senator Helms replied to the liberal Senator, long a target of conservatives, saying he appreciated Kennedy's words. "His statement may have increased my popularity in North Carolina by 10 to 12 points."

Senator George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) delivered the final speech before the cloture vote, quoting Oliver Cromwell's words to the British Parliament in 1653:

You have sat too long for any good you have done. Depart, I say, and let us be done with you. In the name of God—go!" [Maraniss, David, "Senate Stops Debate, Votes Gas-Tax Bill," The Washington Post, December 24, 1982]

President Reagan met briefly with reporters after the Senate approved the bill, 54 to 33. United Press International reported:

Smiling and at ease, Reagan, who suffered some major setbacks during the post-election season, said Congress "dealt with some very difficult issues and put in some very long hours."

He declined to criticize the Senators who had delayed action on the bill. "They have their own rules, they abide by them and I respect the separation of powers," he said. Passage of the bill was "a credit to leaders of both parties and congressmen and senators on both sides of the aisle."

The President also indicated he was not frustrated by the lack of change in the unemployment rate, voicing confidence that his policies would lead to a broad recovery. "I am convinced that this coming year, 1983, is going to see a definite upturn." ["Reagan, Happy With Gas-Tax Bill, Predicts Upturn," The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 24, 1982]

Writing in The Washington Times, Thomas D. Brandt described the arc of the 1982 STAA. Although congressional committees had been considering the legislation for nearly 2 years, it "came to life" in the aftermath of the November 2 election "when the nation's 10.4 percent unemployment rate (now 10.8) was a major issue and most candidates had pledged to go back to Washington to do something about it." The bill, with its promise of 320,000 jobs and vitally needed road improvements, "was never more popular than the day it was introduced." Then reality set in:

Born in haste, the bill quickly began losing support as its complexities were examined, and the winners and losers that inevitably are created by bills of such magnitude were identified.

He pointed out, for example, that Oklahoma's Senator Nickles "has fought the funding formula under which his state's motorists would pay tens of millions of dollars more than they would get back in road repair and transit money over a several-year period." (This was the issue addressed when Secretary Lewis agreed to equity adjustments.)

The House held only a day of hearings on the bill after the election, with objections to the gas tax bill "drowned out by the sound of the legislative steamroller." However, the number of "no" votes in the House on December 7 (a 262-143 vote) "revealed a sizable pool of opposition that grew as the gas tax measure moved to the Senate":

The measure was beginning to teeter, showing clear signs that it lacked the foundation of support that is built through the congressional review process. The committee hearing process and the time it takes allow for questions to be raised, problems corrected and compromises struck. Fast tracking a $5.5 billion bill through a three-week session of Congress allowed little time for conflict resolution in the committees and cloakrooms, which left objectors with no choice but to take their problems to the floor of the Senate.

Objectors always had an advantage in a post-election lame-duck session because of time constraints. "Without building a majority to defeat a bill, they can in effect kill it or put it off until next year by the use of such delaying tactics as filibusters." [Brandt, Thomas D., "Senate Conservatives Press Filibuster on Gas Tax Rise," The Washington Times, December 21, 1982]

Schism in the Republican Party

At the same time, the efforts to block the surface transportation bill demonstrated a schism in the Republican Party that went beyond disagreement over the gas tax. Like any national movement, the modern conservative movement, emerging from the 1950's, that brought Reagan to the presidency was not a monolith, but a collection of philosophies pulling together. Although the failures of Democratic Administrations contributed to the rise of Reagan and the conservative movement, the movement deserved much of the credit, as John MacGregor Burns observed:

The conservative triumph stemmed to a marked degree from a considered and collective effort of rightists of various schools to build their intellectual case and to use invigorated and broadened conservative ideas as vehicles to political power.

He added, "The more conservatism prospered as a creed and cause, the more the various right-wing factions advanced their competing doctrines." He catalogued the main factions:

  • Traditionalist conservatives who "preached the virtues of order, reverence, stability, moderation, gradual change . . ."
  • Libertarian conservatives who "demanded optimal individual freedom of choice in cultural, sexual, and social matters, protected especially against governmental intrusion."
  • Free-market conservatives "called for an open, competitive economy, which to them meant reductions in government, in regulation, in union power, and a drastic cutback on the environmental, affirmative-action, and other controls loaded on private enterprise from the FDR through the Carter years."
  • Populist conservatives, especially from southern and western "Sunbelt" regions, "echoed the demands of the free-marketers but focused their attacks especially on the ‘new elites,' nonelected and self-promoted—network news producers, liberal journalists, radical professors, federal bureaucrats, education administrators, left-wing writers, literary critics, and others of related breeds entrenched especially in northeastern and West Coast cities."

Another faction was gaining strength in the 1980's:

The evangelical and fundamentalist right, embracing such groupings as the Moral Majority and Christian Voices, overlapped the libertarians in its view of freedom and individualism as pro-market and anti-government. But the central commitment of the "new Christian right" was to family, religion, community, and old-fashioned morality, and its chief targets were moral relativism, sexual permissiveness, abortion, ERA [the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution for women], prohibitions on school prayer, the secular curriculum in public schools.

The Born Again movement had been growing as a Christian religious experience, a new Great Awakening, since the 1960's. In the 1970's and 1980's, adherents began reaching out beyond their personal "walk with Christ" to reshape political and cultural institutions in accordance with their faith. Instead of praying for change, the new Christian right sought and often won positions on city councils, school boards, and other institutions where they could try to implement public policy consistent with their views:

The capacity of the Christian right to build networks, operate through local congregations, and mobilize its strength in the Republican party had been a decisive element in Reagan's 1980 victory.

As Burns pointed out, the conservative subgroups "intertwined, overlapped, and conflicted" in an "unstable equilibrium" that was undergoing adjustments in the 1980's. [Crosswinds, p. 626-628] Participants in the December 1982 struggle to pass the 1982 STAA realized they were on the faultlines of the shifting alliances in reaction to the "moderate" conservative Republicans who controlled the levers of power.

Helen Dewar, in an article about the end of the debate in the Senate, quoted Senator Paul E. Tsongas [D-Ma.] as saying the question "was whether the political center is being so ‘crowded out' by extremes that the legislative process in the Senate has turned into a ‘trial by ordeal.'"

She reported that in "weary post-mortems," some Republicans hoped the "embarrassing and humbling" episode would "bring Republicans back together in renewed strength and discipline." She added that "others were not as certain." They suggested "the glory days for the Senate's two-year-old Republican majority probably have ended as President Reagan's once-tight grip on Congress has loosened."

The recent election had an "unsettling effect" on the Republican-controlled Senate:

Not only have arch-conservatives like East felt free to leave the reservation, bristling because they believe Reagan and Senate Republican leaders have become soft about conservative social issues like abortion, busing and school prayer. But more liberal GOP senators have read the election returns as requiring a more progressive posture for the party . . . . [Dewar, Helen, "Senate Ends ‘Trial by Ordeal' on Gas Tax," The Washington Post, December 20, 1982]

Leonard M. Apcar, writing in The Wall Street Journal, agreed:

The lines are being drawn by conservatives, led by Sen. Jesse Helms (R., N.C.), who was determined to cut the budget and block any further tax increase, and by more moderate Republicans, who are casting about for other ways to solve the nation's complex economic problems.

Republicans' "doctrinal convictions have been shattered," declared Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D., N.Y.), a supporter of the gasoline-tax bill. He adds that what has been played out in the Senate "was the passion and anguish (that result) when peoples' deepest convictions have been falsified by events." And even Sen. Helms concedes that the GOP "has to circle the wagons and decide what it stands for." [Apcar, Leonard M., "Senate's Haggling Reflects GOP Schism and is Expected to Affect Next Session," The Wall Street Journal, December 23, 1982]

The Baltimore Sun's Schwerzler described how the schism developed during the first 2 years of the Reagan Administration. With the Republicans in control of the Senate, she said, President Reagan scored budget and tax cutting victories:

But as the economy plunged into recession, the flush of those 1981 successes turned to 1982 skepticism toward the president's policies among members of the political middle ground of his own party.

And conservatives in Congress who had claimed Ronald Reagan as one of their own became rebellious when the avowed budget-cutter and budget-balancer in the White House advocated a $98.5 billion tax increase and a record budget deficit.

This was a reference to the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 (TEFRA, Public Law 97-248, approved September 3, 1982) which included rollbacks of some of the corporate and income tax cuts approved in 1981. President Reagan, who favored budget cuts to reduce the deficit, had approved the projected $100 billion in tax increases, largely the work of Senator Dole, as a deficit reduction measure only after receiving assurances from congressional leaders that they would approve $3 in cuts for every dollar of tax increase. At the time, however, observers referred to TEFRA as the largest tax increase in history. Schwerzler said of TEFRA:

The president's sway over Congress seemed unstoppable in the first half of the 97th Congress [in January 1981], but this year, the Congress itself took the lead. The president was nonetheless adept at claiming victories from passage of legislation that he had been dragged into accepting after his own initiatives were rejected or ignored by Congress.

The budget resolution approved in the spring and a 3-year tax increase bill appalled conservatives. They were further upset when moderate Republicans had joined with Democrats to override President Reagan's veto of a $14 billion supplemental appropriations bill. [Schwerzler, Nancy J., "Senate Vote on Gas Tax-Road Bill to End Lame Duck Session Today," The Baltimore Sun, December 23, 1982]

Julia Malone discussed the schism in The Christian Science Monitor. Pointing out that the Senate's lame-duck session had been called a "laughing stock" and an "ordeal," she said:

Much maligned on virtually all sides, the post-election session nonetheless leaves the nation an important legacy. It pushed through a major transportation bill in a little less than four weeks, raising some $27.5 billion over the next five years.

Nevertheless, she explained, the conservatives' ability to tie up the Senate "poses problems for the Republican leadership." Senator Cohen, speaking at a press breakfast during the past week, had referred to the "ideological split" within the Republican Party. She said:

The problem will increase in the coming year as 19 Republican senators prepare for reelection bids. If "moderates see no discipline in the conservatives of the party," said Senator Cohen, then they cannot be expected to follow behind the President either. [Malone, Julia, "Congress's Finale—Reagan vs. The Conservatives," The Christian Science Monitor, December 24, 1982]

The schism within the Republican Party between moderates, such as Baker and Dole, and the "New Right," including social conservatives such as Helms and East, would continue to play out long after the battle over the surface transportation bill in December 1982 was forgotten.

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