As gas prices top $3 per gallon, politicians are cashing in big — by throwing bombs at the U.S. oil industry.
As in every crisis, Washington is suffering from a predictable case of "do something" disease. Products of the ready-to-eat microwave culture, Americans want an instant solution to high energy costs, and this lends itself to grandstanding and election-year maneuvering by politicians of all stripes.
Numerous lawmakers, from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), are lining up to support a new federal windfall profits tax, with the aim of redistributing profits from "greedy" oil companies.
But lawmakers could benefit from a history lesson. The last time this country experimented with such a tax was the Crude Oil Windfall Profit Tax Act of 1980. According to a 1990 Congressional Research Service study, the tax depressed the domestic oil industry, increased foreign imports and raised only a tiny fraction of the revenue forecasted. It stunted domestic production of oil by 3% to 6% and created a surge in foreign imports, from 8% to 16%.
Politicians calling oil companies "greedy" is more than a little ironic. Tax Foundation studies have shown that state and federal treasuries profit handsomely from oil industry sales. The average American motorist pays taxes of 46 cents a gallon on gasoline, of which 18.4 cents a gallon goes to the federal government. States and localities pocket the rest.
The nation's energy companies are already providing a "windfall" of taxes. According to Department of Energy data, from 1977 to 2004, federal and state governments extracted $397 billion by taxing the profits of the largest oil companies and an additional $1.1 trillion in taxes at the pump. In today's dollars, that's $2.2 trillion — enough to buy a Toyota Prius for every household in the nation.
In fact, oil companies have paid in taxes more than three times what they earned in profits during those 28 years.
A neat little opinion piece from the Tax Foundation.