AUSTIN, Texas -- Man bites dog! Or, how special interests accidentally steered us toward good public policy. In a pleasant change from the norm, we have a reversal of the usual dreary political story in which big donors and special interests shaft the public: House Republicans Drop Call for Rollback of Gasoline Tax.

Isn't that nice?

Leaving aside, as our elected leaders so often do, the wisdom of repealing the 4.3-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax, lo, regard with wonder the politics of the thing.

You may recall that this buffle-headed suggestion was made last week by Gov. George W. Bush, backed by some Senate Republicans. Dubya, as we know, has little interest in policy, but excellent political skills. And what could sound better, as prices at the pump soar across the nation, than an offer to cut 4.3 cents a gallon off the total? Great politics: Vote for that guy, or you'll have to be Bill Gates to fill up the pickup, not to mention those monster SUVs.

Even better, the R's get to call it "the Gore tax" because Veep Al Gore cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate back in '93 that raised the tax in the first place. So here's Trent Lott urging, "Repeal the Gore tax," Dubya holding the whole administration responsible and nobody of the R persuasion even mentioning OPEC -- because what would OPEC have to do with it?

Alas for this lovely ploy, according to the wires, "An outcry from leading Republicans, road builders and truckers has driven supporters of the repeal into retreat."

Rep. Bud Schuster, the king of political pork as chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (that's your roads, bridges, mass transit, airports and such), sent a letter to his colleagues reminding them that repealing the tax would mean a $20.5 billion drop in highway money over the next couple of years -- no new roads for your district, buddy. Schuster predicted that a repeal would mean the loss of "420,000 high-paying jobs in each of the years 2002 and 2003."

The New York Times went on to report, "If that were not chilling enough to Republicans eager to maintain their tenuous control of the House this fall, other party leaders voiced skepticism over the repeal's impact on consumers."

"I don't know if the tax has any effect on fuel costs," said Rep. J.C. Watts. "Supply and demand is driving price right now."

Actually, as policy, the repeal idea is even dumber than that. As economist Paul Krugman points out, repeal wouldn't do a thing for prices at the pump -- but it would mean a multibillion-dollar windfall for OPEC and U.S. refiners.

What's a cartel to do if the U.S. cuts 4.3 cents off a gallon of gas? Raise the price, of course, by about 4.3 cents a gallon. Gore, who does care about policy, called it "a half-baked nonsolution" that would do little to cut prices and leave the "highways in disrepair."

The R's left it up to Rep. Dick Armey to say: Oops, wrong move. "Let's not get bogged down on only one dimension of the problem, that is in itself a short-term dimension that offers scant relief," Armey said. "Let's look at the larger long-term problem of U.S. dependency on foreign supplies, failed diplomatic relationships with critical producing nations and our own inability to fully develop our own domestic resource."

Yeah, let's not get bogged down.

The prospect of lowering the gas tax and letting the roads go to pot, or potholes, is what set the road construction and trucking industries off, and there you have some major contributors. What happy harmonic convergence for us.

I have a modest suggestion: Before we drill in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge (proven oil reserves -- that's what we can get at with existing technology at existing prices -- have increased more than 50 percent since the oil crisis of the '70s) or tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, we might consider more effective long-term and short-term strategies.

Short-term, OPEC meets on March 27, and the Mexican and Saudi oil ministers have indicated that the price may be dropped to $25 a barrel from the current $30. Leaning on our friends is a time-honored way of dealing with the cartel.

Long-term, one reason we haven't had much trouble with OPEC for a long time is that fuel efficiency has also risen by more than 50 percent since the '70s -- under pressure from the government, of course.

We all know that low gas prices encouraged people to buy the gas-guzzling SUVs. Why not try cutting demand again?

During Texas droughts, we see bumper stickers urging, "Save water, shower with a friend." Why not take a friend to work with you? We could also try getting the Republicans in Congress to support the next step on standards to improve fuel efficiency yet again. Or you could sell your SUV.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.