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Ethanol Pork Cows Most GOP Contenders

Ethanol Pork Cows Most GOP Contenders

By David Paul Kuhn - April 1, 2011

In presidential campaigns, the long shots tend to say what the contenders dare not. So there was onetime Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, in early March, telling a group of Iowans, "I will eliminate the ethanol subsidy." Silence.

"And I'll eliminate the oil subsidy." Tepid applause. "Ethanol takes four rows out of ten of every corn field. Four rows out of ten that doesn't go to hungry people ... This is not right!" he roared, darting his right hand. Respectful applause. "That's how you balance a budget." The long shot soon lowered his voice. "But we have to get rid of my little deal, and your little deal and put together our deal."

Tim Pawlenty and Newt Gingrich did not say the same thing that day. Gingrich began the year pledging the expected. He was the keynote speaker in January at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association Summit. There he defended corn-based ethanol subsidies and dismissed "big city" critics. Behold populism in defense of pork.

It's a ritual of Iowa politics. Like eating fried food on a stick at the state fair. Presidential contenders back corn-based ethanol to contend in Iowa.

Will 2012 be different? One might think so. Republicans are afire over Democrats' big government and big spending. Republicans have had their come to Jesus moment on fiscal conservatism. Thanks to the heavy lifting by the tea party movement. Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn recently submitted legislation that would repeal the tax credit for "Volumetric Ethanol" and save taxpayers $6 billion. GOP candidates could practice what they preach.

Don't bet on it. Thus far, the bulk of the 2012 Republican field appears conventionally cowed. RealClearPolitics emailed plausible GOP 2012 campaigns -- Pawlenty, Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Haley Barbour, Jon Huntsman, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Mitch Daniels and Michele Bachmann. Would they support ending the corn-ethanol subsidy? If not, would they support its expiration as part of a larger deal to end price supports for all commodities?

Huntsman's spokesman noted that he's still ambassador to China and must currently abstain. Daniels did not directly answer the question. But his spokeswomen sent a comment Daniels made in December: "I'm disappointed that the Congress did not begin the transition out of subsidies. I support the use of ethanol for both economic and national security reasons..." He added that he supports strategies to "phase out the broader agricultural price support programs, but the current triple subsidy can no longer be justified."

Other contenders refused to answer. Cowardice is easier through silence. It's politics as usual -- or as we have seen it over the years in Iowa.

Long shot John McCain took the bold stand in 1999: "I want to tell you the things that you don't want to hear as well as the things you want to hear, and one of those is ethanol. Ethanol is not worth it."

Frontrunner John McCain said by 2006 that corn-based ethanol was a "vital alternative energy source." He reiterated his support on "Meet the Press" the next year.

There are 204 U.S. plants that use corn to produce ethanol. They account for more than nine-in-10 ethanol plants in the nation, according to data compiled by an ethanol trade journal. And the state synonymous with corn contains the most. Iowa has 40 corn-ethanol plants, one fifth of the plants nationwide. A distant second is Minnesota, with a tenth of the nation's corn-ethanol plants.

It was once thought that ethanol could reduce American dependence on foreign oil and pollution. The first tax exemption for ethanol was enacted in 1978 amid the energy crisis. We have since learned that corn-ethanol uses more emissions in production than it saves. Ethanol infused gasoline -- with the help of subsidies -- is cheaper for blenders to produce than pure gasoline. But it's less fuel-efficient. It inflates the price of corn and skews the energy market. Stanford professor Mark Jacobson, in a paper for Energy and Environmental Science, ranked corn-based ethanol at the bottom of alternative fuel sources.

Yet Iowa is the first contest of the presidential primaries. Thus Uncle Sam hearts ethanol. A cocktail of policies stimulate the industry. The EPA recently allowed newer vehicles to use gasoline that contains up to 15 percent ethanol; it was previously 10 percent. Congress extended a $5.4 billion ethanol tax credit in 2010. The renewable fuel standard mandates an increasing volume of bio-fuels. And what's the only bio-fuel really in the domestic market? Corn-based ethanol. A 54-cent-per-gallon tariff on imported ethanol helps assure that.

Bob Dole was asked in 1985 why he backed a tariff on Brazilian ethanol years earlier. ''I'm a farm-state senator.'' It was, to borrow from Roemer, part of Dole's "little" deal.

Most 2012 GOP contenders have said, in the past, they won't mess with that deal. But wait. Hasn't Tim Pawlenty attempted to position himself as the tea party candidate? There Pawlenty was on Fox News in December noting that the tax cut deal "is all porked up, it is all earmarked up." But Pawlenty defends his pork. As governor, Pawlenty upped Minnesota's ethanol mandate.

Yes, Gingrich has said that the 2010 "election was in part over pork-barrel spending by earmarks and the Democrats are trying to behave as though the election didn't occur." Telling words from a champion of ethanol pork.

Romney, Palin and Huckabee have all stood on the austerity soapbox in recent years. But all three supported ethanol subsidies during the 2008 campaign. Barbour has spoken approvingly of ethanol in the past. Michele Bachmann, from corn-centric Minnesota, reportedly said she would consider reexamining ethanol subsidies. But Bachmann, head of the House tea party caucus, would still not directly answer whether she backed ethanol subsidies. It's a low bar. But Daniels appears positively brave by comparison. His state, Indiana, has the fourth most corn-ethanol plants.

Today's most popular potential GOP contender, Huckabee, personifies the hypocrisy. "Our country must take painful steps to rein in spending and reduce the deficit," Huckabee has said. But this 2012 Republican field, with noted exceptions, apparently still believes political pain is for other people. That stance might win Iowa. But it won't win respect.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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