When corn becomes pork

Partisanship and ideology may divide Washington politicians, but pork and money for the folks back home can really bring them together.

Take Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King and that state’s Democratic senator, Tom Harkin. They agree on very little, and each man is a vocal member of his party’s ideological wing. King has a lifetime American Conservative Union rating of over 97 percent, for example, while Harkin’s is a perfectly liberal zero. It would be hard to find two other men from the same state with such radically diverse views.

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They disagree on immigration, healthcare, taxes, national security and spending, but there is one issue that brings them together. They both support subsidies, tariffs and regulatory mandates to promote the use of ethanol produced from Iowa corn. 

Something like 40 percent of American corn produced today goes neither to food nor to the export market, but to be boiled down, processed and mixed with gasoline to power our cars, trucks, tractors and outboard motors. The tariffs and subsidies were originally put into place to help save the environment, free the U.S. from it reliance on foreign or Midwestern oil and shield the struggling nascent domestic ethanol industry from foreign competition.

Nevertheless, the subsidies and protectionism were extended during the 2010 lame-duck session with bipartisan support in spite of increasing evidence that the program does little to further its stated goals, but a lot to enrich the farmers of a few states and   the coffers of a growing industry that couldn’t possibly compete in a free energy market.

Even former Vice President Al Gore, one of the early champions of ethanol, now admits the whole scheme is of little value and confesses that his original support was grounded more in a desire for Iowa presidential primary votes than in his concern for the environment. Agricultural economists now agree that in addition to the direct tax payments flowing into the industry, the program is driving up domestic and world food prices.   Meanwhile, environmentalists have concluded that ethanol does more harm to the environment than the gasoline it displaces.

As if all this isn’t enough, the administration, through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has authorized an increase of the amount of ethanol to be mixed at the pump even though the agency acknowledges that the new mixture simply won’t work in older cars. The existing blend already plays havoc with farm and garden equipment and has cost boat owners millions of dollars in repairs to engines directly attributable to the government’s forced use of ethanol in gasoline. 

The only remaining substantive argument in favor of ethanol is that by reducing the use of petroleum products, we lessen our dependence on that dreaded foreign oil, but one has to question the sincerity of this argument. It would be cheaper and far more efficient to drill for existing reserves in the U.S. and to develop a coherent energy policy than to simply shovel cash to Midwestern farmers.   In the 19th century Americans went overboard for patent medicines, and out there in River City their spiritual heirs are at it again.

If we were convinced as a nation that we should “pay any price” to free ourselves from reliance on oil from hostile or potentially hostile areas of the world, Congress would be far more serious about developing our own resources and improving the stability of proven suppliers like Canada, which today accounts for 20 percent of our imported oil. Instead, Congress seems far more interested in punishing Canada, preventing domestic exploration and forcing consumers and taxpayers to continue paying for a program that makes little sense.

In many ways, the ethanol program, including the subsidies, tariffs and new EPA mandates, stands as an excellent example of the difficulty Congress is facing in trying to respond to the newfound need to cut spending. If Congress can’t or won’t do away with a wasteful and counterproductive program that virtually everyone (save those who benefit directly and financially from its continuance) agrees ought to go, what can be cut?

Bipartisanship has always existed when it comes to log-rolling and pork, but that’s not what voters had in mind last fall when they demanded a bipartisan effort to get the nation’s fiscal house in order. Maybe we should keep an eye on Harkin and King to see if either of these partisans is willing to acknowledge that it’s time to re-examine a program that’s proven harmful to the country as a whole — even as it allows their constituents to laugh all the way to the bank.

Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental 
consulting firm.