On Tuesday, 45 Senate Democrats (and Socialist Bernie Sanders) joined with 13 Republicans to save federal ethanol subsidies. The largely partisan vote ended Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn’s effort to put a stop to this costly boondoggle that does little to promote American energy independence but a lot for refiners and corn farmers.
But this latest victory for a lobby that squeezes more than $6 billion a year out of the government may be short-lived. The Washington Post reported yesterday a new bi-partisan initiative might be in the works to reverse this vote and finally end Washington’s ethanol addiction. According to the Post, up to 20 Democrats may be willing to change sides on the issue if a new effort led by California Senator Dianne Feinstein comes to the floor. The paper’s sources claim this week’s ethanol industry victory was, in large measure, a rebuke for the independent-minded Coburn who has been a scourge of all government spending and is deeply disliked by Democrats.
The ethanol subsidy, which began in the Jimmy Carter era and has become even more costly in subsequent decades, is a tribute to the influence of the agriculture lobby and corn growing states like Iowa. Indeed, the ethanol lobby’s grip on Washington more or less coincided with the emergence of the Iowa caucuses as the first test of strength in presidential primary years. But in this era of budget crisis, even the ethanol lobbyists themselves are beginning to understand the free ride for corn farmers and the middle men who refine the fuel supplement is about to end. Though most presidential candidates like Mitt Romney still routinely endorse ethanol subsidies, the willingness of challengers such as Tim Pawlenty to call for an end to them is a measure of the change in the political climate. While ethanol is just a tiny piece of the fiscal puzzle, it is an outrageous waste of taxpayer dollars.
Thus, the stage is set for another round of legislative battle over the issue. Feinstein is hoping she can gather enough votes to end the 45 cents a gallon tax credit for ethanol in gasoline. Meanwhile Sen. John McCain is seeking to stop the flow of federal dollars for ethanol blender pumps and storage facilities. Given her status as a member of the majority, Democrat Feinstein’s amendment has a decent chance to get the 60 votes that would stop a pro-ethanol filibuster.
Unfortunately, the ethanol lobby isn’t that worried about the votes. Even if they lose, they know these bills will wind up being spiked because of procedural issues. Nevertheless, the willingness of some Democrats to join with conservatives on this issue may mark the beginning of the end of this special interest scandal.