Five Reasons the Tea Party Is Not Lobbying for End of Ethanol Subsidies

Doug Kleckner stands on his combine looking at an ear of corn on his farm near St. Ansgar, Iowa, in 2009. Steve Pope / AP

Republican Sens. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma were Tea Partiers before the term existed. Staunch fiscal and social conservatives who are unafraid to alienate colleagues with principled but unpopular crusades, DeMint and Coburn have long been scourges of wasteful government spending, no matter how small. Recently, with the help of Tea Party activists applying pressure to the Republican leadership they got most of the Republican Senate caucus to embrace a ban on pork barrel spending. Nonetheless, the proposal failed, with most Democrats and a handful of Republicans opposing it.

Now they've found a new, eminently worthy target: The 7 billion taxpayer dollars that annually go to subsidize the production of corn-based ethanol. The nominal policy rationale for the subsidies is to wean us off our dependence on carbon-spewing foreign oil. The political rationale is that corn is grown across the Midwest, and if you want to win a Senate race in those states, or the Iowa presidential caucuses, it behooves you to throw money at corn farmers. Alas, good politics does not always make for good policy. Ethanol has been shown to use as much or more emissions to produce as it saves over conventional gasoline. And by driving up the prices for corn, it has increased food prices. Environmental hero Al Gore has recently admitted he was wrong to back ethanol in 2000, and that he did so with Iowa in mind.

If ever there were a good issue for the limited-government activists awakened by the Tea Party movement to engage with, this would be it. Ethanol subsidies distort the market, create negative externalities, and waste taxpayer dollars. So what have we been hearing from the Tea Party movement? The same thing we have heard from most of the right: radio silence. The "new intra-GOP war," predicted by Greg Sargent, who has been all over this story, has not broken out.

Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley fumed via Twitter, "R they ready sunset tax subsidies oilANDgas enjoys?" Coburn, to his enormous credit, responded that he would be potentially willing to take more subsidies out as well. This should have been manna for Tea Partiers.

And Grassley's response made the challenge apparent. Whereas a pork ban across the board allows everyone to tell their constituents that they could not bring home the bacon because no one else could either, eliminating just ethanol subsidies gives no one from the Midwest an incentive to sign on and every incentive to push back. If there is one thing a true fiscal conservative in Iowa could do to make his voice on limited government truly heard it would be to aggressively lobby Grassley to support DeMint and Coburn; to say to Grassley, in effect, we represent a lot of Republican primary activists and voters, and—to borrow a phrase Tea Party leaders are fond of using—we will have your back. They also would send the message to Republican 2012 presidential aspirants that they could take the right position on this issue without fearing that they would be ruining their chances of winning, or at least placing respectably, in the Iowa caucuses. (The Des Moines Register found that 33 percent of Iowans support the Tea Party movement.)

The dividing lines are shaping up regionally rather than ideologically, with dueling groups of senators from both parties sending letters to both Senate party leaders. Senators from across the country signed a letter opposing the subsidies while a bipartisan group from the Midwest signed one in favor.

So where are the Tea Party activists nationally and locally? A series of calls to Tea Party activists in Washington, D.C., and in Iowa turned up virtually no evidence of any such activism. Why not? They each gave one or more of the following five reasons. (The national Tea Party Patriots failed to answer multiple requests for comment, which in its own way speaks volumes).

We're busy:

Adam Brandon, a spokesman for FreedomWorks, the fiscally conservative group that has worked closely with Tea Party activists, says they enthusiastically support the proposal but haven't done or said anything about it yet because they just got back from Thanksgiving and they have been overwhelmed with other issues, such as their sponsorship of the Republican National Committee chairman candidates' debate. Brandon says that whether Tea Party activists in Iowa support removing ethanol subsidies is an important question. "That's an interesting test in a state like Iowa," says Brandon. "A lot of conservatives talk a good game, but when it's their corporate welfare it's different."

We're against the lame-duck Congress doing anything:

"It's a tricky issue for us," says Phil Kerpen, vice president for policy of Americans for Prosperity, another fiscally conservative group. "Historically we've been opposed to ethanol subsidies as a scheme for propping up the domestic corn industry, but in the current lame-duck session our across-the-board position is to extend the current tax cuts. But [ending ethanol subsidies] is something we would encourage the new Congress to do." We'll see whether AFP invests any effort in this next year.

I have no idea what you're talking about:

Debra Derksen is a paradigmatic grassroots Tea Party activist. She is the organizer of Iowans for Liberty, a Tea Party Patriots–affiliated group in Iowa City that pledges to "fight for free market" [sic]. When asked about the ethanol issue, she said she was unaware of the DeMint-Coburn proposal. "We have a few hot topics, but ethanol we haven't pushed on," says Derksen. "I manage a coffee shop in Iowa City," she explains. "I was really busy [with activism] up until the election, so afterwards I took a bit of a hiatus because I was so busy on things." Obviously this points to the potential weakness of any grassroots, volunteer-based movement, the same one that has bedeviled Organizing for America: most volunteers have full-time jobs, and after the election they will go back to their other commitments rather than investing 30 hours a week pursuing every legislative priority. Still, the fact that Derksen had not even heard of the proposal may have something to do with the national conservative movement and the media's silence on the issue. Fox News, which is known for lavishing coverage on right-wing crusades, no matter how quixotic, has not done a single story on DeMint and Coburn's proposal.

We've got higher priorities:

So working stiffs may not have time to get active on every issue, but what about college students? They're young, energetic, idealistic, and they're only in class like eight hours a week. Well, the University of Iowa Tea Party has better things to do than get involved in the ethanol debate, even though they would support removing the subsidies in principle, according to Joseph Gallagher, a freshman who organized the group. "[Ethanol policy] is not one of our major strong points," says Gallagher. But what about the fact that Iowa's own senator came out strongly against the proposal? Doesn't that make it important to them? "It kind of hits home," Gallagher concedes, "but we usually focus more on federal-level issues than local issues." Some young conservatives might be studying the methods of radical organizer Saul Alinsky, but they seem less interested in borrowing the "think global, act local," mantra from the environmental movement.

Let's let the perfect be the enemy of the good:

Iowa Tea Party chairman Ryan Rhodes says that members come down on both sides of the ethanol issue, in light of corn's role in the economy. But he adds that while he personally is sympathetic to eliminating the ethanol subsidies, he and his group won't get involved if it focuses only on ethanol. "We would be for the elimination of all the subsidies, but not just one, giving an unfair advantage to the other energy sources," says Rhodes.

Rhodes adds that farmers in the Iowa Tea Party have told him they could do without the subsidies if the government also eliminated various burdens it places on them, such as overly high property taxes and estate taxes. Property taxes, of course, are levied at the state and local rather than federal level, which Rhodes points to as an argument for the peculiar Tea Party fixation with removing the direct election of United States senators. "Senators are not consulting state and local officials in the way they should be," says Rhodes. "Senators used to be elected by the legislature from the state. That's one thing we'd like to fix. If they were elected that way instead of directly they'd be able to coordinate issues."

Not all hope is lost here, however. Rhodes says his group will be creating a list of causes for candidates in the 2012 Iowa caucuses to address, and the elimination of crop subsidies may be on it.