POLITICS
11/11/2010 12:54 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Deficit Commission's 'Chairman's Mark' Doesn't Mention Wasteful Ethanol Subsidies

I'm not going to be the first one to note that the "chairman's mark" that was birthed so suddenly into our lives yesterday lacks a certain amount of seriousness. Frankly, it bears all the hallmarks of today's "process re-engineering" consultants -- it contains something that ensures that all parties will be pissed off on some level, in the hopes that everyone will simply accept their seat in a downward-heading handbasket.

And let's recall that the work of the deficit commission is not serious by design: a 14-out-of-18 supermajority on the commission itself is required to even advance an idea off the drawing board and into the halls of Congress, where it will will sidle up to lawmakers who are more concerned with saving their seats than saving money, and issue a super-earnest "pretty please" plea. As it stands, this "chairman's mark" contains far too many tax increases to attract Republican votes and far too many entitlement cuts to attract Democratic votes. (And by "far too many," I mean, "one.")

But if you want to know my baseline for seriousness, here you go: I go right to the "Mandatory Savings" section to see how much real talk is being applied to wasteful government subsidies. Right away, I see that the chairmen target $3 billion/year in farm subsidy reductions, which is both a surprising inclusion given the sacred-cow status of farm subsidies and a good start. However, what I do not see, anywhere, is any mention of the boondogglicious corn ethanol subsidies. Guess how much those cost taxpayers?

But the corn ethanol industry, which is becoming a powerful political and economic force, also receives heavy subsidies from the government and is heavily lobbying for favorable federal policies.

A recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out that even as most of the country is struggling economically, "America's farm belt is booming" with agricultural committees jumping in price. One of the factors driving this growth is the biofuels industry, "which consumes roughly a third of the U.S. corn crop -- buoying prices -- and has government support behind it."

Corn ethanol remains a controversial source of alternative energy, often criticized for "siphoning food away from the hungry and into the fuel tanks of rich countries, leaving a trail of environmental devastation in its wake."

According to the Congressional Budget Office, in 2009, the tax incentives for the ethanol industry cost the federal government $6 billion, and "the costs to taxpayers of replacing a gallon of gasoline with one of corn ethanol add up to $1.78." Additionally, "it costs a huge $750 to reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions by one ton using corn ethanol."

That's twice as much savings, for cutting something that is, essentially, a straight-up scam. But it's not the dollar amount that's particularly galling. What's $6 billion among taxpayers, after all? What gives me the gasface is that when it comes to having to explain the corruption of influence peddlers and industry lobbyists that leads to blown-out bloat in the first place, the corn ethanol saga is the clearest and best example I can offer.

Every single presidential primary season begins with the sad sight of every would-be chief executive trooping out to Iowa to perform their ritual bend-and-stoop pageant before the ethanol lobby. Blessed are the few that don't, but enough do that you know full well than any or all subsequent talk of "fighting the special interests" and "changing the corrupt system" is largely a sad, sodding joke. And it's one of those grand events in the campaign narrative that everyone knows is a joke, but the media still reliably treats this quadrennial pander-fest as the first big test of presidential mettle -- not that they give extra points to the few brave souls that dare to be honest!

Now, it's entirely possible that the "chairman's mark" failed to address this matter because they're convinced that these subsidies will expire on schedule at year's end. We'll see! Back on October 21, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said that these subsidies should be extended for a "short-term, fiscally responsible" period, whatever that means. In any event, the commission's chairmen pass on an opportunity to address the uncertainty in any final way.

In raw dollars, it's small. But symbolically, it's huge, and to see that it's not even on the radar of Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson -- you know, the celebrated greyhairs who've seen it all and are here with their decades of accumulated knowledge and folksy bipartisan wisdom to tell us all about the hard choices we have to make to save ourselves -- well, I'm sorry, but it marks them as pretenders.

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