04/13/2011 11:56 am ET Updated Jun 13, 2011

Freshman Republican Breaks Rank On Oil Subsidies

A freshman Republican congressman from Wisconsin has broken rank with his GOP colleagues by calling on lawmakers to re-evaulate the multi-billion-dollar subsidies the federal government doles out to already highly-profitable oil and gas companies.

Rep. Reid Ribble said on C-SPAN's Washington Journal last week that the subsidies should be "looked at" -- which, in the context of the modern Republican Party's lockstep adherence to Big Oil's political agenda, was actually news.

Ribble's spokesman Brandon Moody on Tuesday confirmed that the congressman is serious about the idea.

"America is $14 trillion in debt and as a member of the Budget Committee, Congressman Ribble believes we've got to review all our spending priorities," Moody wrote in an email to The Huffington Post.

"The Congressman sticks by what he said on C-SPAN. He thinks that all energy subsidies should be thoroughly reviewed in this upcoming budget. He believes energy companies should stand on their own without subsidy. It's time for these companies to sink or swim in the private sector without handouts from the federal taxpayer."

Ribble joins an exceedingly small club of Republicans questioning party orthodoxy on the issue. Last month (also on C-SPAN), Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) called for cutting subsidies to oil companies. "They’re doing just fine on their own," Kirk said. "I think that many of the corporate welfare programs are misplaced."

Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), told ThinkProgress earlier this month that oil company subsidies are “a manipulation of the market place,” but he stopped short of outright opposition.

Earlier this year, President Obama called on Congress to eliminate about $4 billion a year in tax breaks for Big Oil -- but his proposal appeared dead on arrival due to the overwhelmingly powerful oil and gas lobby, and a seemingly firm Republican party line.

Ribble, who used to run his family's roofing business, is not a member of the Tea Party Caucus, but told the C-SPAN audience that he was elected with Tea Party support.

Some Democrats have expressed hopes that the oil subsidy issue would draw attention from some Tea Party Republicans the same way ethanol subsidies have.

Ribble and Kirk's willingness to reconsider subsidies is one of the first indications that some House Republicans may be willing to consider revenue increases as part of the equation for cutting the deficit -- if not in the form of tax increases, at least in the form of cutting what are called tax expenditures.

Over the last two decades, the Republican Party and Big Oil have become progressively more inseparable, with the GOP's increased militancy about drilling for oil mirroring its growing dependence on oil industry money. Oil and gas campaign spending has dramatically tilted in favor of Republican candidates -- moving from a not quite 2 to 1 margin in the early 1990s to now, when for every $1 the industry gives Democrats, it gives Republicans about $3.35.

So, it was unsurprising when Ribble joined every single other House Republican on March 1 in voting down a freshmen Democrat's attempt to tack a subsidy repeal onto a continuing budget resolution.

Since then, Ribble's vote has been used as political fodder by some Wisconsin Democrats. "Instead of ending taxpayer subsidies to Big Oil, Congressman Reid Ribble is pushing for a dangerous, partisan agenda that would hurt Wisconsin families and does nothing to create jobs," Haley Morris, Midwest spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told Wisconsin journalists last month.

Multi-billion-dollar oil subsidies, some of which date back a century to when oil was a nascent industry in need of government support, have become politically impregnable -- even as the rationale behind them has become much harder to articulate.

The nation's oil companies are consistently posting enormous profits: ExxonMobil alone cleared $31 billion in profits this past year, more than the gross domestic product of half the countries in the world.


Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.