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Gingrich for Free Markets (Except for Corn Ethanol)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Iowa caucuses are more than a year away but potential 2012 presidential hopefuls are already parachuting into corn country to pander to Big Ag. Perennially coy Newt Gingrich is only the latest to genuflect before Iowa’s long reigning monarch – King Corn. Delivering the keynote address at the Renewable Fuels Association summit (Jan. 25), the former Republican Speaker of the House (Speaker’s Bureau fee listed at $40,000+) and tax cutting champion called for continued mandates and support for the 30-year old corn ethanol industry. After the speech, he told reporters that he could do away with the billion dollar ethanol tax credit but “shift to a fully competitive ability for every gas station to be able to have ethanol and for every car that pulls up to be able to use ethanol.” In most thesauruses, the word ‘mandate’ would not equate with ‘competitive’ but that doesn’t stop him from also supporting a mandate for car companies to make so-called flex-fuel vehicles that can run on up to 85 percent ethanol. The real reason for Gingrich’s unlikely stand? Comedian Bill Maher explained it best:

I suppose if the first presidential primary was in Vermont, we would all be pouring maple syrup into our gas tanks.

Politico’s Ben Smith put it bluntly:

Iowa over conservative purity.

Gingrich then took aim at media critics of ethanol:

Obviously big urban newspapers want to kill [ethanol support] because it’s working, and you wonder, ‘What are their values?’

The Wall Street Journal quickly returned fire:

This doesn't bode well for his judgment as a president. Even Al Gore now admits that the only reason he supported ethanol in 2000 was to goose his presidential prospects, and the only difference now between Al and Newt is that Al admits he was wrong.

The verdict of the American Spectator, which styles itself as the voice of “economic freedom, individual liberty, limited government, and traditional American values,” went even further:

Pathetic. Despicable. Profoundly unconservative.

Gingrich even tried to rebut the notion that boosting corn ethanol production has had an impact on food prices and land use. So shipping 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop to ethanol refineries has no impact on commodity prices? And sending checks for billions of dollars in farm subsidies based on how many acres a person owns has no effect on land prices? US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, a Republican, have both cited the increasing pressure that ethanol production is putting on land and commodity prices. Bruce Babcock, an Iowa State University professor, calculated that corn prices are 21 percent higher than they would be without the federal corn ethanol mandate, tariff and tax credit. The former Speaker also played to the agribusiness crowd by calling for dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency. Gingrich called it “an incompetent bureaucracy” led by “urban, academic bureaucrats” and suggested replacing it with the “Environment Solutions Agency.” He called regulation “a cumbersome and very ineffective method of trying to control society.” When you have Iowa in your sights, forcing one fuel type on Americans at the behest of agribusiness doesn’t smack of government over-reach. To Gingrich, it’s only over-reach when the EPA tries to protect consumers and the environment.