This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The price of buying off Iowa is no longer worth it.
This month, by a bipartisan majority of 73-27, the Senate voted to end the $6 billion a year federal tax subsidy of ethanol as a motor fuel. It was a vote that pulled together some senators who normally wouldn't want to be seen with one another, such as amendment co-sponsors Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., and Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn. But deficit politics can make strange bedfellows.
In order to put this vote together, ending decades of an increasingly unjustifiable tax break for a product that is neither commercially viable nor environmentally sustainable on its own, many senators had to turn their backs on outdated dogma they'd been barking for a long time.
Some farm state lawmakers such as Coburn had to give up on the idea that the artificial boost in the demand for ethanol's primary ingredient, corn, was sacrosanct. Liberals like Feinstein had to stop being devoted to the idea that fuel that comes from vegetables is necessarily cleaner than fuel that comes from minerals. And conservatives, such as Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, had to drop the notion, promoted by influential fundraisers, that eliminating a fiscally dubious tax dodge is the same thing as a tax hike.
If the tax break for ethanol really is eliminated the House still has to vote and the Obama administration isn't yet on board it may actually be conservatives such as Lee and Hatch who will have shown the most gumption. This is because the ethanol tax break, and just about every other loophole that exists, has been given protected status by conservative crusaders such as Grover Norquist, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform.
This starve-the-beast wing of the Republican Party has, with a straight face, long insisted that every tax dodge, break or credit that now exists, whether it is a good idea or a lousy one, must not be touched by Congress. If it is, they say, it amounts to a tax hike and is thus a violation of the no-new-taxes pledge politicians are expected to swear if they want the continued support of such political megaphones.
But more senators of both parties are rightly shifting their focus from a lock-step opposition to revenue increases, or spending cuts, as the size of the deficit grows and the nation's debt ceiling is exceeded. Various blue-ribbon commissions, as well as budget negotiations going on in congressional sub-basements, rightly view the voluminous catalog of tax breaks as the low-hanging fruit or, maybe, tall-growing corn of the debate.
By cutting the ethanol break, senators have done more than many might have expected to show they are serious.