John E. Sununu

Big white lies amid the corn fields

Mitt Romney holds an ear of corn during a visit to an agriculture software firm in Iowa. Associated Press Mitt Romney holds an ear of corn during a visit to an agriculture software firm in Iowa.

Associated Press (Associated Press)
By John E. Sununu
June 6, 2011

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POLITICAL PANDERING comes in all shapes and sizes, but every four years the presidential primary bring us in contact with its purest form — praising ethanol subsidies amid the corn fields of Iowa. Though it sounds like a caricature, the photo tells the story: Mitt Romney, holding a golden ear of corn, declaring recently, “I support the subsidy of ethanol.”

We should all be forgiven that occasional white lie told to a neighbor to preserve the peace. Complimenting a display of Christmas lights that looks better suited to Times Square, for example, or agreeing to a second helping of tuna casserole that pushes the limits of edibility. Call it politeness or neighborhood diplomacy or simple compassion. It serves a purpose, avoids hurt feelings, and costs you nothing.

Politics is another story; the white lies have a cost. The nature of democracy only intensifies what for most politicians is a natural impulse: They just want to be liked.

I don’t know where every presidential candidate stands on ethanol (a hunch: Ron Paul is a “no”), but the bipartisan history is ugly. Al Gore, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all sang the same song from Ames to Sioux City. John McCain took a lonelier road bucking the trend in both 2000 and 2008. Channeling McCain, Tim Pawlenty has called for the subsidies to be phased out — in Iowa, no less. He’s positioning himself as a direct alternative to Romney, and it’s a pitch that may strike a chord this time around. With the deficit hovering around $1.5 trillion, even voters in Iowa understand the importance of cutting spending and eliminating corporate subsidies.

Ethanol hits the taxpayer in three ways. Manufacturers benefit from a 54-cent tariff that discourages low-cost ethanol imports, gasoline blenders receive a 51-cent tax credit for every gallon of ethanol they use, and the federal government will mandate that consumers buy 14 billion gallons this year. The 2011 price tag for taxpayers runs over $7 billion and continues to grow.

Until recently, the environmental costs associated with growing “biofuels” have avoided much scrutiny. But this year, over 30 million acres of land will be dedicated to ethanol production — an area twice the size of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Two studies released in 2008 also suggest that using land to grow corn results in a net increase in greenhouse gases. In a ruling last year, the EPA avoided the issue by simply assuming that ethanol plants would be powered by only the newest and cleanest technology available.

Despite the lingering questions about economics and environmental benefits, the political draw remains powerful. Members of Congress from corn states argue that they are just supporting their constituents. Many genuinely believe that the virtues of ethanol are endless, but about half will privately admit that the level of support is a bit over the top.

In either case, they are guilty of telling people what they want to hear. Farmers are reassured with support for investment, jobs, and “family farms”; the American people hear promises that ethanol will lead to “energy independence.” These messages have been championed to no end by the farm and environmental lobbies, and they’re not backing down now. The have too much invested in protecting the status quo — as do politicians who have voted time and again for expanding the subsidies.

They’re all at risk should the tide begin to turn. At some point, even a member of Congress should be able to set aside parochial issues when a policy fails to serve the national interest.

Republican voters are anxious for leaders that will speak hard truths. They continue to seek out candidates with specific ideas for controlling spending and remain highly skeptical of claims that government intervention will make health care less expensive. And most voters give Paul Ryan credit for at least offering a concrete proposal — unlike the president — for reining in the unsustainable growth in Medicare spending.

It’s a long road ahead, but this anxiety may provide an opening for Tim Pawlenty. A stand against ethanol in Iowa shows he’s serious about rolling back costly subsidies. It’s also a chance to weigh the environmental cost of using 30 million acres to grow fuel. Perhaps most important, by refusing to tell the white lies that many in Iowa expect to hear, he has a chance to show voters some character as well.

John E. Sununu, a regular Globe contributor, is a former US senator from New Hampshire.