Washington Watch: Iowa caucuses. Can voters afford them?

Iowa is not only the leading producer of corn but also the leadoff state for selecting presidential nominees.

Various Republican US presidential candidates during the second official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 campaign in Simi Valley, California (photo credit: REUTERS)
Various Republican US presidential candidates during the second official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 campaign in Simi Valley, California
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If you think the Iowa caucuses don’t affect you, you haven’t been grocery shopping lately.
While you’re at the supermarket, presidential contenders of all parties are shopping for votes in Iowa that you will pay for with higher prices on just about everything in your grocery cart.
That’s because taxpayers are spending about $6 billion annually on federal tax credits, incentives and mandates promoting the conversion of nearly half of the Hawkeye state’s corn crop to ethanol, a fuel additive of questionable value to energy and the environment.
Iowa is not only the leading producer of corn but also the leadoff state for selecting presidential nominees.
And there’s the rub.
A headline in Politico last week reported that Iowa farmers hope Joe Biden will run for president. It’s not that they want to vote for him, they’re just looking for some leverage to get him to press the Environmental Protection Agency not to lower the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) requirements for the ethanol content in gasoline.
The subsidies should have been phased out long ago, but a parade of pandering politicians of all stripes have been promising Iowans to support RFS. The reason is simple: they’re buying votes for the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.
It’s an issue that makes for odd bedfellows. Republicans Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Donald Trump are on the same side of the issue as Hillary Clinton, while opposing subsidies are Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz, who are otherwise political polar opposites.
The fear of $300-a-barrel oil in the midst of the Arab oil embargo in the early 1970s fueled the ethanol drive, leading to mandating that it comprise as much as 15 percent of the gasoline at the pump. It was sold as a key to energy independence, but it long ago outlived any usefulness; today oil is below $50 per barrel.
There’s more politics than science involved. The nation has achieved energy independence today, no thanks to ethanol. The greatest benefit of ethanol goes to Big Corn and corporate agriculture, not consumers.
Truck drivers complain ethanol cuts mileage and forces more frequent oil changes, dirties fuel injectors and makes engines run less efficiently.
Critics say it takes as much energy to produce as it provides. One, writing in The Hill, the Capitol Hill news provider, said, “If ethanol fuel was a viable product it would not require laws to force people to buy that crap.”
In addition to whatever damage it may do to car engines, it also raises food prices, notably kosher food.
A major portion of Iowa’s corn crop goes for animal feed in a state that boasts two of the country’s largest producers of kosher and halal meats. The state has an estimated 6,200 Jews and 6,500 Muslims out of 3 million residents.
The increased demand for corn to produce ethanol and biofuels – consuming about 47% of the state’s corn crop – has removed large amounts of corn from food production and driven up food and feed costs not just in the United States but in third world countries dependent on American exports.
Israel, one of the world’s biggest per capita consumers of corn, is an important and growing American customer.
A report by Taxpayers for Common Sense said the federal government has provided “billions in subsidies, special interest tax breaks, taxpayer-backed loan guarantees,” yet biofuels have failed to deliver on promises “to achieve US energy independence, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and spur rural economic development.”
The AAA contends the RSF requirement is too high for most cars and “would wreck lawn mowers, weed eaters, boats and motorcycles,” according to The Wall Street Journal.
In the decade since RSF was enacted, the amount of corn used for fuel has nearly tripled, driving up prices for food.
The Boston Globe contends the ethanol requirement costs drivers an extra $10b. at the gas pump because of the added cost of the additive, decreased efficiency compared to pure gasoline. Moreover, it doesn’t reduce carbon dioxide because the growing, harvesting and refining processes release more CO2 to the atmosphere.
Corn is our most ubiquitous crop. It is in animal feed for the beef, chicken and other meats we consume, and is used to produce bread, cereal, candy, beer and whiskey, soft drinks and a full range of foods plus pharmaceuticals, disposable diapers, glue, cosmetics and much more.
The Iowa caucuses don’t directly elect national convention delegates but have a disproportionate influence because they are first vote in the presidential election cycle. They will be held in all 99 Iowa counties on February 1, followed eight days later by the first actual primary in the nation, New Hampshire.
Iowa, like New Hampshire, is retail politics at its best even though it is a small state with less than one percent of the national population. It may be in the middle of America but it is not Middle America. Caucus participants tend to come more from the activist extremes of both parties rather than the centrists.
Both contests are a chance for candidates to meet voters one-on-one, something not possible in the larger, more delegate-rich states. It is also an opportunity for candidates to test their message, practice their stump speeches, train their staff and meet voters and national in a more intimate setting.
A poor showing can send candidates packing before the first vote is cast (Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker) or propel an obscure candidate to the top tier and even the White House (Jimmy Carter in 1976).
It may be a good training ground but it puts an unnecessary burden on the nation’s consumers because of the power of Big Corn.
There are growing calls on Capitol Hill to repeal corn-related requirements and subsidies, but nothing will happen in this Congress or the next, especially if the 45th president embraces RFS while campaigning in Iowa between now and February 1.
It’s too early to count out Big Corn, as you can see at your local grocery, especially at the meat counter. It would help if presidential candidates spent more time doing the family shopping than making promises the rest of us don’t need and can’t afford.