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Pushing a rock up Capitol Hill
The National Corn Growers Association’s Corn Congress ended in Washington Thursday, after two days of lobbying for continued support for crop insurance and ethanol, and debating the group’s own policy on the best way to promote the homegrown fuel that has become the second largest domestic market for corn after livestock.
NCGA members spent Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning this week visiting members of the House and Senate to ask that ag committees be allowed to decide how farm programs will be cut. Some worry that farm programs will on the chopping block in any deal to raise the debt ceiling. Protecting crop insurance is high on their list.
And, the Corn Growers are urging continued support for the renewable fuel standard, the mandate to use ethanol that many consider more important than the blenders tax credit, which is all but certain to die at the end of this year, if not this summer.
The Corn Growers are also passing out fliers that explain the difference between sweet corn and field corn.
“We have a whole bunch of new folks on Capitol Hill,” the group’s top lobbyist, Jon Doggett told members Wednesday. “One of the problems with food versus fuel [debates] is that people don’t know the difference between the two.”
Later, in an interview with Agriculture.com, Doggett said his group expects the mandate for ethanol use in the 2007 energy bill to come under attack. The House has already voted to end the energy law’s requirement for more efficient light bulbs.
“We’ve got a new gang in town that doesn’t like mandates,” Doggett said. And the energy bill’s renewable fuel standard is “a mandate just like the light bulb deal.”
The RFS is just part of what Doggett describes as the biggest change he’s seen in Washington in his 25 years of working the Washington.
“We’re starting to set ourselves on the path of undoing a lot of what has happened over the past 70 years,” he said, referring to the federal government’s big entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. There will be resistance to that in the Senate and the White House for now “but I sense a sea change,” he added.
Unlike entitlements, a mandate doesn’t necessarily cost the federal treasury anything, but to the ethanol industry and corn growers, it’s an important part of today’s strong agricultural economy.
When asked if the RFS is more important than the blenders credit, Doggett replied, “Of course it is. I’m anxious to hear what our members are finding on Capitol Hill”
On Thursday, an informal poll of NCGA delegates found solid support for the RFS from congressional delegations in states like Iowa and Kansas, but less certainty about its support from Texas, where the delegation is becoming more urban.
Agriculture.com had a chance to talk to one of the new members of the House Agriculture Committee, freshman Republican Representative Renee Ellmers of North Carolina about ethanol policy.
The interview also covered how the committee will deal with the farm bill. “Everything is going to be on the table,” she said. Ellmers says she’s finding the committee’s audit hearings of USDA programs helpful. And she hasn’t decided how programs will be cut.
But on ethanol, she seems to have fewer doubts.
“I voted consistently to cut the ethanol subsidies because I am not in favor of picking winners and losers in one sector of the economy,” she said.
Ellmers’ home state is a major producer of hogs and poultry and those industries dislike ethanol programs.
“Their cost of doing business has gone up greatly for what I consider not that much improvement for our consumers in bringing down gas prices,” Ellmers said.
When asked about the RFS, she said, “My farmers are very concerned about it and want that to go away.”
“The subsidies are a symptom of the problem. The root of the problem is the mandate,” she added.
The market should decide which biofuels are competitive and appropriate for different regions, she said.
Ellmers’ view represents those of a majority of House members on some ethanol issues. And critics of ethanol programs include Democrats as well as Republicans. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) wrote in today’s Milwaukee Journal that “I will work in Congress to eliminate the ethanol mandate and the annual $6 billion taxpayer subsidies that have propped up this industry for years.”
Sensenbrenner’s column opposes the recent EPA decision to allow 15% ethanol blends of gasoline (E15) to be sold to cars built for the 2001 model year later.
E15 is already being used as the fuel for NASCAR races, as part of a promotion funded by American Ethanol, an effort financed by NCGA and the ethanol lobbying group, Growth Energy.
American Ethanol is sponsoring NASCAR driver, Kenny Wallace, who got a standing ovation from the Corn Growers delegates on Wednesday after Wallace told the group that E15 is a high performance fuel that’s working just fine at NASCAR races.
But the delegates balked at a proposal from Growth Energy founder Jeff Broin to increase NCGA financial support for ethanol promotion. Broin, who is CEO of the ethanol company, POET, met with NCGA’s board earlier in the week and proposed raising funds to promote ethanol by collecting a voluntary checkoff at POET ethanol plants, according to NCGA members.
NCGA delegates voted against that approach in a session that was closed to the press. But the group’s CEO, Rick Tolman, confirmed to Agriculture.com that members thought creating another checkoff would send a confusing message to growers.
Tolman said the original agreement between NCGA and Growth Energy called for finding two more major sponsors for ethanol promotion. When that didn’t happened, Growth picked up three fourths of the cost. Tolman said NCGA is looking for other ways to raise more support for the effort.
“It deserves some more funding to get more leverage,” Tolman said of the ethanol effort.