Corny Newt

Article excerpt

Are ethanol subsidies fueling a presidential run?

Several months ago Rep. Bill Livingston reportedly received an assurance from House Speaker Newt Gingrich that if the Louisiana congressman reneged on his retirement plans and hung in for another term, and if the speaker decided to launch a presidential bid in 2000, Gingrich would not choose sides in the struggle for his successor. Livingston, an ii-termer who's been around long enough to understand Washington double-speak, immediately launched two campaigns: one for his allbut-guaranteed congressional re-election, and another, tougher one for speaker in 2000. Within a matter of days Livingston had already assembled an influential 12-member whip team, amassed a substantial speaker campaign fund, and received promises of votes from nearly 100 colleagues. Washington was abuzz with talk that Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tx.), until then the presumptive heir, had been overtaken.

Of course that all depends on whether Gingrich is running, and publicly he has been noncommittal, indicating only that he will make a decision by Labor Day 1999. Even if he runs, no rules bar him from continuing as speaker. But there are plenty of signs that the Georgian is in the presidential race-and that his candidacy is affecting his job performance. Take the issue of energy policy, where Gingrich is pushing an unsound idea in hopes of securing votes in the Iowa caucuses.

Tucked inside the massive $200-plus billion transportation bill approved by the Senate in mid-March was a continuation of a $700 million-per-year, 5.4 cent-per-gallon federal tax credit for ethanol-good through 2007. The measure wasn't in the version passed out of the House, having been killed 22-11 in a House Ways and Means committee mark-up at chairman Bill Archer's urging. But Congress needed to reconcile the two bills for final passage, and Gingrich's appointments to the House-Senate conference committee were a transparent rigging to ensure the ethanol subsidy stayed in place.

The top two members on the Ways and Means committee, Archer and Rep. Philip Crane, declined to take part in the conference committee after Gingrich made clear their declared intent to kill the subsidy would be futile and unnecessarily divisive. Had Archer and Crane remained on the committee, the speaker would have expanded the negotiations to include as many ethanol-friendly members as needed to offset their opposition. One com advocate explained Gingrich's parliamentary move as "sort of a deviation from usual congressional procedure," but Archer offered a clearer perspective, calling it an attempt to "stack the decks," and lamenting that "politics will triumph over policy." Gingrich subsequently appointed Reps. Jim Nussle and Kenny Hulshof, the lowest-ranking member on Ways and Means, in their stead.

This did not wash well with the Republican members on the Ways and Means committee.

Once it became a fait accompli, Archer called a meeting of all the Ways and Means members and informed them the committee's position was going to be overruled by the speaker. At the time, many members on the committee were "extremely upset about the developments," said a Ways and Means source, and they requested a meeting with Gingrich. The speaker subsequently met privately with at least ten of them who expressed their dissatisfaction over his stifling tactics. "They said they thought the seniority of the committee ought to be honored," said the source. Which is all to say that the speaker's hardball was no small thing, and that he really wanted the ethanol subsidy-so much so that he was willing to tum the House Ways and Means committee on its head to get it.

So what's Gingrich's angle? Corn. Ethanol is made from corn, and Iowans-roughly 90,000 of themmake a lot of corn. With the first 2000 presidential caucus, Iowans also make presidential front-runners. Or so goes electoral science, and with the ethanol subsidy firmly back in place, speculation about a Gingrich campaign only increased. …