To the ethanol industry, Michele Bachmann has been both a friend and a foe.
Over the course of her career, she’s carefully straddled the line between supporting the industry and arguing against government subsidies.
“When it comes to ethanol, I think that it’s a part of our solution, but there’s concerns about that because of the subsidies,” Bachmann told Fox Business host Eric Bolling early this year. “I think it’s just something that we have to look at going forward.”
When it comes to ethanol, the 2012 candidates are beginning to stake out their positions. Tim Pawlenty kickstarted his campaign with a rousing speech — in Iowa — that called for eliminating ethanol subsidies. Sarah Palin, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, and Jon Huntsman also have denounced ethanol subsidies. On the opposite side, Newt Gingrich (who has received over $300,000 for consulting for an ethanol lobby) and Mitt Romney support ethanol subsidies.
What Bachmann currently thinks isn’t clear. Her office did not respond to National Review Online’s request for a statement.
Meanwhile, the ethanol industry is shifting. Longtime ethanol advocate Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) is pushing for a reduction in the tax credit to ethanol — and he has the industry’s blessing to do so. Iowa Renewable Fuels Association president Walt Wendland criticized the media earlier this month for assuming that anything less than supporting the status quo on ethanol would earn one the ire of the ethanol industry.
Citing the media coverage of Pawlenty’s push to end ethanol subsidies, Wendland said in a statement, “These stories operated under the assumption that support for the current ethanol incentive is a political litmus test in Iowa. They were wrong. . . . Support for a status quo ethanol-blenders tax incentive is no longer synonymous with support for ethanol.”
That gives the candidates some wiggle room to stake out a position — a boon for Bachmann, who has been inconsistent on ethanol during her time as a Minnesota state senator and a congresswoman.
In 2005, Bachmann voted to require all gas sold in Minnesota to contain at least 20 percent ethanol by August 2013. (If the EPA has not yet approved gas with such a high level of ethanol, the law will not go into effect.) She also spoke favorably of ethanol in a July 2008 conference call on energy. “We’ve also done a very good job in Minnesota by building the E85 pumps all across the state, so that people can have access to them,” Bachmann said during the call. Not mentioned: the fact that Minnesota allotted $1.75 million to give to gas-station owners who installed E85 pumps.
Two months before that call, Bachmann made the controversial decision to vote against a five-year farm bill. The bill, which had been vetoed by Pres. George W. Bush, won the support of the two-thirds required in the House and Senate to override the veto. Bachmann not only voted against the bill — which both of Minnesota’s senators, including Republican Norm Coleman, and six of the eight members of the state’s congressional delegation, voted for — but was also outspoken in her opposition to it, lambasting it for “exemplif[ying] the very worst of Washington’s ways” and for avoiding “every single opportunity for actual reform.
“It is loaded with unbelievably outrageous pork and subsidies for agricultural business and ethanol growers,” Bachmann said of the bill, according to Gannett News Service. “Americans are being squeezed by taxes and rising living costs, and Congress wants them to pick up the tab for pet earmarks and wealthy landowners.”
Bachmann’s ties to Iowa, her birthplace and the future scene of her formal announcement of a presidential candidacy, run deep. But so do her ties to the Tea Party, whose adherents push for an end of “crony capitalism” and government policies that favor one industry over another.
Right now, much of the attention on ethanol is focused on the tax-credit subsidies — not the 2007 mandate that 36 billion gallons of fuel come from renewable energy sources by 2022, or the 54-cent-per-gallon tariff that is slapped on imported ethanol. Both measures boost the domestic ethanol industry, but have failed to become as controversial as the tax credit. Bachmann may choose to denounce the tax credit, but refuse to criticize these other policies.
One thing’s for sure: Iowa, where Bachmann is positioning herself to be a key player in the caucuses, will be on her mind as she makes her decision. In her interview with Fox’s Bolling, the Minnesota congresswoman made sure to give a shout-out to the Hawkeye State when talking about ethanol: “I certainly want to make sure that the farmers here in Iowa are able to be successful in raising their crops.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.