David Rothkopf

You’ve heard of Blue Dogs, now introducing the Corn Dogs…

You’ve heard of Blue Dogs, now introducing the Corn Dogs…

Senator Charles Grassley, one of the six power brokers featured in the New York Times story today on the inner circle of senators who are shaping health care legislation, may not be one of the three Blue Dog Democrats on the group, but that doesn’t stop the Iowa Republican from being pretty dogged when it comes to his own pet issues.

According to today’s Congress Daily, the Finance Committee’s ranking member has slammed the brakes on the confirmation of Thomas Shannon to be ambassador to Brazil. His reason? He seeks what is euphemistically called a “clarification” of Shannon’s confirmation hearing statement that eliminating the tariff on ethanol imports would be “beneficial.” Of course, by “clarification” the Senator means a complete reversal slammed down Shannon’s gullet by administration higher ups.

In letters to Secretary Clinton and USTR Kirk Grassley wrote:

A clear signal of the President’s stance on this issue would decrease the possibility of confusion in America’s heartland and in Brazil regarding the ethanol tariff if Mr. Shannon were confirmed as Ambassador to that country.”

Since Shannon, most recently U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs and by consensus the most talented and successful individual to hold that office in at least two decades, is one of America’s very best diplomats he will of course, be far too circumspect to offer Grassley the “clarification” he deserves.

Let me try however. U.S. ethanol tariffs are indefensible on any level, yet another example of the system of agricultural welfare that has burgeoned in the United States thanks to that good old fashioned combination of backroom and checkbook politics that make America great. There is not a single credible analyst of biofuels (which is to say one that is not paid for by or affiliated with American agriculture) who thinks that corn ethanol makes a hint of sense. It is hopelessly inefficient and with every new development regarding next generation biofuels only grows more so. Brazilian sugar cane ethanol, the main target of the tariffs, is produced as much as eight times more efficiently. As such, it offers a cheaper, more abundant, more environmentally friendly alternative to American consumers at a time when one would have thought that concerns about reducing dependence on foreign oil and combating climate change would be at the forefront of our concerns.

But once again, America’s electoral system rears its ugly head. So long as presidential campaigns begin in Iowa, Iowans like Grassley will use the system to put the interest of their state’s three million citizens and the most vocal special interests within their midst like the corn lobby, ahead of the three hundred million or so of the rest of us. Further, in so doing, Grassley seeks to preserve yet another dimension of America’s system of farm protection and subsidies that costs tax payers tens of billions each year, forces food prices higher (according to the likes of Nobel Prize winner Joe Stiglitz) and is the single biggest distortionary factor in the world trading system. I understand why he is doing it. It’s just a shame he can. The system allowing individual senators to hold up presidential nominations is regularly abused and needs to be reconsidered.

It is now July and the Obama administration does not have its own ambassador in Brasilia, capital of one the rising powers that is most important to us in the world. The guy who is there now, Bush’s appointee Cliff Sobel, is widely regarded by Brazilians (and anyone else who is paying attention) as a joke whereas Shannon is seen as the crème de la crème of the U.S. diplomatic service and is a nominee viewed with great enthusiasm by the Lula administration. The Shannon pick said “Brazil is important.”  Grassley’s move says “all politics is local.” 

It will be interesting to see how this plays out given that Grassley is so important to the prospects for health care reform. Grassley, who is as canny as they come in the Senate, knows the hand he holds and is betting he can get the Obama team to commit to keeping the tariffs as part of the wheeling and dealing associated with health care. I wouldn’t bet against him.

As they say around state fair time in Des Moines, “ain’t nothing like a corn dog.”

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