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Tom Coburn Gets Vote on Eliminating Ethanol Subsidies Tomorrow

In the new Senate, when we’re not in an endless quorum call we’re using amendments to tack on major legislation to innocuous bills. The handshake agreement between Democrats and Republicans at the beginning of the year traded less filibusters on the motion to proceed with more leeway on amendments. As a result, Republicans still filibuster the motion to proceed a whole bunch. But they use every bill to try and add ideologically focused amendments that force Senators seeking re-election next year into bad votes. There’s not really any rhyme or reason to what happens in the Senate anymore.

But sometimes, this Christmas tree approach, with the ornaments being the unrelated amendments, yields some interesting results. We’re going to see that tomorrow, when Tom Coburn (R-OK) gets a shot with a work to end ethanol subsidies. A look at the field for the Republican nomination, where Tim Pawlenty and Sarah Palin have argued against ethanol subsidies (so has Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King, incredibly enough), shows that this issue isn’t quite as potent in an era where the Tea Party sentiments of cutting spending predominate on the right. But Coburn’s bill splits anti-tax zealots, who even see eliminating wasteful subsidies like this as a tax increase.

The ethanol credit is widely condemned by Republicans as bad economic policy, and Coburn derides it as spending through the tax code. But a vote to kill it would represent a significant break with more than two decades of GOP tax orthodoxy, which prohibits increasing revenue by any means other than economic growth.

Coburn has argued that Republicans must abandon that orthodoxy to forge a compromise with Democrats on a viable plan to rein in the spiraling national debt.

“I’m not for tax increases, but I don’t think this is a tax increase. This is stupidity at its height,” Coburn said in an interview Friday. “If you vote to give the richest oil companies in this country $3 billion between now and the end of December, then you don’t get it. You are absolutely confused about what the problems are in this country.”

Grover Norquist, the leading anti-tax advocate in Washington, wants to get a provision added to the measure to cut taxes by an equal amount to the revenue that would be gained from cutting the ethanol subsidies. In case you thought that conservatives care at all about the deficit, let that dispel the notion.

But this is going to be a straightforward vote on just the subsidies, albeit attached to an economic development bill that Coburn and his Republican colleagues will subsequently filibuster. Coburn thinks he’ll have the 60 votes he’ll need to cross the threshold for passage, and Jim DeMint has already pledged his support. DeMint, of course, supports the Norquistian vision of offsetting the revenue gain with more tax cuts, and thinks we should eliminate the estate tax in tandem.

In the end, the subsidies won’t be eliminated. The Senate won’t pass the bill they’re attached to, and the House probably won’t pass it either. But this revival of the ethanol wars could be important down the road. If support for cutting $6 billion in annual tax expenditures with a critical mass of 60 Senators can be shown, it’s plausible that such a measure will be folded into any deficit deal.

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David Dayen

David Dayen