Compromise and ideology

Aug. 13, 2012
The aim of legislation is not bipartisan compromise but effective law. While bipartisan compromise can be a virtuous route to effective law, it also can create distraction leading to wreckage.

The aim of legislation is not bipartisan compromise but effective law. While bipartisan compromise can be a virtuous route to effective law, it also can create distraction leading to wreckage. Bipartisan compromise never should be an end in itself.

Political observers are preparing to grieve bipartisanship’s death, which they see as foreshadowed by primary election wins by Republicans associated with the tea party movement. Tea party adherents assert conservative fundamentals and therefore are characterized by opponents as ideologues resistant to compromise. Democrats blame them for trouble the 112th Congress has had passing laws. Already, setbacks to bipartisanship are election-year issues.

Fiasco preventable

Yet less bipartisanship, fewer compromises, and stronger assertion of conservative fundamentals would have prevented a national fiasco known as the Renewable Fuel Standard. The RFS sets mandates that can’t be met and imposes fines for not meeting them. Unless Congress acts, the problem will only worsen as requirements for renewable fuels grow. But no one in Congress will discuss corrective legislation because doing so would amount to admission of error. That won’t happen in an election year. Maybe bipartisanship isn’t really dying, after all.

Especially in an election year in which bipartisanship is hailed and ideology condemned, however, no one should forget how the RFS monster emerged.

It began with one among many compromises made during political maneuvering preceding passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Agricultural interests and their champion in Congress, former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD), had long sought a mandate of 5 billion gal/year of ethanol made from corn. When the oil and gas industry offered support for the mandate in return for concessions on other fuel issues, ethanol supporters persuaded lawmakers to double the proposed requirement. Congress eventually split the difference and made a 7.5 billion gal/year ethanol mandate law.

A requirement by the government for sale of any kind of fuel represents a breach of conservative ideology. It should have been opposed and defeated on that basis. Because bipartisanship apparently seemed more important to Republicans than conservative principles, though, the law passed. And the government, disastrously, had assigned itself the role of making fuel choices.

Two years later, when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, bipartisanship went overboard. The Energy Independence and Security Act doubled the eventual mandate for grain ethanol and phased in mandates for other categories of renewable fuel, rising to a peak total requirement of 36 billion gal in 2022. The RFS target “is not likely to be met,” concluded a study last year by the National Academy of Sciences, which also questioned the rationale. “Even if RFS is to be achieved, it may not be effective in addressing global greenhouse-gas emissions because the extent of emissions reductions depends to a great degree on how the biofuels are produced and what land-use or land-cover changes occur in the process.”

So a process that began with bipartisan compromise led to a mandate that can’t be met enacted on the basis of environmental hopes that won’t be fulfilled. One huge problem with the law is a requirement for ethanol from cellulose, which is supposed to account for most RFS beyond the grain-ethanol peak of 15 billion gal/year. That mandate is taking effect. Refiners and others must meet it or buy allowances. Because cellulosic still isn’t commercially available, they mostly buy allowances—essentially paying a tax on their inability to do the impossible.

Blend wall

Another problem is the looming blend wall, when the grain ethanol requirement will exceed the gasoline market’s capacity to use the additive. The Environmental Protection Agency has responded by raising ceilings on ethanol concentrations. But it can’t make consumers buy fuel with elevated ethanol levels, and engine manufacturers, worried about damage to their products, don’t want them to.

The lessons in this regrettable history are that ideology isn’t always bad, and bipartisan compromise isn’t always constructive. Sometimes what’s most important is to be right, or at least not totally wrong.