AUSTIN - Government's not so bad when it's just deciding on those special-interest fights - some titanic clash for turf between doctors and chiropractors or AT&T vs. Southwestern Bell. True, the side that makes the biggest political contributions almost always wins, so the rest of us frequently end up paying higher prices for whatever it is, but at least we're only getting shot down indirectly.
What's really sickening is when it's a choice involving our health, our air or our water, and the special interests still win because they make bigger contributions than we do. When lawmakers (Our Elected Representatives) are perfectly willing to sacrifice us - literally our bodies - in favor of campaign contributions, it's enough to gag a maggot.
Unfortunately, such cases are rarely crystal clear; and the clearer the case is, the more high-paid lobbyists you get wandering around making it as unclear as possible. Here's an interesting example of a fight between clean air and clean water and the ethanol lobby.
Ten years ago, the feds required that gasoline sold in polluted urban areas include oxygen, on the theory that oxygen in gas would cut carbon monoxide emissions. Actually, it doesn't seem to work, but that's not what the fight's about.
The oil companies met the oxygen requirement in one of two ways. One was to add a substance called MTBE, which makes people sick in the short run and also turns out to be a carcinogen. It also has the nasty property of quickly polluting ground water. It has gotten into wells and water supplies, particularly in California and the Northeast, where it's most commonly used. It also makes the water smell and taste bad, and in water-short Southern California, thousands of wells have been shut down.
OK, MTBE has got to go. Congress is on the program.
The fight is over whether to get rid of this oxygen-in-gasoline requirement entirely, since it's apparently doing squat to improve air pollution. Ah, but the second additive used to meet the requirement is ethanol, dear to the hearts of corn farmers and their representatives in Congress.
And not just corn-staters, because ethanol - as all of you who listen to the eco-porn on the Sunday morning chat shows well know - is the particular baby of the Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. ADM produces 40 percent of the ethanol in this country, and as you may also know, ADM makes big, big political contributions. The annual fight over the ethanol subsidy is always a doozy, and ADM always wins.
Requiring states to substitute ethanol for MTBE would increase demand for corn by 600 million bushels and push up corn prices, making the corn farmers and ADM very happy indeed.
One problem with substituting ethanol for MTBE is that it will increase the cost of gasoline significantly on both coasts because of shipping costs from the Midwest. The second problem is that it could actually make air pollution worse.
According to the EPA, ethanol tends to evaporate easily in warm weather, thus causing more ozone, thus causing more smog. In a city like Los Angeles, where pollution is always worse in the summertime, this is not going to help.
Sens. Tom Daschle and Richard Lugar, corn-staters, have introduced a bill that would delete the oxygen requirement and substitute a requirement for "renewable fuels" (to wit, ethanol), but ethanol would be burned mostly in the farm states where it is produced and mostly in the wintertime, when its tendency to evaporate is not a problem.
The bill would set a floor on ethanol consumption of 1.3 percent of the national gasoline supply, just where it is now, but would drop geographic quotas and time-of-year requirements.
This is a pro-ethanol compromise that would probably mean that, in California and the Northeast, the oxygen requirement will go by the boards, but more ethanol will be used in the Midwest. Are the corn farmers happy? Nope - some of them are pushing to keep the oxygen requirement so that everybody will have to use their product. Bet on the biggest contributors.
Here's another nasty example of how campaign contributions make our lives less pleasant, if not shorter. The Federal Communications Commission was fixing to open up the broadcast spectrum to hundreds of low-power FM radio stations. These micro radio stations can only cover a couple of miles at most and would be used by churches, community groups, Bulgarian speakers and the like.
And guess who's unhappy about this? The National Association of Broadcasters, one of the mightiest lobbies in the country. The NAB has been going around claiming that the low-power stations would interfere with their high-watt stations - a dubious claim. The FCC and independent studies show no such interference.
You may recall the infamous telecommunications bill of 1996 that set off this ungodly concentration of media ownership. Well, it worked in radio, too - the commercial giants have been fighting the FCC all the way. The only thing that low-power will interfere with is profits, draining away a tiny minority of listeners who aren't all that crazy about Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura and Nashville country.
National Public Radio (finks, traitors) has joined the NAB in this effort to shut off more, if tiny, media voices. If you don't think this is a problem, you haven't been paying attention to the concentration of ownership in the media. Any independent voice we can get will help.
Copyright, 2000, Creators Syndicate, Inc.