CHAMPAIGN — Corn growers should be OK when renewable-fuel standards are updated by Congress, U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, told Champaign County farmers Tuesday.
"For the most part, our corn-based ethanol is going to be fine," said Shimkus, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
He noted that his sprawling district, which extends from Danville to most of southern Illinois, includes the conflicting demands of corn growers, ethanol plant owners and oil refineries in Robinson and Wood River.
"I have everybody and I'm kind of in the middle. As these guys are taking swings at each other, sometimes I dodge them and sometimes they land a blow on me," the veteran congressman told a meeting of the legislative committee of the Champaign County Farm Bureau. "But I'm in this at the right time to try to walk away from this where we can keep the promises that we've made and address the unmet expectations of the 2007 (renewable-fuel standards) bill."
The promises, he said, were made to corn growers.
"It is our corn growers who were promised a ceiling of 15 billion (gallons of corn ethanol blended into gasoline). What I'm trying to do is make sure that we don't lose that 15 billion."
Shimkus said that one threat to corn-based ethanol — cellulosic ethanol made from materials such as grasses, corn stalks and wood chips — has been "extremely exaggerated. Right now real production is minute."
He said he is attempting to negotiate an agreement between the competing sides.
"I have vested interests, my constituents, on both sides of this debate. So I'm trying to get to a middle ground where everyone grudgingly accepts some sort of compromise. The cellulosic numbers, though, are not even close," he said. "It's fun to be in a position where we are trying to negotiate an acceptable compromise. But not everyone is going to be 100 percent pleased."
On another ag-related issue, Shimkus predicted that the House-Senate standoff on the updated farm bill would go to a conference committee. The biggest conflict is over funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, once known as food stamps. The Republican House wants cuts in SNAP spending.
"It will be viewed by those outsiders as 'those mean, nasty Republicans taking food away from those who are poor,'" he predicted.
But he said the program needs reform, citing a Fox News story about a California musician who refuses to work and receives SNAP benefits.
"Some people who receive that benefit should be working, rather than living on the beach. We realize there are a lot of reforms that are needed," he said. "The Senate will have to come down on theirs and we'll have to go up on our amounts and hopefully there will be a bipartisan bill on the floor."
Shimkus' comments prompted an angry response from Champaign County Board Chairman Alan Kurtz, a Democrat who was at the meeting.
"There are small percentages of abuse in every program. You can pick out what Congress has done on earmarks, abusing that privilege. There's abuse in every program," Kurtz said. "We're talking about Americans who are going to bed hungry in the country that has more money than any country in the world."
Shimkus said: "We are not going to take away food from those who are needy. We are going after those who abuse the system."
The congressman also said that recent sequester cuts have helped to "clean up" overspending by the federal government.
"Either today or yesterday I started reading articles about how this sequestration is really working. They are saying that, yeah, it's painful, but we haven't grown to double digit unemployment as was feared, and we are making great strides on our deficit," he said. "How many times do you hear some stupid funding thing that we're doing? Sequestration helps us clean up, to do real research versus nice things to do. We're not in a position to do nice things."
Eventually, he said, Congress will have to address entitlement spending such as Social Security and Medicare.
"Yes, there's been a big outcry on sequestration. But unless we address the entitlement programs I think we're going to continue down the sequestration route until we have the capability to balance income and our obligations and our debt," Shimkus said.