Congress should conduct a premortem

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

That statement could serve as the epitaph for many governmental programs, except such programs seem to never die.

The federal mandate to add ethanol to gasoline seemed like a good idea. By adding ethyl alcohol – made from homegrown, renewable corn – the nation could, supporters of the mandate reasoned, decrease our oil consumption.

Thus, it could reduce our need for oil from foreign lands and unfriendly nations. Plus, ethanol produces fewer greenhouse gases than gasoline.

But there are drawbacks.

Ethanol contains less energy than gasoline, yielding fewer miles per gallon. Also, ethanol’s corrosive affect on internal combustion engines is cause for debate. It shouldn’t be used in vehicle built before 2001, in small engines, and most boats and motorcycles.

And this week, The Associated Press released a package of articles delving into the environmental impact of ethanol production. “The consequences are so severe,” The AP investigation states, “that environmentalists and many scientists have now rejected corn-based ethanol as bad environmental policy.”

The tendency of governmental edicts to have unintended results isn’t new. In fact, it wasn’t all that long ago – Prohibition ended 80 years ago next month – that the government allocated men and money to suppressing commercial production of alcohol, including ethanol.

That effort did reduce alcohol consumption and public drunkeness. But it gave an unintended boost to organized crime, and cost jobs and revenue. The unintended consequences of the 18th Amendment lead to its repeal with the 21st.

Yet, the pursuit of sweeping legislation likely to produce side-effects remains popular; we’re seeing that with Obamacare.

What is needed is a careful examination of how public policy can go awry, particularly when versions of that policy have been implemented previously. In the business world, this is called a “premortem.”

That’s something for Congress to consider as it takes up topics such as immigration reform, which most assuredly seems like a good idea right now.