Farm bills, like Christmas trees, are often ornamented with so much tinsel it’s hard to discern how exactly they hang together. Decorate an essential Department of Agriculture program (think Food Stamps) with billions in subsidies for major agribusinesses, and lawmakers are hit with a political gotcha: No rural development or food assistance without sugaring major corporations that then pocket (and profit) from taxpayer dinero.
Yes, taxpayers have seen this movie before, but the narrative grows more urgent with the new normal of federal austerity and, potentially, budget sequestration. Political and econ wonks call it “public-choice theory,” when a policy outcome runs counter to what the public actually wants (At least professors can earn a living researching and teaching about hair-pulling farm bills where the benefits are concentrated and the costs spread out.) Our hands are tied, lawmakers say. That “what me?” echo, a refrain dating back to the 1970s, isn’t good enough.
With the headwind of a slow recovery, the United States can’t afford a business-as-usual MO that weaves together the good with the idiotic.
The 2008 Farm Act is about to expire, and the U.S. House of Representatives will vote to extend the bill rather than act on a full, five-year re-authorization. In the short term, nixing the direct-payments’ program (which will save $45 billion over the next decade) is a must. Other substantive tweaks require courage and perseverance (with common sense as the touchstone).
Many subsidy programs that date to FDR’s New Deal no longer benefit family farmers. In fact, since 1995, three-quarters of the $255 billion spent on agricultural subsidies went to 3.8 percent of farmers. The illogic and imbalance are greased by a campaign and lobbying machine underwritten by major agricultural corporations. Fat cats are masters of the game: a hundred-plus million dollars in donations and lobbying in exchange for Uncle Sam hemorrhaging billions.
For health advocates and good-government watchdogs such as the Washington Public Interest Research Group (WashPIRG), the farm bill is larded with subsidies that underwrite additive production (in particular, high-fructose corn syrup.) That — connect the dots — only compounds the crisis of childhood obesity, WashPIRG argues.
And what of crop insurance? The recent drought illustrates what happens, especially to large commodity crops. Insurance outlays, paid by taxpayers, track with rising commodity costs — commodities produced by big businesses with the resources for private insurance. It’s a vicious circle.
Citizens might consider giving U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen an encouraging nudge to work on reforms (a Herculean task as a member of the minority.) Larsen has signed the discharge petition to have the bill delivered to the full House for a vote (Larsen doesn’t want it to lapse.) Now, let’s cut the waste.
Editor’s note: This editorial has been changed to reflect that U.S. Rep Rick Larsen is no longer a member of the House Agriculture Committee.