Time to stop government farm support

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Thursday:

Across much of the Midwest grain belt, the soybean bushes are lush and the corn stands tall and green. Farmers eager to cash in on high prices planted a whopping 175 million acres of those staple crops this spring. Nature mostly cooperated. A huge harvest looms.

That should be good news for the nation’s food producers. But inside the Beltway, success in the field is giving Congress pause.

Big Agriculture is fighting to maintain the government handouts that have pumped up its profits for generations. After years of soaring farm incomes, and with a fabulous crop waiting to be harvested, it will be tougher than ever to portray agriculture as a hardship case in need of government protection.

Count on farm state lawmakers to try. When they complain that this year’s bin-buster is forcing down commodity prices, don’t listen. Even with the lower prices that come with a big crop, farmers still will be making money at levels far beyond the norm of modern times.

There is no reason for agriculture producers to receive big checks from the government. But if the past is any guide, Congress will do everything possible to line their pockets yet again. The indefensible practice of making “direct payments” from the Treasury to the bank accounts of well-off farmers is likely to continue as Congress revives its dysfunctional debate over the farm bill — its main legislation covering agriculture policy and nutrition for the poor.

The farm bill has gone nowhere for two years, mainly because of opposition by House Republicans to the recent expansion of the federal food stamp program, which is also part of the bill.

In 2012, Congress failed to pass a new version of the expiring five-year farm bill. Lawmakers agreed to a one-year extension that expires Sept. 30.

A farm bill rewrite flopped again earlier this year. The Senate passed a costly and ill-conceived version that at least has the virtue of eliminating direct payments. But House Republicans revolted again. The House approved a farm bill that contains no renewal of food stamps or other programs for the needy. Senate Dems and the White House have promised to oppose it.

When Congress returns from break, it will have only a couple of weeks before the one-year extension expires. That increases the odds for another temporary extension — likely for two years, to push the issue past the 2014 election.

It’s time to draw the line. It’s time to pass a farm bill that eliminates the costly and unnecessary $5 billion a year in direct payments to farmers and landowners.

Farm income has soared from $75.6 billion in 2009 to $99.4 billion in 2010, $134.7 billion in 2011 and $135.6 billion in 2012.

We wish them even more success. Many farms have paid down debt. Much of the equipment in use today is new. Shiny pickup trucks line driveways in rural hamlets across the heartland.

But subsidies and government protection? Come on. That has to stop.

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