A farm bill in name only

Food stamps should be con­sid­ered a sep­a­rate is­sue

The Washington Times Daily - - Opinion - By Ed Feul­ner

To para­phrase a fa­mous Mark Twain quote, sup­pose you passed a farm bill. And sup­pose you passed a food-stamp bill. But I re­peat my­self. Hard as it may be to be­lieve, 80 per­cent of the farm bill be­ing ham­mered out by the Se­nate and the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives is made up not of agri­cul­ture pro­grams, but of food stamps. If that sounds up­side-down to you, you clearly don’t live “in­side the Belt­way,” where Or­wellian logic is the or­der of the day.

Why are food stamps rolled into the leg­is­la­tion? They’re in­cluded “purely from a po­lit­i­cal per­spec­tive,” Sen. Thad Cochran, Mis­sis­sippi Repub­li­can, rank­ing mem­ber of the Se­nate Agri­cul­ture, Nutri­tion, and Forestry Com­mit­tee, said ear­lier this year. “It helps get the farm bill passed.”

At least it used to. House mem­bers who had tired of this busi­ness-as-usual prac­tice re­belled this year, and man­aged to pass a ver­sion of the farm bill that (un­like its Se­nate coun­ter­part) took food stamps out. When The Wash­ing­ton Post ed­i­to­ri­al­ized about the House bill, it listed this among the leg­is­la­tion’s “good points,” adding:

“[F]or the first time in many years, rep­re­sen­ta­tives passed agri­cul­ture-sup­port pro­grams separately from food stamps, end­ing the old logrolling ar­range­ment be­tween ur­ban and ru­ral del­e­ga­tions that in­su­lated both pro­grams from scru­tiny on the mer­its.”

Un­for­tu­nately, this is Wash­ing­ton, where most politi­cians do their hard­est work in­su­lat­ing pro­grams from scru­tiny on the mer­its.

Most Amer­i­cans, how­ever, fa­vor the House’s ac­tion. In a “Food De­mand Sur­vey” con­ducted by Ok­la­homa State Univer­sity, peo­ple asked whether they sup­ported or op­posed the fol­low­ing state­ment: “Sep­a­rate the food-stamp pro­gram from the farm bill and de­bate its merit separately from farm sup­ports and sub­si­dies.” Sup­port came in at 73 per­cent.

Sep­a­ra­tion isn’t the only is­sue, though. The en­tire pur­pose of sep­a­rat­ing food stamps from agri­cul­ture pro­grams is to achieve real re­form. While there’s a lively de­bate go­ing on re­gard­ing food-stamp re­form, that’s not the case when it comes to other trou­bling pro­vi­sions of the farm bill. As has been the case since FDR was pres­i­dent, agri­cul­ture pol­icy is a govern­ment-run be­he­moth that would make a Soviet cen­tral plan­ner blush.

The most ex­pen­sive sin­gle farm pro­gram sub­si­dizes about 62 per­cent of the pre­mi­ums that farms pay for crop in­sur­ance. Yet in­stead of find­ing ways to re­duce the load on tax­pay­ers, the House and Se­nate ver­sions would ex­pand this pro­gram.

Or take the sugar pro­gram. Sugar prices have gen­er­ally been dou­ble the world price for decades. It’s largely a re­sult of the govern­ment dic­tat­ing how much sugar can be sold, and im­pos­ing quo­tas on im­ports — quo­tas de­signed solely to pro­tect the mar­ket share of do­mes­tic pro­duc­ers. Ev­ery sugar-sweet­ened prod­uct costs more to make, adding to ev­ery­one’s gro­cery bills. Both the House and Se­nate ver­sions of the farm bill keep the sugar pro­gram in­tact.

Mean­while, as I’ve de­tailed in pre­vi­ous col­umns, the bulk of agri­cul­ture sub­si­dies go not to the small, strug­gling farm­ers that most Amer­i­cans en­vi­sion, but to huge “agribusi­nesses” with an­nual in­comes well in ex­cess of $1 mil­lion.

Yes, the House and Se­nate are fi­nally drop­ping the di­rect pay­ments made for years to farm­ers of cer­tain com­modi­ties, such as corn, cot­ton, wheat and rice — sub­si­dies so in­de­fen­si­ble the Amer­i­can Farm Bureau Fed­er­a­tion has called for their re­peal. They’re adding new pro­grams, though, that could prove even costlier, such as one that would force tax­pay­ers to cover even mi­nor losses suf­fered by farm­ers.

“A farm bill should serve the in­ter­ests of the Amer­i­can peo­ple,” writes Her­itage Foun­da­tion farm-bill ex­pert Daren Bakst. “This first starts with tak­ing pol­i­tics out of the bill.” That means con­sid­er­ing food stamps separately and mak­ing other needed re­forms. Rais­ing an­other bumper crop of sub­si­dies and bad pol­icy is sim­ply un­ac­cept­able.

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