Lat­est farm bill un­likely to stop flow of tax­payer sub­si­dies to rich

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY JAMES VARNEY

A movie star is more likely than a cow­boy to stroll down Bev­erly Hills’ famed Rodeo Drive, but that doesn’t mean there are no farm­ers in Tin­sel­town.

Or at least Congress thinks so, judg­ing by the farm bill, which sent $15,488 in farm sub­si­dies last year to the homes of Hol­ly­wood’s elite.

“Farm­ers” in Aspen, Colorado, got $278,000, while the fer­tile plots of New York City were fer­til­ized with $2.8 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to a study from OpenTheBoo­ks.

Congress is back at the draw­ing board, writ­ing an up­date to the farm bill — though bud­get watch­dogs say there is lit­tle chance that law­mak­ers will rein in the kinds of poli­cies that shelled out $13.2 bil­lion last year, with much of that go­ing to “crop in­sur­ance” sub­si­dies.

Top re­cip­i­ents get checks for mil­lions of dol­lars, with al­most 400 farm­ers hit­ting the $1 mil­lion mark. Pini­con Farms in Iowa topped the list by col­lect­ing $9.9 mil­lion, fol­lowed by the Heard Fam­ily Farm in Ge­or­gia with $8.9 mil­lion and the Harder Farms Part­ner­ship in Min­nesota with $8.7 mil­lion.

At least those are ar­eas Amer­i­cans usu­ally as­so­ciate with farm­ing. Not so for hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars that flow to ur­ban ar­eas in­clud­ing Chicago, New York and Washington. In 2017 alone, al­most $5 mil­lion went to peo­ple liv­ing in Amer­ica’s wealth­i­est ZIP codes, OpenTheBoo­ks says.

A dozen mem­bers of Congress also end up get­ting cash from the leg­is­la­tion, the study found.

All of it amounts to a dis­torted and priv­i­leged mar­ket main­tained by tax­pay­ers, an­a­lysts and schol­ars say.

“Farm­ers are a pro­tected class in Amer­ica, and they have a strong vot­ing bloc be­hind them,” said former Sen. Tom Coburn, an Ok­la­homa Repub­li­can who worked closely on farm bills. “It’s a mat­ter of every­one in­volved do­ing what’s best for their careers, but not what’s best for tax­pay­ers.”

Mr. Coburn now re­gards the prob­lem from out­side the Belt­way, as the hon­orary chair­man of OpenTheBoo­ks, a non­profit group ded­i­cated to pub­li­ciz­ing fed­eral spend­ing.

“The farm bill may be the clear­est ex­am­ple of how spe­cial in­ter­ests can trump the public’s in­ter­est,” said Adam An­drze­jew­ski, OpenTheBoo­ks’ founder and CEO. “Both the re­cip­i­ents and the fun­ders have a vested in­ter­est in not dis­rupt­ing the flow of sub­si­dies that gen­er­ates in­come and po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions. Trans­parency is so crit­i­cal be­cause the public can’t re­form a process it can’t see.”

The farm bill gets less at­ten­tion from a na­tional press more fo­cused on White House scan­dals and hot-but­ton so­cial is­sues, but it is heav­ily cov­ered — and de­bated — in agri­cul­tural com­mu­ni­ties.

Th­ese com­mu­ni­ties con­sti­tute a cov­eted vot­ing bloc, said Vin­cent Smith, a con­ser­va­tive scholar at Mon­tana State Univer­sity who has pub­lished ex­ten­sively on agri­cul­tural is­sues with the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute. In Mon­tana, for ex­am­ple, the agricultur­e bloc rep­re­sents 20,000 to 30,000 vot­ers out of fewer than 450,000, he said.

“With that vote tied to the farms, you can see that it’s rel­a­tively sig­nif­i­cant,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s a vote you want, and what holds for Mon­tana is even more so for North Dakota, Kansas, Min­nesota and others.”

When you com­pare those cal­cu­la­tions with the fact that the Farm Bill ul­ti­mately comes to less than $20 bil­lion in a fed­eral bud­get of more than $3 tril­lion, “it’s clear that’s a pretty cheap way to buy votes,” Mr. Smith said.

Then there is the is­sue of who gets the money. The farm bill does not sim­ply of­fer help to mom and pop farms, of which there are fewer, but in­stead of­ten helps guar­an­tee a profit for the big­ger play­ers in the agricultur­e game and in­sur­ers, an­a­lysts said.

“We could have a sen­si­ble safety net for those who ac­tu­ally de­pend on farm­ing for their liveli­hood, and who through no fault of their own, such as drought or floods, are fac­ing big losses,” said Craig Cox, se­nior vice pres­i­dent for agricultur­e and nat­u­ral re­sources at the En­vi­ron­men­tal Work­ing Group, a long­time critic of farm spend­ing.

“But if all we wanted was to help those whose financial sta­bil­ity may be threat­ened go­ing for­ward, we could do that for bil­lions less if we elim­i­nated the dis­tor­tions,” he said.

In the­ory, that should be sim­ple, given that only some 10 per­cent of house­holds rely ex­clu­sively on farms for their in­come, Mr. Cox said, and those peo­ple “are do­ing re­ally well.”

Among the dis­tor­tions are things like a fixed price per acre that fa­vors big farm­ers, the def­i­ni­tions of who ex­actly qual­i­fies for sub­si­dies, and sub­si­dized pre­mi­ums on “crop in­sur­ance” that prop up an ar­ti­fi­cial mar­ket for in­sur­ers.

Mr. Cox and Mr. Smith ap­proach agricultur­e pol­icy from dif­fer­ent sides of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum yet find them­selves un­likely al­lies in try­ing to re­form the farm bill.

On crop in­sur­ance, Mr. Smith notes pre­mi­ums are swollen well past mar­ket level by fed­eral help, which dou­bled back in 2000, while Mr. Cox ar­gued that the pro­gram should be scrapped and turned over en­tirely to the pri­vate sec­tor, which was “try­ing to de­velop some in­no­va­tive poli­cies” be­fore the fed­eral give­away made them un­com­pet­i­tive.

Also driv­ing up costs are other threads in the bill, such as re­quire­ments on food aid that stip­u­late that it must be Amer­i­can­sourced and de­liv­ered world­wide on U.S.flagged ves­sels, an­a­lysts noted.

Now, on top of the farm bill, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is propos­ing bil­lions of dol­lars more in as­sis­tance to farm­ers who may find their ex­port busi­nesses di­min­ished in re­sponse to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s tar­iffs. That reeks of crony cap­i­tal­ism, Mr. Coburn said.

“What about ev­ery other Amer­i­can busi­ness get­ting hit in all that?” he said.

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