Congress is going through one of its familiar fits trying to come up with a new farm bill that continues large subsidies for farmers and food stamps for the poor. The Senate has one approach, the House has another. It’s too soon to know what will emerge from the conference committee — though it might just run on ethanol.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., did say last week that food stamps could still make the panel’s final version.
And lawmakers are loaded with questions about the value of this or that provision of legislation that, in the House bill, has a five-year cost of nearly $200 billion.
Yet the question no one seems to be asking is “Why?”
Why when farm income is at record heights do we need to continue programs enacted during the Depression to help the then-foundering farm economy?
Why when the number of “family farms” is now about one-third what it was back then do we continue to worry about rural depopulation?
Why do we allow lobbies such as the sugar industry to extract huge subsidies for a product that can be bought far more cheaply on the world market?
When the “embattled farmers” of Concord, Mass., “fired the shot heard round the world” on April 19, 1775, they were representative of the nation’s population, then mainly rural and dependent on agriculture.
Even when the sweeping New Deal agriculture subsidies were first enacted in the 1930s, nearly a quarter of the nation’s population lived on farms, and supported the rural economy where half the nation’s inhabitants lived.
Now, however, the rural population is down to 16 percent, and the farm population is a fraction of that.
But the farm bill keeps getting more and more costly.
Just one example: Both House and Senate farm bills have an apparent “reform” that ends direct federal payments to farmers. But they substitute a “crop insurance” program that is simply a way of disguising farm subsidies.
According to Washington Post economic columnist Robert Samuelson, the premiums paid by farmers will cover only 40 percent of costs, and the terms will probably provide them payouts in all but the best years. The Congressional Budget Office says the 10-year cost for taxpayers will be $89 billion.
This is the farm lobby at work, and it is an example of why the nation keeps spending more than it can afford.
Each federal program, whether directly under the annual control of Congress or governed by legislation that sets formulas for government payments, is the particular concern of special interests whose ability to influence legislators is great. The public interest requires limits to federal largesse. But nobody lobbies for the public interest. There’s no profit in it.
Without real reform, we will end up with another massive, unwieldy farm bill that defies description.
It’s no way to run a farm, or the federal government.