Congress has passed a farm bill that will cost the nation a trillion dollars or more over the next decade. Once again, taxpayers have lost out to the farm lobby and its ally, the food-stamp lobby.
When Republican President Herbert Hoover signed the first major federal farm price support bill in 1929, America's 30 million farmers comprised more than 20 percent of the nation's workforce, and nearly half of the nation lived in rural areas subject to agricultural depressions.
The maze of government rules governing agriculture grew over succeeding decades and today remains largely intact, though the methods of farm welfare have changed over time.
Yet today the nation has barely 2 million farms - and less than 20 percent of the population lives in rural areas.
Thanks to Washington's role in stabilizing prices, today's farmers are relatively well off. According to the Agriculture Department, nearly 60 percent of the farms in 2011 had annual sales of less than $10,000, but total household income, including from non-farm sources, of over $70,000, slightly higher than the U.S. household average. For those families, farming is at most a modest supplemental income.
However, the rest of the nation's farms had an average income from all sources of about $112,000, 60 percent above the national average.
Farm land prices continued to rise during the Great Recession and are up 49 percent since 2008. In all, U.S. farms had a record net income of $121 billion last year from farming - including $11 billion in government payments. That's an extra 10 percent of income from federal taxpayers.
Payments to farmers are not the only way Washington props up the agriculture industry at the expense of consumers. Federal laws restrict imports, for example, of sugar and ethanol, to protect domestic producers. They allow producers to create cartels known as "marketing orders" that set prices for dairy products, fruits, vegetables and some specialty crops.
And the list of services provided by the Agriculture Department to farmers, would-be farmers and consumers is long. Small wonder the bill that finally cleared the Senate this week was almost 1,000 pages long.
The new law does repeal a 1996 program that gave agricultural land owners direct payments whether they were farming the land or not. The program was supposed to wean farmers from other subsidies. It did not.
In its place, though, the new law enlarges an existing program that subsidizes crop insurance. As 1st District Rep. Mark Sanford warned, explaining his vote against the new law, "The program is set up so that if commodity prices drop, which they're likely to do from their current historic highs, taxpayers could be on the hook for untold billions."
As for the food-stamp program, its costs have increased by 270 percent since 2005. And in the last five years alone, the number of Americans getting food stamps has soared from 32 million to 48 million.
The Republican House tried to separate food stamps from the farm bill. After that effort failed to garner Senate support, GOP House leaders then tried to trim $40 billion over 10 years, or 5 percent, from the program's expense. But the final compromise reduced food-stamp spending by only an estimated $8 billion over the next decade. That result was a clear victory for the Democratic Senate - and for the profligate farm-legislation status quo.
There was a slight moral victory of sorts in the extended struggle waged by lawmakers who pushed for meaningful reforms in federal agricultural policy. For a while there, it even looked as if Congress would finally follow through on familiar promises to deeply cut farm-bill fat.
But the House's ultimate retreat in order to pass the farm bill is another sad sign that the agriculture lobby retains excessive influence in the halls of power.
And while Americans should take pride in our farmers' productive role in helping to feed the world, they should also take alarmed notice of the blatant - and continuing - waste in federal agricultural subsidies.
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