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Who are the winners and losers in the new farm bill?

By
From page A9 | February 07, 2014 |

Almost nothing happens on a bipartisan basis in Washington these days, but there is one exception: The farm bill. This week, the Senate easily passed a bill to spend $1 trillion on agriculture and related programs over the next decade. The bill expands crop insurance for farmers, but also cuts food stamps by $90 a month for 1.7 million people in the program. And that’s just the start.

Is the new farm bill a boondoggle or a blessing? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the Red-Blue America columnists, debate the issue.

Joel Mathis

This is your government in the 21st century: Lawmakers can agree on almost nothing except that profitable businesses need more government subsidies, but out-of-work and poor Americans get less.

This is a bill that guarantees rice farmers never have to worry about having even an average market for their crop. The Wall Street Journal reports: “The federal subsidy in the House bill guarantees farmers of Japonica Rice that if market prices drop below 115 percent of the average price of all types of rice, they will get a government payment to make up the difference.”

This is a bill that guarantees big profits to giant banks. Think Progress reports: “Much of the roughly $59 billion taxpayers spent on crop insurance programs over the past decade ends up with financial companies rather than farmers. The 18 insurance companies that participate in the federal crop insurance program banked $10 billion in profit over the past decade and have made money on the program every year save two in the past 20.”

This is a bill that subsidizes the sugar industry. That pays $100 million to promote maple syrup. That gives $200 million to a “market access program,” which gives food companies money to advertise abroad – including, reportedly, an effort to sell American wines to the French.

Good luck with that.

While banks and corporations are counting their taxpayer-funded profits, though, actual hungry Americans might go just a bit hungrier – some food stamp recipients will lose up to $90 a month from their meal subsidies. Too bad they don’t have Congress lining up to do their bids.

“This thousand-page, trillion-dollar mess is less a compromise between House Republicans and Senate Democrats than it is collusion between both parties against the American people, to benefit the special interests at the expense of the national interest,” Republican Sen. Mike Lee wrote about the farm bill. He’s right.

Conservatives say the government shouldn’t pick winners and losers. That’s precisely what the farm bill does. It’s a bipartisan boondoggle.

Ben Boychuk

On this, liberals and conservatives can agree: the farm bill is an affront to the principles of small government, fiscal prudence and good sense. There is simply nothing “conservative” about the 10-year, $1 trillion monstrosity and Republicans should be ashamed to have voted for it.

But vote they did. Even some tea party stalwarts caved. In the end, just 63 House Republicans had the nerve to buck their party’s leadership and vote against the bill. And to what end?

Farmers aren’t hurting. Not the big ones, anyway – and the big ones are the major beneficiaries of the bill. According to the Department of Agriculture, U.S. farmers last year earned a net income of $131 billion, up 7 percent from the previous year. Did your income grow 7 percent last year? If so, lucky you! In reality, of course, most U.S. families have seen their incomes stagnate or decline in the years since the Great Recession.

The farm bill’s supporters point to its “reforms,” which include eliminating direct payments to farmers. But the subsidies aren’t gone; they’re just really well hidden. Now, the government will further subsidize crop insurance, which farmers can collect when prices fall below a certain threshold – not unlike the old direct payment system.

What’s more, the new bill permanently enshrines the sugar subsidy, which the American Enterprise Institute’s Tim Carmody rightly described as “Washington’s least defensible corporate welfare boondoggle.” And that’s saying something!

Liberals detest that the bill cuts $8 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – food stamps. But that amounts to about 1 percent of the budget over the next decade from a program rife with fraud and abuse.

So the farm bill reforms practically nothing, yet U.S. consumers can expect to pay more for anything containing sugar, just as they’re already paying more for corn, for wheat, for soybeans, and for milk.

Who benefits then? Not taxpayers, obviously. Any way you slice it, corporate welfare for agribusiness not only survives, it thrives under this awful bill.

Ben Boychuk (bboychuk@city-journal.org) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis ((joelmmathis@gmail.com) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Website: www.facebook.com/benandjoel

Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis

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