Congress has sent a $956 billion farm bill larded with subsidies for agribusiness to President Barack Obama, who issued a statement Tuesday praising it.
Maybe he should first have reread his fiscal 2014 budget proposal. “The farm sector continues to be one of the strongest sectors of the U.S. economy, with net farm income expected to increase 13.6 percent to $128.2 billion in 2013, which would be the highest inflation-adjusted amount since 1973,” it pointed out. “With the value of both crop and livestock production at all-time highs, income support payments based upon historical levels of production can no longer be justified.”
It is a depressing measure of political reality in Washington that Obama is expected to sign the bill, even though it achieves less than half of the $37.8 billion in savings (over 10 years) that his budget called for. The bill expands crop insurance subsidies, which the president had targeted for reduction because of their wasteful, distorting impact on both the federal budget and farmers’ use of land, labor and capital.
The bill’s authors urge support because it eliminates egregious “direct payment” subsidies and makes a few other incremental reforms. But for every step the bill takes toward better federal agriculture policy, it takes two or three steps in the other direction. Worst of all, it creates two new programs — Agriculture Risk Coverage and a Supplemental Coverage Option — which, taken together, all but guarantee beneficiaries’ revenues never fall below 86 percent of their earnings during years of high crop prices, according to estimates by Montana agricultural economist Vincent H. Smith. This federal largess is subject to no significant means-testing. In fact, people making up to $900,000 in adjusted gross annual income can qualify for payments. Why would a president concerned about inequality endorse such welfare for the prosperous?
Contrary to what its apologists claim, the 2014 farm bill is not a hard-won triumph for bipartisanship. Instead, it is a case study in everything that’s wrong with Congress. This is a bill of, by and for the agriculture lobby, which, through sheer power and self-interested persistence, ground down reform advocates over three years. The premise of the legislation — that this country would be at risk of shortages and soaring food prices without multiple layers of central planning in agriculture — is simply not true.
The good news is that, even when Obama contradicts his budget and signs the bill, it will be the law of the land for only five years, during which its flaws and inevitable cost overruns will become apparent. That gives Americans a chance to demand a less expensive, more rational farm policy. Such a policy would be based on the truth: namely, that the problem is not food scarcity but poorly managed abundance, and that, beyond modest protection against genuinely uninsurable risks, agribusiness has no more legitimate claim on taxpayer assistance than does any other business. Bad as it is, we can still hope that this farm bill will be the last.