America’s breadbasket is enduring a drought, one that stretches from Indiana clear to California and ranks among the worst in recent history. And conveniently located in the middle of it is the swing state of Iowa, where President Obama on Tuesday took the natural disaster as an opportunity to demagogue to farmers and get in his knocks against the Republican vice-presidential nominee, Representative Paul Ryan (Wis.).
After announcing some $170 million in pork spending in the region (as the vice president would say: literally — the government is buying $100 million worth of swine from farmers in an effort to offset crop failures), Obama called out Ryan for being “one of the leaders of Congress standing in the way” of disaster relief, and urged a crowd to “tell him how important this farm bill is to Iowa and our rural communities.”
We suspect Congressman Ryan is well aware. Because of the ongoing gridlock over that farm bill — which includes drought relief — Ryan voted for, and the House passed, a narrow $383 million emergency relief measure and sent it to the Senate. But instead of quickly passing and signing it, President Obama and his Democratic allies are holding the Midwest hostage in the name of passing a $1 trillion big-government goodie bag laden with useless subsidies and unprecedented welfare spending.
Part of the problem with the Senate version of the farm bill, and one source of conservative opposition to it, consists of its treatment of handouts to agribusiness. Dust Bowl–relic farm subsidies had been targets of umpteen generations of conservative reformers before Newt Gingrich’s House finally seemed to slay them in 1996. But Big Agro has proven to have a slasher-film villain’s knack for reanimation, and billions in “direct payments” to farmers — meant to facilitate the transition to a free market and to end in 2002 — never stopped, and instead turned into a very different kind of cash crop for the country’s biggest farms. Instead of righting this, the Senate farm bill repurposes about $5 billion from the “direct payments” program to expand government crop insurance and fund a “shallow loss” program that effectively guarantees farmers’ revenue against falling commodity prices and could end up costing taxpayers multiples of the subsidies it replaces.
Still, it would be one thing if quibbles over the contours of zombie subsidies were the only thing separating conservatives from the White House on the farm bill. But the fact is that the fairest portion of the bill’s price tag, nearly $800 billion over ten years, comes from food stamps — which, needless to say, enjoy only a thoroughly mediated relation to farming. But even though food-stamp rolls have spun out of control under the current administration, the Senate’s version of the farm bill contains just $4.5 billion in cuts to the program, and the House Agriculture Committee’s is not much better at $16.5 billion.
That’s simply not enough for conservative reformers in the House, including Paul Ryan, whose budget would wind food-stamp spending down to what it was before 2008 (hardly an epoch without a safety net) and disburse funds as block grants to the states.
Food stamps are currently the nation’s second-largest welfare program, behind Medicaid, and account for fully two-thirds of the Department of Agriculture’s budget. The standard liberal line that the program’s rolls have expanded because of the recession doesn’t scan: They have expanded in good times and bad, from one in 50 Americans in the 1970s to one in seven today, including a surge from 30 million enrollees to 46 million under this administration. A better explanation is so-called “categorical eligibility” standards, which state that individuals who receive other federal welfare benefits are presumptively eligible for food stamps, and which are so loosely interpreted that some states consider receiving a welfare brochure close enough for government dole. (Under the program as currently structured, a state that makes more people eligible can transfer federal dollars to its citizens at almost no cost to itself.) As if that wasn’t bad enough, President Obama’s stimulus further eroded the eligibility standards by suspending the work requirements for the able-bodied.
Ryan and other House reformers support a version of the farm bill that would begin to reverse these disturbing trends. If the president and Democrats in the Senate oppose it, let them fight on the merits. Instead, the president is blaming Paul Ryan for standing in the way of drought relief when it is the White House’s commitment to expanding (corporate and individual) welfare that has left Iowa high, and dry.