A bloated farm bill (but we repeat ourselves) has made it out of markup and will come to the House floor with features the Republican leadership strongly opposes. This happened because GOP members on the Agriculture Committee, including some who style themselves tea partiers, joined hands with Democrats to fund a spree of Big Government corporatism predicated on an increasingly remote interest in improving the American agricultural sector.
The bill will cost $940 billion over five years (or about as much as Obamacare purports to cost over ten). Spending on food stamps makes up 80 percent of it, and the bill as marked reports $20 billion in savings by tightening eligibility and closing loopholes in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). That’s a mere 2.5 percent cut. While it’s a start, it isn’t much one of one; considering spending on food stamps has more than doubled since 2007, we think there is more fat to trim. Indeed, the committee inexplicably rejected a modest amendment that would have cut an additional $12 billion, bringing the total cut up to a whopping 4 percent. A work requirement should be added for able-bodied recipients once labor markets return to normal.
The other 20 percent of the bill is mostly bad, too. It phases out “direct payments” — subsidies that go to farmers come drought or bumper crop — which is welcome. But it diverts much of the saving to other subsidies, and is actually less ambitious than the Democratic Senate’s plan, which ends direct payments immediately. And it raises “trigger prices” for various agricultural products, floors below which various other subsidies kick in. Once again, it does so more generously than the Senate’s plan.
Perhaps the worst novel feature of the House bill is the Dairy Producer Margin Protection Program. Farmers who participate in it would receive “margin protection,” insurance that guarantees a floor on production margins. But by signing up for the program, they would also have to agree to be a part of a government cartel for controlling the dairy supply. Under it, if margins fell below a preset trigger level, farmers would either have to shut off production or face a sizable tax. That is, they would be forced to choose between eating into their own revenue or passing costs on to processors, and ultimately consumers, by artificially reducing supply. A cutting-edge idea, no doubt, in 1933.
Representatives Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) and David Scott (D., Ga.) offered a bipartisan amendment that would essentially have kept the insurance in place, minus the People’s Commissariat for Agriculture. It, too, was defeated, despite the fact that the inclusion of a similar program was a major reason Speaker Boehner kept the farm bill off the floor last year.
The bill could be worse, we suppose. It cuts the deficit modestly relative to our current policy (through, e.g., its incorporation of the sequester and its cuts to food stamps), and Republicans on the Agriculture Committee did fend off an unwise amendment or two. For instance, a measure that would marry agricultural welfare to green social engineering by tying a farmer’s eligibility for crop-insurance-premium subsidies to “conservation compliance” did not make it into the House version. But even this might be temporary. The measure is included in the Senate version, and could well sneak into the final product that comes out of conference.
Indeed, the likelihood that the bill will get worse as it goes along made it critical that Republicans in the Agriculture Committee force Congress to start with the most conservative possible version. They did not. Because it is as close to indestructible as it gets in Congress, the farm bill has become a vehicle for members’ big-spending ids. But a body controlled by Republicans — “Tea Party” Republicans, at that — must do better.
We don’t know if the House bill will do much to help the average dairy farm. But we know it smells like one.