Politics & Policy

Pork in the Farm Bill

In a bipartisan development, Democrats and Republicans team up, again, to mug taxpayers.

It’s been overshadowed by the hoopla surrounding the State of the Union, but we have finally had an outbreak of bipartisanship in Washington. Of course, bipartisanship means, as it usually does, that Democrats and Republicans have teamed up to mug taxpayers: An agreement has finally been reached on a new farm bill.

The farm bill will cost taxpayers about $950 billion over the next ten years. Lawmakers are calling this a $23 billion cut. But as Veronique de Rugy and my colleague Chris Edwards have pointed out, this is a cut only in the Washington sense of spending less than previously predicted. In reality, it represents an inflation-adjusted $258 billion increase over the ten-year cost of the last farm bill, in 2008. That’s a whopping 37 percent jump in real spending!

The largest part of this spending is not for farm programs but for food stamps. The bill provides approximately $756 billion in funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) through 2023. The media will certainly point out that this is roughly an $8 billion cut in such spending over ten years, but that represents just 1 percent of the program’s funding. Virtually all of the savings comes from eliminating the so-called LIHEAP loophole, under which some 17 states were able to leverage token (often as little as $1) fuel-assistance payments into higher food-stamp benefits. Any serious attempt to reform the program by, say, reinstating work requirements was dropped. Is it any wonder that the Department of Agriculture reports that a record 20 percent of American households now receive food stamps?

No doubt conservatives will complain about the food-stamp spending, but whatever one thinks about our ever-growing safety net, there is simply no excuse for the farm portion of the bill, which is pure corporate welfare.

After all, while no one would deny that farming can be a difficult and sometimes precarious way of life, farmers generally are not suffering. In 2013 the average farm household had an income of $104,525. In 2011, the most recent year a direct comparison is available, farm-household incomes were 25 percent higher than the average for all U.S. households, and this gap has only increased since. Moreover, much farm aid goes not to small family farms but to giant agri-business. Among the biggest recipients of farm subsidies are Tysons Food, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Riceland Foods, none of which are likely to be the subject of a Lifetime TV movie anytime soon. In fact, roughly a third of subsidies in the last farm bill went to the wealthiest 4 percent of farmers.

The bill does make some promising reforms, notably eliminating direct payments to farmers. And, while the bill preserves dairy-price supports, it doesn’t include the so-called stabilization program that would have mandated production quotas to keep prices up.

But all the money saved from eliminating direct payments has been redirected to expanded crop insurance, through which the federal government covers losses from poor yields or low commodity prices. Subsidies will actually increase for rice and cotton farmers, while corn, wheat, and soybean farmers will also continue to be major beneficiaries.

Moreover, the 949-page bill is packed with pork and giveaways to favored groups.

For example, the bill includes $1.5 million in funding this fiscal year to strengthen and enhance “the production and marketing of sheep and sheep products in the United States.” It also creates a National Christmas Tree Board, funded through a 15-cent tax on every Christmas tree sold. The bill maintains the Department of Agriculture’s $17 million per-year catfish-oversight program, even though the Food and Drug Administration has a nearly identical program (which costs a mere $7 million a year!). The Department of Agriculture will also be establishing new federal standards for “the identity of honey.” Apparently even bees are helpless without the federal government.

It is particularly disappointing to see self-professed conservatives such as Representatives Dennis Ross, Tom Rooney, Vern Buchanan, and Steve Southerland sending out press releases hailing special-interest goodies like $25 million per year for a federal Citrus Research and Extension Initiative.

Not surprisingly, the legislation maintains the federal sugar program, a combination of import restrictions and production quotas that keeps the price of American sugar well above the world market.

The legislation could come up for a vote in the House as early as Wednesday. Undoubtedly it will be hailed as an example of how Congress can “get something done” when they “all work together.” Sadly, that is probably true.

— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.

Michael TannerMr. Tanner is the director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Poverty and Inequality in California and the author of The Inclusive Economy: How to Bring Wealth to America’s Poor.


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