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Farm Bill 'Reform' Stuffed With Pork

Jun 10, 2012

San Francisco Chronicle

Every once in a while, Democrats and Republicans can work together. Witness Thursday's 90-8 vote to bring a "bipartisan reform" farm bill before the Senate. In the expectation that the bill will garner the necessary 60 votes, the House Agriculture Committee has changed its schedule to allow a floor debate on the measure in July. The White House applauded. This is Washington's version of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

There's just one little problem. Somehow, whenever the two parties work together, they end up spending a lot of other people's money. The Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2012, co-authored by Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Pat Roberts, R-Kan., is a 10-year, $1 trillion package.

Stabenow boasts that her bill would produce $23.6 billion in savings from what Washington would spend under current law. "We examined every agriculture program to see what was working and what wasn't," said she. That's all she could squeeze out of a $969 billion package? President Obama proposed shaving $32 billion from that pot. The GOP House budget calls for a reduction of almost $180 billion over 10 years.

Stabenow does have one accomplishment over which she is free to crow, and she has: "The era of direct payments is over. We're not going to be paying farmers for crops they don't grow." The end of the direct-payments program should save taxpayers about $5 billion annually.

Alas, noted Citizens Against Government Waste spokeswoman Leslie Paige, "It's like a Whac-A-Mole game with these programs." Goodbye, direct payments. Hello, new crop insurance subsidy.

As the New York Times reported, the government already spends $7 billion to pay two-thirds of farmers' crop insurance. The new farm bill creates an additional $3 billion annual subsidy to further pad the cost of risk insurance.

"They're using 75 percent of the savings that they get from cutting traditional farm subsidies to create yet another kind of farm subsidy that guarantees income for farmers," Environmental Working Group Vice President Craig Cox complained. His group supports subsidies for farmers' "deep" losses. Cox favors what "most people would consider a safety net." But he said that "what's being proposed is more like what most people would consider a security blanket."

Advocates on the right and left have joined to fight the bill. Liberal groups want to redirect the money that subsidizes big agriculture toward nutrition programs and environmental protection.

Fiscal hawks don't like the big spending. "We don't want to reprogram any of it," said Paige. "We want it all to go to the debt and deficit reduction."

Both sides can agree that it doesn't make sense for the federal government to throw so much money at big agriculture that farmers have an incentive to engage in over-planting - which might encroach on wildlife - as government programs reduce the risk of planting on marginal land.

"A real reform bill would have ended direct payments, rejected new farm entitlements and made important reforms to crop insurance subsidies that are slated to cost $90 billion over the next 10 years," Cox said in a statement.

While Stabenow and company have been patting themselves on the back for ferreting out wasteful spending, the Congressional Budget Office reported that her farm bill would "make popcorn an eligible crop for program benefits."

Popcorn? As Paige explained it, there's a way you can tell this so-called reform is a weasel. "You can tell," she said, "because no one's screaming."

 

What's in the farm bill

The bill, which is revised every five years, is expected to cost about $969 billion over the next decade but cuts current spending by $23 billion. It would:

-- Eliminate direct payments from the government to farmers regardless of whether they plant a crop. The payments program now costs about $5 billion a year.

-- Make an expanded crop insurance program the primary safety net for farmers. To replace direct payments, the bill would create a crop insurance subsidy, at a cost of $3 billion a year, to cover losses farmers suffer before their crop insurance policies kick in.

-- Cut $4.5 billion from food-stamp programs.

Source: New York Times

Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. E-mail: dsaunders@sfchronicle.com

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