Farm bill smackdown time to break up the bill
The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Monday, June 24:
House Republicans revolted against their leaders last week, rejecting a farm bill that would have cost $940 billion over the coming decade. So for the second time in less than a year, Congress has failed to pass a renewal of the massive legislation that funds farm subsidies and food stamps.
While all the focus was on the Republican revolt, this was in fact a bipartisan tubing. Only 24 Democrats voted in favor of the House bill, which was defeated on a 195-234 vote. Republicans had counted on their rank-and-file to pass this, but 62 Republicans voted “no.”
Democrats and Republicans rejected the bill for different reasons. Many Democrats thought the cuts in food stamp spending were too severe. Many Republicans thought there should be deeper cuts in food stamps, others objected to the preservation of unjustified farm subsidies.
There’s value in this defeat. The Senate, which passed a $955 billion farm bill two weeks ago, is on notice that the House isn’t interested in business as usual.
Here’s an opportunity for Congress to do something revolutionary: Break up the farm bill. Debate and vote on food stamp policy and farm policy as entirely separate matters.
Republican Rep. Marlin Stutzman, an Indiana farmer, filed amendments to do just that, but House GOP leaders ignored him. They were counting on the usual alliance of interests to prevail. Farm-state Republicans and Democrats would vote “yes” for the subsidies that enrich rural landowners and Big Agriculture, and liberal Democrats would vote “yes” for the food stamps that benefit low-income constituents.
Take these issues separately.
Farm subsidies, the obsolete, Soviet-style affronts to the free market, have got to go. The concept of a farm safety net has been twisted into a grotesque abuse of taxpayer dollars.
Since 1996, farmers have been getting hefty government checks, called direct payments, for doing nothing but being farmers. Even their keenest supporters have given up trying to justify that transfer of wealth from taxpayers to some of the wealthiest people in the countryside.
Over the same period, federally subsidized crop insurance has morphed from a reasonable effort to protect against drought and flood into a costly and inefficient mess. The program funnels money to foreign financial companies, invites fraud on a massive scale and encourages degradation of the heartland by eliminating the risks that reward farmers who are good stewards and punish those who aren’t.
The House and Senate bills would eliminate direct payments, but crop insurance would be expanded. That can’t be justified.
Food stamp spending has soared over the past decade, partly because of the recession but also because rule changes have made it easier to qualify for aid.
The federal government provides a justifiable safety net to prevent hunger. But the food-stamp program’s expansion to $74.6 billion in 2012 from $18.3 billion a decade ago is alarming. The House bill proposes more substantial cuts than the Senate bill does.
When farm legislation failed last year, Congress passed an extension that expires on Sept. 30. If Congress is compelled to pass another extension because its members won’t embrace reform, it should at least exclude direct payments and crop insurance from the reauthorization.
Better yet, start over. Break up the farm bill.
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