Farming the government

It’s understandable that Rep. Wally Herger and local rice farmers are fundamentally happy with the Farm Bill. Growers in Herger’s District 2 reaped an astonishing $1.8 billion in subsidies from 1995-2005, and the bill the House passed last month would continue that largesse (the Senate has yet to generate its bill).

But it’s disheartening to see the Democrats in the House, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, cynically thwarting a reform effort that would have culled some of the fattest cats from the handout rolls.

One of the demonstrable problems with the Farm Bill is that the richest farmers bag the most bucks. This gives them enhanced ability to expand their operations by buying up neighboring farms. The Farm Bill originally was established to protect family farms, but now it does just the opposite.

The Bush administration, seeking a meaningful reform that would save taxpayers billions of dollars, proposed lowering the income eligibility for subsidies from $2.5 million (twice that for married couples) to $200,000. But Pelosi, worried that the cut would make several Democratic farm state representatives vulnerable in the next election, instead backed a bill setting the cap at $1 million ($2 million for couples). The result was that only the top one-fifth of 1 percent—that’s 0.2 percent—of the richest farmers was lopped from the program.

To their credit, the Dems added some reformist elements to the bill—increasing subsidies for nut, fruit and vegetable crops, for example, which would benefit California growers and allow some healthful foods to enter the surplus-food stream for use in schools. As it is, most of the subsidies go to the producers of just five crops: corn, wheat, soybeans, rice and cotton. Some 95 percent of farmers don’t get a cent.

The Dems also voted to increase nutrition services and the Food Stamp budget. They could have paid for these increases by lowering the subsidy cap further, but instead they added a last-minute $4 billion-plus tax levy on foreign corporations doing business in the United States—a counterproductive move that discourages the “insourcing” of jobs at a time when outsourcing is a major concern. Herger, who said he liked the bill otherwise, voted against it because of the tax hike.

How ironic that the new House Democratic majority, elected by voters expecting fundamental change, ended up thwarting a genuine reform proposed by the Bush administration and backed a wasteful and unfair status-quo bill instead.