The Farm Bill, Corporations, and Priorities


Over the last few weeks, Democrats and Republicans have engaged in a politically ferocious battle over the farm bill – from the Tea Party perspective, should America pay for the Senate’s grossly oversized bill, or the House’s slightly-less-oversized bill? On Sunday, Eleanor Clift wrote a column for The Daily Beast criticizing Republicans for wanting cuts to the farm bill, especially the food stamps component. From the column:

For decades, since the 1970s, food stamps enjoyed bipartisan backing, with farm-state senators and legislative icons George McGovern and Bob Dole championing the program. More recently, even the authors of the famed Simpson-Bowles report on deficit reduction left SNAP untouched. But House Republicans have a different mind-set about food stamps and want to cut $20.5 billion over 10 years from SNAP, five times more than the $4 billion authorized by a big bipartisan vote, 66 to 27, in the Senate this week…

What is so bad about the House bill? According to Clift, it will cut $16.5 billion more over 10 years from the food stamp portion than the Senate’s bill, which is aiming to spend $760.5 billion over a decade. That’s a 2.167% cut between now and when today’s sixth-graders graduate college. Not exactly a major haircut, especially since the SNAP program grew from $18 billion annually in 2001 to $78 billion annually in 2011 – and most of that was due to non-recession factors. Furthermore, as The Heritage Foundation pointed out, both bills are projected by the Congressional Budget Office to cost 50% more than what the 2008 farm bill did (not accounting for inflation).

The rest of Clift’s arguments are mostly off-base, but her column highlights some of the political priorities of both parties that run contrary to what’s best for the country, as well as a significant flaw common in the pundit class.

First, making sure one of the fastest-growing parts of the budget doesn’t keep growing so quickly is good policy. It seems to be the bureaucracy’s goal is to get more people on the program, whereas most Americans want it to be used for actual poverty prevention and helping people who are dealing with temporarily tough times.

Second, many Capitol Hill Republicans are prioritizing bill changes that do little to rein in costs, but look good to constituents. From Clift:

Democrats quietly tucked an amendment sponsored by Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) into the bill rather than vote on the punitive measure. It prohibits murderers, rapists, and pedophiles from getting food stamps once they’ve served their time.

I’m sure this is a decent amendment – the Senator’s cell phone subsidy amendment certainly was – but even the Senator’s own press release shows how relatively small the dangerous felon problem is. Wouldn’t it have been better to prioritize oversight or fraud prevention or drastically reduce corporate and congressional subsidies in the Senate bill?

Speaking of oversight, how have things gone so far in the House with that? Congressman Tom Marino (R-PA) is planning to introduce an amendment to the Farm bill later this week to strengthen oversight of SNAP, so it is clear House Republicans have not thus far prioritized oversight of the bill.

When it comes to corporate subsidies, it’s not just JPMorgan and the oft-blamed banks that benefit. Approximately three-quarters of the agriculture subsidies go to the 10% biggest farms. Clift notes that Heritage Action is hammering this point home:

Heritage is demanding Republicans honor their commitment to cut spending, and that includes subsidies to farmers as well as food stamps. Republicans have expanded a crop insurance program that is a federal subsidy by another name and potentially more costly. Heritage Action spokesman Dan Holler says the merits of food stamps and farm programs should be debated separately and that it’s time to end the “legislative log rolling” that couples the interests of farm state and urban members in the same bill.

Side note: This is a prime example of the difference between a principled organization – Heritage Action – and politicians who first and foremost look for ways to get re-elected.

Finally, Clift notes the Senate bill had a large bipartisan majority. This is the establishment/Beltway idea of a good bill – if corrupt people in both parties vote for it, everyone should sing “Hallelujah” and pass it! Upholding the Constitution and fiscal responsibility are so last century…

George Will’s recent commentary on certain subsidies in the farm bill summarizes the entire problem with the bill as a whole, though he focuses on the corporate subsidy side of things. Here is his best line, in a column worth reading in its entirety (emphasis added):

These immortal measures just received the Senate’s benediction because they illustrate the only law Washington can be counted on to respect. It is the law of dispersed costs but concentrated benefits.

Exactly. Your dollars are not your own in Washington; they belong to those considered worthy of extracting favors. It might only cost each American $5, but that provides $1.5 billion in subsidies. Personally, I’m pretty certain each American could use those $5, $50, and $500 in federal subsidies, corporate welfare, food stamps, etc. more wisely than any politician.