Farm Harm

Friday, July 21, 2006

AQUESTION raised by The Post's recent reports on farm subsidies is this: Why does the nation tolerate this waste? As reporters Gilbert M. Gaul, Dan Morgan and Sarah Cohen explain, the federal government paid out $1.6 million in earthquake compensation to Washington state farmers who hadn't suffered earthquake damage. It foisted $39 million in storm compensation on bewildered Wisconsin farmers who were unaware that they'd suffered any loss. And it gave $400 million worth of powdered milk, which it had bought to support milk prices, to supposedly drought-stricken ranchers -- only to find that ranchers and middlemen sold the milk back onto the world market, driving milk prices down again while clearing a fast profit.

This theater of the absurd reflects more than government incompetence. The Livestock Compensation Program, the subject of the Post article on Tuesday, was the result of careful political judgment. It was created by the Bush administration in 2002 to boost John Thune, the Republican Senate candidate in South Dakota. The White House calculation was that Mr. Thune would pick up crucial votes from his state's ranchers if he was seen to have delivered federal pork. The flip side of the calculation was that the president would not pay an electoral price for throwing millions of dollars out the window.

Campaigners against farm subsidies have spent years grappling with this logic. It's long been clear that the lion's share of the $20 billion-plus in annual farm payments has gone to rich farmers who don't need the cash; that the payments promote environmental damage; and that they harm farmers in poor countries. But even with the most cynical view of politics, in which you assume that these substantive problems with farm programs don't count, there's still something of a mystery. Sure, the farmers who pocket the cash will vote for whoever provides it. But farmers are a tiny minority of the electorate. Why doesn't the majority, which pays for all this waste, rise up in revolt against the sheer gluttony of it?

The answer is that the taxpaying majority doesn't care, not least because it is oblivious. But maybe there is hope. In the era of online political organization and Internet search, information on pork-peddling scandals ought to spread faster and more widely. On Tuesday Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) held hearings on a bill to create a database of government spending and contracts that would make it easy to look up how much federal money flows to particular companies or nonprofits. The bill's bipartisan backers are hoping for quick passage, and they rightly point out that the only ground for opposing their idea is a desire to keep corrupt payments secret. It will be interesting to see whether any senator has the nerve to block the bill -- and whether leaders in the House, who want to exclude information on government contracts, are shameless enough to argue that taxpayers should be kept in the dark.


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