THOSE WHO pay any attention have long understood that the government's crop subsidy programs are not a safety net for the hard-pressed denizens of Farm Country but rather a tremendous waste of taxpayers' money, artificially raising grocery prices and transferring income from the poor to the rich. Still, as the Senate continues its debate of a five-year farm bill larded with tens of billions of dollars in subsidies, including a $5.1 billion trust fund for farmers who insist on plowing dry land in the Dakotas and Texas, it's worth reflecting on exactly how unreal the discussion of agricultural policy has become.
Under current law, the sky is pretty much the limit when it comes to who can receive crop subsidies and how much they can get. On paper, no one is allowed more than $360,000 in federal farm benefits per year, but the provision is riddled with loopholes. The upshot, according to the Agriculture Department, is that some 570 farms, concentrated in the cotton- and rice-growing regions of the Deep South, received $250,000 or more each in 2005. Two-thirds of all crop subsidies go to just 10 percent of farms.
To his credit, President Bush proposed making the $360,000 limit a real cap. More important, he wanted a means test barring payment to any producer whose annual adjusted gross income exceeds $200,000. Even this is pretty generous, considering that the president just vetoed a child health-care bill on the grounds that it would have provided medical insurance to some American families making more than $83,000 per year. But in the cloud-cuckoo land world of agriculture, Mr. Bush's idea was radical -- too radical for the House of Representatives, which brushed the administration proposal aside. The House version of the farm bill would allow full-time farming households earning as much as $2 million per year to collect payments.
In the Senate, there is still some hope for curbing the most egregious excesses. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is proposing an amendment that would cut off payments for farm households with incomes above $750,000. Sens. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) want to cap payments at $250,000 a year per farm. Note that even if both of these amendments pass, a farm family making $749,999 a year could still receive a $249,999 handout from the taxpayers. For a Democratic Congress eager to restore a modicum of balance to the distribution of income in America, this should be a very easy call.