More Farm Follies

Monday, December 10, 2007

AFTER MUCH arcane political wrangling and procedural disputation, the Senate began debating a new five-year farm bill on Friday. Much of the price tag, projected at $288 billion, is accounted for by food stamps and other nutrition programs, but tens of billions of dollars in subsidies to farmers are included, too. Notwithstanding the fact that crop prices are surging and farmers are doing well, supporters of the bill, both in the Senate and the House, are hoping to enact this gigantic Christmas present with as little fuss as possible.

Before voting, members of the Senate might want to take another look at the recently concluded series "Harvesting Cash," which has appeared in The Post over the past two years. This painstaking journalism by Dan Morgan, Gilbert M. Gaul and Sarah Cohen identified $15 billion in government waste that had escaped the notice of executive branch investigators, the Government Accountability Office and congressional committees.

The last installment, published last Wednesday, showed how an irrational "rural development program" showered hundreds of millions of dollars in loan guarantees on government-selected businesses in small-town America, with little to show for it in terms of good jobs created. The program even subsidized a 10-screen movie theater to compete with a locally owned cinema that was already doing fine with unsubsidized financing.

Under the pending farm bill, the U.S. sugar industry would get a 10-year, $1 billion program to prop up sugar prices by requiring the Agriculture Department to buy up excess production and resell it to ethanol producers at a deep discount. The idea is to protect American growers from Mexican competition after the North American Free Trade Agreement is fully phased in. The effect is to raise prices for every food that contains sugar. This illogical and wasteful plan passed the House thanks in part to $1.5 million in widely distributed campaign contributions from nine sugar farm or refinery groups, according to a Nov. 3 story in The Post by Mr. Morgan.

As Mr. Morgan showed in a Sept. 28 article, a "direct payment" program for corn continues to shovel millions of dollars to farmers even as they reap the benefits of high crop and land prices -- which are in turn made possible by a separate federal program to subsidize corn-based ethanol. Mr. Morgan met an Iowa corn farmer who is wealthy enough to have pledged a $1.75 million donation to his alma mater, but, together with his two brothers, still receives $45,000 a year from Washington.

This is not a "safety net" for the beleaguered denizens of "farm country," as supporters of agricultural subsidies mawkishly insist. It's central planning at its most profligate. Sens. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) have proposed a substitute farm bill that eliminates cash subsidies in favor of a crop insurance program that actually would protect needy farmers at a much lower cost. Alas, the odds are against this reasonable alternative, but thanks to the work of three Post reporters, its supporters are armed with the facts.

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