Plow It Under

Friday, May 9, 2008

AFTER WEEKS of wheeling and dealing, a House-Senate conference committee has finally produced a farm bill. And what an unlovely creation it is. The nearly $300 billion, five-year legislation brims with subsidies for everything from biofuels to historic-barn preservation. It includes a dubious sugar-to-ethanol program and billions of dollars for a permanent disaster relief fund that essentially pays farmers to grow crops on land too dry to sustain them. And it perpetuates the multibillion-dollar system of direct payments to corn, wheat, rice, cotton and soybean growers, with only minimal limitations on how much of this corporate welfare rich farmers can receive.

To be sure, food stamps and other nutrition programs account for about two-thirds of the bill's cost. These would grow by roughly $10 billion, a needed increase, given rising food prices. Attaching wasteful subsidies to the poor's nutritional safety net is the oldest trick in the agriculture politics book. It secures the votes of urban and suburban representatives who otherwise would have no reason to countenance the most egregious farm subsidies. The farm bill's advocates are counting on this old gambit to ensure final passage of their overstuffed turkey. That, and the claim that a handful of modest subsidy trims amounts to "reform" of agriculture policy. But the bill ends direct payments for individuals only when their farm incomes hit $750,000 a year (double that for couples). This is not reform.

Congress began working on this legislation at a time of relatively stable food and energy prices. Those conditions no longer apply; many farmers, especially those who grow corn for ethanol, have profited mightily as a result. Yet farm-state legislators, cocooning with agribusiness lobbyists, continue to act as if federal taxpayers owe their constituents a helping hand. They have definitely misjudged the economics of the situation; they may have overplayed their hand politically as well. President Bush should veto the bill, as he has all but threatened to do, and Congress should deny it the two-thirds vote in both houses necessary to override. Then all concerned could sit down to draft a bill that increases food stamps and extends current law for a year. Admittedly, that would leave in place policies that are, in some respects, even worse than those that emerged from the conference committee yesterday. But it would avert having bad policy locked in for the next half decade. And in 2009, a new president and a new Congress could hammer out something more defensible.

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