Farm Bill Chestnuts
TO HEAR CONGRESS tell it, the farm bill that it just passed by veto-proof margins in both houses is all about helping the poor. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), for example, appeared with members of the House Asian and Hispanic caucuses to hail its benefits for minority communities. And about two-thirds of the $289 billion bill will go to nutrition programs for low-income Americans, including about $10 billion in necessary increases. Corporate welfare for agribusiness accounts for less than half the price tag. But where does the Constitution say that Congress has to put aid to the poor in the same bill with tens of billions in aid to the middle class and rich? Congress does it that way so that rural members can get urban and suburban members to sign off on lavish farm subsidies they would otherwise reject.
The farm bill is the epitome of old-style Washington politics. A small number of farm-state senators from both parties demanded its most wasteful provisions, such as guaranteed payments to big cotton and rice growers and "disaster relief" for farmers in arid areas. These members of the less-representative body leveraged their right to filibuster into billions of dollars for people who are better off than the average taxpayer. The bill includes only the most tepid reforms, which, though trumpeted by the bill's advocates, deny benefits to only a tiny handful of farms.
While none of the presidential candidates left the campaign trail to vote on the bill, one -- Republican Sen. John McCain -- unequivocally opposed it. It may not be terribly surprising that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) hailed the bill's passage during a campaign swing through South Dakota. It's a bit more disappointing to hear Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), running on a promise to oppose politics as usual, say he applauded the bill. In Iowa last August, Mr. Obama said, "When the farm bill comes up in the Senate, I will be fighting to tell all those agribusiness lobbyists that they won't be able to count on the multimillion-dollar subsidies they always get because we're going to put family farmers first." Yesterday, he said, "With so much at stake, we cannot make the perfect the enemy of the good." On this issue, Mr. McCain, not his likely Democratic opponent, was the apostle of change.