'Agri-hypocrites' attack Obama's cuts in aid to farmers

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

ANY SENSIBLE PLAN for fiscal discipline would address the billions of dollars that the federal government lavishes each year on the Farm Belt. And, sensibly, President Obama has proposed agriculture subsidy cuts this year. His budget would reduce the cap on direct payments from $40,000 to $30,000 per farmer and limit eligibility to farmers making $500,000 a year or less from farming and $250,000 a year or less from other activities. Ten-year savings: $2.3 billion. Also, the president proposes reducing federal crop insurance subsidies by $8 billion over the next decade, which seems reasonable since the Agriculture Department estimates that the companies engaged in this taxpayer-backed business make an average annual return on equity of 17.1 percent.

Now, before you get too excited about this, bear in mind that both of these quite modest suggestions are basically repeats of ideas that Mr. Obama offered -- and Congress rejected -- last year. In fact, they are reminiscent of proposals that his predecessor, George W. Bush, repeatedly floated, without success. What's more, Mr. Obama appears to be lowering his expectations. Last year's budget would have trimmed almost $10 billion from direct payments for better-off farmers -- five times more spending restraint than this year's budget seeks.

Perhaps the White House thought it might have better success in Congress by setting a less ambitious goal this time. If so, it's not working; as soon as the president announced his plan, the usual bipartisan coalition of farm-state lawmakers pronounced it unacceptable. Democrat Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, announced that she will be "standing up for . . . all of rural America once again by opposing cuts that will harm the hardworking men and women who are the backbone of our rural economy." Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the ranking Republican of Senate Agriculture, roared that the Obama budget "unfairly targets farmers and ranchers to achieve savings and fund Washington-based programs." Both senators insisted, of course, that they will work to reduce the deficit and make hard choices -- just not for their own pet programs.

All of this might be amusing, in a sadly familiar way, except that the budget proposal released Monday, when read in full, dramatically illustrates that this country is in deep trouble. Business as usual is leading the United States down the road to financial ruin. And the fatuous hypocrisy of self-proclaimed deficit hawks who then go to bat for welfare to well-to-do landowners is endangering us all.

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