THE BUSH administration took a commendable step this year when it proposed trimming farm programs by $9 billion over the next five years. Anyone who's watched the farm lobby, its congressional enablers and the administration's capitulations can guess what happened next. The administration's $9 billion was whittled to $3 billion, with hardly a peep of protest from the we-must-clamp-down-on-wasteful-spending types. Now, the all too predictable round two of this budgetary drama is about to unfold. As the Senate and House agriculture committees figure out how to parcel out those cuts, the brazen farm lobby is arguing that the panels should take more out of food stamps than farm subsidies.
Back when he produced his budget, President Bush had proposed trimming $600 million from food stamps over the next five years, about 7 percent of the total suggested agriculture cuts. Whether such reductions are warranted is, at the very least, open to debate. The administration would eliminate food stamps for about 300,000 recipients whose income or assets slightly exceed eligibility limits but whose high living expenses put them below poverty level -- hardly flagrant examples of wasteful government spending.
But the discussion has moved beyond whether to boot these people from the program to whether the cuts should be even larger. Farm lobbyists have proposed that the $3 billion in required cuts be shared proportionately by all agriculture programs. Under this scheme the program would take a $1.7 billion hit.
This faux fairness is hard to swallow. We don't exactly recall the farm lobby volunteering for shared suffering when the food stamps program was cut by almost $28 billion over six years as part of the 1996 welfare reform law. Nor do we remember it offering a proportional slice of the bounty when lawmakers ladled out $80 billion over 10 years in the 2002 farm bill -- of which 71 percent went to farm subsidies and just 9 percent to increases in food stamps.
Thankfully, this ploy is meeting with some resistance in Congress. In the Senate, Agriculture Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) has indicated he wants to keep the food stamp cuts to the level the president originally recommended. "We're going to help balance the budget in this country once again, but I will not let that happen at the expense of the food stamp program," Mr. Chambliss told Georgia Public Radio. Good for him.
On the House side, though, the situation is dicier: Agriculture Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), no fan of the food stamps program, appears eager for bigger reductions. Meanwhile, one might ask: Where are the Democrats?
The 24 million Americans on food stamps get average benefits of less than $1 per meal. About 80 percent of the benefits go to families with children, and the rest go to elderly or disabled people. Mr. Bush had proposed capping farm payments at $250,000 a year and closing loopholes that allow some farmers to collect well over $1 million from the federal government. For any lawmaker, of any party, to choose farm subsidies over hungry children would be an unconscionable inversion of the proper priorities.